people in fashion; Everything you want from a store and a little bit more

Where else could you buy a "Boyfriend in a Box"? James Sherwood marks the tenth anniversary of American Retro with owner Sue Tahran

AMERICAN RETRO on Old Compton Street in London's Soho is a Do It All for urban trendies. For the man who has everything - including a Phillippe Starck toothbrush - Retro is the only shop where he is guaranteed to find the shock of the new.

The name behind Retro is Sue Tahran. Wearing a Retro T-shirt and hipsters without looking as though she's trying too hard, fortysomething Tahran works incognito on the shop floor, vigorously demonstrating the Atilla can crusher or modelling the latest inflatable flip-flops. "Keeping up with my customers is exhausting," she says, puffing on a Silk Cut Extra Mild in a nearby patisserie. "They have such a high level of design and fashion awareness. The demand is insatiable."

For 11 years, Tahran has sourced the entire stock of Retro and ensured its survival through the chrome-and-black Eighties to the irreverent chic of the Nineties. "There is more humour in Nineties' design - breaking rules and mocking conventions. But the bottom line for Retro is high-quality, modern design classics."

Tahran's latest product, "Boyfriend in a Box", could hardly be described as a design classic. "It's for the woman who has everything but time for a serious relationship," she giggles. These pounds 9.99 "boyfriends" supply the customer with a complete biography of his or her imaginary friend plus greetings cards, memos and photos for diary and desk. "It is all about tapping into my customer's sense of humour," says Tahran, who happens to be unmarried herself. "But I'd have to sell an awful lot of Boyfriends to pay Soho rents - they aren't my main source of income," she adds with a wry smile.

It is the homeware department, in the tiny basement space, and fashion on the ground floor that make Retro an essential in the Soho shopping landscape. "You know as well as I do that there are too many fashion and interiors shops in London already," says Tahran. "I try to identify modern classics and be the first to stock them. So, that means I take risks with young, untested designers. Other stores compete on quantity but I have to be more selective and trust the quality."

Retro's longevity is owed to Tahran alone. "I do read magazines voraciously and I am as visually aware as a Soho local can be. If you work in Soho, then you see fashion movements as they happen. I try to reflect what I see on the streets in Retro." She is like a basset hound with a scent when she hears about new designers. As well as stocking the kitten-soft classic John Smedley knitwear, she also enthuses over new labels Guerillawear, Mecca by Sabotage and WL&T. Farah's resurrection, with the Nineties' F-tab label, practically started in Retro. Tahran says, "When a product gets too visible in other stores, I replace it. Calvin Klein underwear has given way to Dolce e Gabbana, because cK is all over the place now."

To mark the tenth anniversary of Retro, Tahran refurbished the lower- ground floor and opened Home. "As with the fashion, other stores can stock a bigger range. As a small, independent store, we have to compete with smart, unusual pieces. I try to keep the cost below pounds 100, because interiors have a reputation of being overpriced. I want my customers to know they can get an acid-yellow Alessi kettle, a Lazy Fish, silver bottle-opener or an Inflate cushion here for under pounds 50." The H2O water glasses by Retro are ubiquitous in every loft apartment south of Watford.

Like many of London's sharpest retailers, Tahran served her apprenticeship on Kensington and Portobello markets for seven years. "I'd travel to the States and buy bales of unsold clothing, sight unseen, then weed out the rubbish and sell the gems like Burberry beige macs on my stall." Tahran also brought jewellery in Morocco, Afghanistan and Nepal when all things ethnic were in vogue.

"Leaving the markets for Old Compton Street filled me with horror, but in 1986 we opened American Retro. Very quickly the second-hand clothes were replaced by my first modern classics. I'd learnt from the markets that quality design made to last would always find a buyer. I wanted to see pieces that maybe a Sue Tahran in 20 years time would be selling on Portobello Road."

Eleven years later, Retro has survived in its original location while other shops in Soho open and close as swiftly as a shoplifter's handbag. "I think you have to move with the times and not be afraid to change. The only thing that never changes is the name above the shop." With an ever-expanding range of black nylon bags with white Retro logo, Tahran has made American Retro one of her design classics. Every Queen on Old Compton Street (the hub of London's gay scene) has a Retro bag. For tourists, it's the hip version of the "I've Been to London And..." T-shirts.

Tahran's buying success boils down to the universal appeal of Retro to Soho media types, design junkies and gay men. "Retro is for every race, colour, creed and sexuality," says Tahran. "Women like looking at Versace books of male bodies, too, you know. Gay men buy Dolce underwear but we have a lot women buying them for boyfriends and husbands. I don't want to see my men in droopy Y-fronts either, dear."

Tahran has stockists of Retro bags in Paris but has not considered opening outside London. "Soho has a vibrancy and energy about it that I love. I am prepared to adapt, but expand too much and you lose the exclusivity. I like to think that American Retro is a very special part of Soho and I'd like to keep it that way."

American Retro, 35 Old Compton Street, London W1, 0171 734 3477.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Programme Manager

    £30000 - £35500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

    £10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Support Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Support Engineer is required to join a well-...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum