For sale: slightly faded slice of Sixties history

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL STREETER

For sale: a three-acre section of central London. Main feature: a slice of British cultural history. Thirty years after it became synonymous with the Swinging Sixties and a mecca for the fashion-conscious, Carnaby Street is for sale.

The famous road and its surrounding area, which includes 93 buildings, are likely to attract bids of more than pounds 70m, a huge outlay palliated by the current annual rental income of pounds 5.8m.

The street itself offers 250 yards of boutiques and shops between Oxford Street and Regent Street. When Time magazine announced in 1966 that London was "swinging" it was Carnaby Street that was the centre of attraction.

The male boutique originated there; fashion designers such as John Stephen, who once owned nine shops, and Mary Quant led the way; and models, pop stars and emerging media figures thronged west Soho. The Who and The Beatles were habitues.

Hari Bhagalia, manager of Gear, one of only two shops in the street to keep its name from that era, remembers the kudos of working there. "I came in 1968 and at that time working in Carnaby Street was the next best thing to being a pop star.

"The Who sang on a parked lorry, Herman's Hermits were around, also the Hollies, and the Bee Gees sang just across the road. I had friends who asked if they could work with me for nothing, just so they could mingle with everyone. It's a bit like anywhere else now."

Others agree that the street has lost its uniqueness. Designer John Stephen, who set the trend for boutiques with blaring pop music and clothes on rails, recently described it as a "market place ... just a souk".

Yet among the ubiquitous high street names - including Boots and Dunkin' Donuts - there are still specialist shops, such as The Great Frog which makes silver jewellery for, among others, Oasis.

Ashley Heath, senior editor of The Face magazine, believes there is a connection between the phenomenon of Britpop and a recent upswing in the road's fortunes. "Alongside the revival of Mods, Northern Soul and Skinheads people have looked again to Carnaby Street and realised that there are really good shops selling traditional British fashion."

Passers-by such as Robert Marshall, an off-duty policeman from Kent, who was a builder in the area in the mid-Seventies, said: "It did have a character then, something which epitomised the age," he said. "Now it seems much more commercial."

However, Elena Boccalini, a student from Italy, said the area was still renowned for its shops. "People in Italy still know about Carnaby Street - it's a nice place to come to buy things."

Many blame the pedestrianisation of the road in 1971 for its decline. Attempts were made at gentrification by the former owner, Peachey Properties, which put up arched signs to mark the entrances to the street, and removed the psychedelic paving stones.

Michael Jukes, managing director of the current owners, Wereldhave, said there was tremendous interest from British and foreign buyers, notably Hong Kong. "We believe it still has relevance of a centre of fashion," he said.

Westminster City Council said it was a street of "international renown" whose character it would preserve.

Sir Terence Conran, who designed a coffee bar off Carnaby Street in 1958, was less complimentary: "It was a vibrant place, but what we would now call a bit lager-loutish with a liberal sprinkling of Union Jacks. It was rather naff, and not a real centre of fashion - that would have been the King's Road" - where Sir Terence established his first Habitat shop.

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