Fashion world finds new Carnaby Street

IN THE SIXTIES, Carnaby Street made its name as the groovy shopping destination for fashionable young Londoners. Thirty years on, a street in the heart of Covent Garden is building a similar reputation.

Neal Street, a pedestrianised street off Shaftesbury Avenue, is attracting the fashion-conscious like never before. Designers are queuing up to open shops in the area. William Hunt, a young British menswear designer, who opened there in 1990, said: 'It's the Carnaby Street of the Nineties. Everyone wants to be there.'

Among the designers who have opened shops are Nick Coleman, Christopher New, Red or Dead and Michiko Koshino. Next month, John Richmond and the Duffer of St George join the line-up.

These designers are a world removed from the upmarket shops of Knightsbridge and Bond Street. They design for a streetwise fashion market, with a particularly strong following among men.

On Saturday afternoons, Neal Street and the surrounding network of streets draw thousands of young people. Many are buying clothes to wear in the clubs of central London. Others come to hang out, drawn like moths to a candle. They stand around in Michiko Koshino, where a sound system blasts out house music all day long, or at Red or Dead, which has just launched a new collection of high-heeled Doc Martens.

Neal Street has been bubbling under for years, designers say, but property prices were beyond the reach of most until recently. With the collapse in the retail property market, landlords have offered fashion companies rock-bottom deals to entice them into empty outlets.

The lowering of rental values has coincided neatly with a surge in demand for fashionable men's casual wear. Suit sales have been declining steadily since the late Eighties. Designers are reporting strongest orders for casual jackets, sweatshirts, T-shirts and jeans.

Dozens of new, independent design companies, most of them based in London or the North-west, have started up, selling to independent men's retailers across the country. The Neal Street phenomenon is being repeated in Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham and other cities.

The new wave of men's fashion is unusual because it is not led by a narrow elite of fashion enthusiasts. Marc Schneiderman, director of Hope and Glory, one of the new labels, said: 'There are a lot of 'New Lads' out there who have got money. They might be brickies or electricians, but they are not fashion victims. They want nice garments, not something predictable from a high street store.'

Eddie Prendergast, partner in the Duffer of St George, said: 'Our customers are young men with attitude.'

The popularity of the area is likely to be enhanced with the opening this week of the first phase of Thomas Neal's, a warehouse converted into a shopping arcade. The eight shops include Hope and Glory, and North, while Emporio Armani and Agnes B are opening shops in the same area next week.

(Photograph omitted)