Wednesday 3 August 2011

John Stephen - A Forgotten Fashion Revolutionary?

John Stephen and Mary Quant, 1966.

It seems today, that John Stephen is a slightly forgotten figure. Much has been said about the impact of  1960's fashion designers such as Mary Quant or Barbara Hulanicki on female fashion, but John Stephen who was just as revolutionary in a field of male fashion, is usually being omitted from Fashion History. It was particularly visible during last year's exhibition Carnaby Street - 50 years of fashion and music (curated by Amy De La Haye and Judith Clark) which took place in a pop up shop on Carnaby Street. The role of John Stephen in making Carnaby Street a epicentre of Swinging London, seemed to have been downplayed by the authors of the exhibition. Out of original garments displayed, nearly all were female garments, and none of them was by John Stephen.It seems highly innacurate, considering that Carnaby Street was associated largely with male fashion - thanks to John Stephen , who, by late 1966 owned 14 boutiques on Carnaby Street.
Luckilly, the most recent publications about 1960's  fashion such as magnificent Day Of The Peacock by Geoffrey Aquilina Ross and Boutique London by Richard Lester give John Stephen the credit he deserves. And, of course there was a new biography of John Stephen by Jeremy Reed (on which I will focus later).
In order to fully understand John Stephen's role as one of the 'architects' of Swinging London, it is worth to take a brief look at his fascinating life.

John Stephen was born in Glasgow in 1934. He came to London at the age of 18. Interested in fashion, young John took up a job at Moss Bross in Covent Garden, a well-known tailoring establishment, which specialized in evening suits. Stephen had learnt to cut in the military department of Moss Bross and was gaining experience as a salesman on a shop floor for a salary of £6 per week. he was not comfortable with a formal atmosphere of Moss Bross and he spotted the absence of outlets selling modern clothes for youth in London. He observed the explosion of Teddy Boy fashion and he had seen it for what it was - a beginning of an era where teenagers  would search for their own identity which they could express through clothing (unlike most of his contemporaries, who had seen it merely as a brief fad). Desperate to open his own shop, Stephen worked double shifts to save enough money. In addition to his day job at Moss Bross, he worked as a night waiter at Forte's - a West End restaurant. in 1956, he started working at Vince - an avant-garde, and then uber-cool boutique situated in Newburgh Street ,which specialized in  selling quirky clothes to bohemians, homosexuals, and West End actors. The owner, Bill Green, felt that, Stephen's enthusiasm, good looks and impeccable style would make him popular with customers. However, ambitious Stephen had seen Vince merely as a stepping stone in his own career. In 1957, with a help from his new business associate, Bill Franks, Stephen managed to open his own shop at 19 Beak Street. His early designs were not million miles away from those of Bill Green - they included hipster trousers, multi-coloured denim, as well as tab-collar shirts in colours such as peacock blue, foggy-gray or pink. He appropriated some of the advertising tactics used at Vince's - drawings of musclemen, casually dressed James Dean lookalikes, etc. Before his shop at Beak Street started breaking even, he managed to open another one thanks to courtesy of his landlord. The second shop was located at 5 Carnaby Street. At that time, in 1958, Carnaby Street was just a gray back street of Soho - a home to a few tobacco shops and Central Electricity Board building. Within the next six years, thanks to Stephen, it would become an epicentre of London's fashion world.

Carnaby street in 1966 - at the height of Stephen's career.

Stephen's biographer, Jeremy Reed writes that: "Stephen had a mission that was compounded into youthful genes, not only to change the way men looked forever, but o make clothes and the compatible awareness of self-image into necessary lifestyle. Nobody before or afterwards was to provide the individual with such a rapid update of detail-obsessed fashion, to the extent that styles were deleted every week" (Jeremy Reed, John Stephen - The King of Carnaby Street, p 24). Stephen was also the first designer to understand the dynamics of street style. He observed mod subculture, which was rapidly growing in the late 1950's, and was aiming his designs at these fashion-conscious young men. Knowing that buttons featured prominently in the mod iconography, he was using them in an innovative way, by arranging them in double or triple groupings on the shirt fronts. He introduced patterns such as paisley and polka dot to the designs of his shirts and ties. He was designing collarless suits as early as 1958, few years before they were popularized by the Beatles. The popularity of his designs was growing, and, in 1959, he opened third boutique at 49/51 Carnaby Street. Apart from the originality of his designs, the key to his success might have been relatively low prices. His jackets were priced between £7 - £10, trousers and shirts £3 - £5 (the average weekly wage of a teenager in early 1960's was about £16). Nik Cohn writes: " Every time you walked past a John Stephen window, there was something new and loud in it, and when you counted out your money, you found you could afford it" (Nik Cohn, Today There Are No Gentlemen, p 66). Nearly all fashion writers analyzing John Stephen's impact (Nik Cohn, Alistair O'Neill, Jeremy Reed) indicate his young age as a key factor in his success. Being a part of 'youth' himself made him understand youth fashion better than his contemporaries - like, for example, Bill Green, who was in his forties in he late 1950's. Stephen understood the intentions of Mods - they wanted to look well, but not necessarily to attract he opposite sex - that was a secondary reason for dressing up. It was their longing to be seen , to be the Face (slang term for a fashion leader) that really mattered. Jeremy Reed writes that the attitude of Mods "was one of remaining unattainable, and their exclusively male coterie invited mental homosexuality and gossip as a substitute for intimacy with girls. While Mods were their own, and not John Stephen's creation, their sexual ambiguity ideally suited his equally ambivalent clothes" (Reed, p 67). this phenomenon has its origins in Regency dandyism. George Walden, in his essay  Who Is a Dandy? which analyzes the impact of Beau Brummell on early 19th century male fashion, wrote: that sexuality is an adjunct, rather than at the centre of dandy's creed (George Walden, Who Is a Dandy?, p 32).

By 1966, John Stephen owned fourteen boutiques on Carnaby Street, as well as branches on Regent Street, in Brighton and Loughton. Apart from his boutiques for men (called 'His Clothes') he also owned 'His 'N' Hers' and 'Tre Camp' for girls, and his own tailoring shop.

Male West One - one of John Stephen's boutiques on Carnaby Street, 1966.

Stephen's Domino Male and Trecamp on Carnaby Street, 1966.

Apart from the fore mentioned affordable prices, the success of John Stephen was assured by the fact that Pop stars were his frequent customers. Rock n'  Roll idols Cliff Richard and Billy Fury were shopping at John Stephen's as early as 1960. Billy Walker of Walker Brothers was modelling for him in 1962, and by 1966, nearly every group in London - most notably The Rolling Stones, The Who, Small Faces and The Kinks, were sporting John Stephen's clothes.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards shopping at John Stephen's, 1965. 

Towards the end of 1960's Stephen's designs moved on with the fashion once again  - in 1967 he started incorporating oriental elements in a spirit of hippie fashion. He was designing colourful kaftans, decorated with beads, tunics and foppish dandy outfits , inspired by Regency fashions. The Peacock Revolution was a result of a momentum started in the late fifties by John Stephen.

Suit by John Stephen from 1970 displayed in Victoria and Albert Museum.

Stephen's star as a designer started fading in the late sixties. By 1970 he was generally seen as terribly demode. In 1975 he sold his company, which, by then was struggling with financial problems. After another takeover the company finally ceased to exist in 1986. Stephen himself disappeared from public eye ( although he was still involved in fashion, working for the small bespoke tailoring company). He died in 2004. A year later a plaque with his name was unveiled on Carnaby Street in recognition to his outstanding contribution to British Fashion.

Suit  by John Stephen from 1968 (University of North Texas collection)

Shirt by John Stephen with typical for mid-1960's round collar. Found on E-bay.

Tie by John Stephen bought in Carnaby Street around 1967 (courtesy of Mr. Peter Lowe

Eastern-influenced hippie menswear by John Stephen (circa 1968)

Crochet tops and striped cotton skirt and trousers by John Stephen, 1965

John Stephen's groovy wigs, modelled by the man himself, 1968

John Stephen dressing one of his models. 1967

In a late 2010, a biography of John Stephen written by Jeremy Reed was published. Unfortunately, the book does not do John Stephen justice. Although large parts of it are interesting, it has a lot of considerable drawbacks. Bizarrely, it only covers Stephen's life until 1969, so we don't find out anything about the downfall of his empire. There is very little about Stephen's private life - his lifelong struggle with bi-polarity disorder is hardly mentioned. Also, the images are black and white (which seems strange in a book about the designer who was famous for introducing colour into male clothing) and there is no name index or bibliography at the end. 

It is good that a book about John Stephen has been written, but unfortunately,one can't help but have an impression that Jeremy Reed's effort is a wasted opportunity.


Unknown said...

He's often forgotten as a womenswear designer as well. I have a psychedelic print mini by him, and a (different print) psychedelic mob cap. The latter was exhibited on its own at the V&A Sixties exhibition because there was no Stephen womenswear at all. I've also had a couple of other pieces I've sold, but it's so scarce!

SWEET JANE said...

Great post ! John Stephen was a genius and you're right, he doesn't get enough credit for his contribution to fashion. I also have the exact same view as yourself about the Jeremy Reed biography,i think to get the point of the John Stephen empire across properly..the definitive picture book would need to be published,something in the style of Boutique London by Richard Lester or my own particular favourite 'Boutique' by Marnie Fogg..a pure cover to cover pop/mod masterpiece is called for,and yes in full colour.. because John Stephen was all about colour !

Totally agree with Miss Peelpants too,his contribution to womenswear has also been overlooked,i've been thinking about this for a long time,there is enough photographic evidence to prove that for every dandy outfit he designed there was a matching dolly one,but as Liz says it's so scarce,as is anything from Lady Jane,my conclusion is that the Carnaby St fashion scene was so fast paced,that people literally just wore the items a few times and moved on to the next thing because they were living in the moment. PS my sis actually bought a John Stephen dress from's the red velvet/white polka dot mini with the leg of mutton sleeves..gorgeous !

Unknown said...

Ohhh I was so sad to see that one go. But it didn't suit me at all, so I'm VERY glad it's gone to a good home.

There's a LOT of photos in the Barbara Bernard book too, mainly Mick Avory and a model wearing his'n'hers John Stephen gear. Other than that, I'm not sure I know of many photos...

SWEET JANE said...

That's the very book i was thinking of..a lot of his womenswear turns up in various Rave features too.

Anonymous said...

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I need your help ... Soon I am flying to Greece and I will have a two-day shopping in Athens .. You were there ever? If yes, what places you advise?

Uclan Work said...

love this post! thanks for sharing!


Michelle Elizabeth said...

Great info. I love other 60s blogs!

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Robert H Orbach said...

Jeremy Reed's effort is a wasted opportunity.

The reason why this is not very good is that once again a person who was never there has written our social history. I started working for John Stephen in 1962. Then in 1967 I brought "I Was Lord Kitcheners Valet" to Carnaby Street and until I retired in 1999 I still supplied the boutiques of Carnby Street with merchandise. If he would have bothered to do his research properly and the information is easily available the whole book could have been the definitive story of Golden Days Gone. Ps I offered him my help and it was rejected.

Anonymous said...

The Wikipedia has a two links that are no longer [404] . I am glad to learn of this . Seeing Jimmy Page in the regalia of his early years has me looking !
Thanks for the history!

Unknown said...

I had the pleasure of working for John and his partner Bill franks along with Frank Merkell when they owned the franchise for Lanvin in the UK. They were all an amazing influence on my career and were "role models" of the highest calibre. Even though John was often in poor health his drive was still there and his passion for clothes shone through. His only downside was his "Hamlet" cigar habit! A wonderful man who shaped many lives in many ways.

sabrinastar said...

I met John Stephens in 1963/1964. He was a very pleasant man. I was selling crocheted berets and he ordered a lot from me, as he said he was about to set up a woman's boutique in Carnaby Street (the first one), and he wanted to feature my berets in his first new shop. About that time, Private Eye was in Carnaby Street, and I sold them berets for Private Eye 'things' (they were above Gear - and I met a member of the Scaffold in there - brother of Paul McCartney - whilst waiting to see Richard Ingrams, the Editor).