Kleptomania, 10 Kingly Street, 1967
Tommy Roberts was one of the unsung heroes of British fashion in late 1960's and early 1970's. His passing away in December 2012 at the age of 70 coincided with a revival of interest in his work thanks to publication of a great book by pop and rock fashion historian Paul Gorman - Mr. Freedom; Tommy Roberts - British Design Hero. That brilliant book finally gave a long overdue credit to Tommy Roberts for his contribution to the fashion and design of Swinging London. Here, I'd like to do a brief post based on Paul Gorman's book, about Tommy Roberts career.
Kleptomania'a boutique card from 1966
Tommy Roberts was born in Bradford-On-Avon in Wiltshire on 6 of February, 1942. A son of a traveling textile salesman, Tommy from early age was interested in clothes.Like most of working class youth of mid-1950's he had a brief Teddy Boy phase. He moved to London in 1958 to study at Goldsmith College of Art. A fanatic of Trad Jazz, Roberts quickly immersed himself in a world of coffee bars and smoky jazz clubs. After finishing his course, he took up a series of various retail jobs followed by a brief period of living in Spain. Back in London, he met his first wife - Mary Brookes - in a Soho nightclub. They married in 1965. At the time Roberts co-owned car dealership which specialised in American cars, but he observed closely revolution in fashion retailing which was happening on London's Carnaby Street. Determined to have a go at career in fashion retailing, he withdrew his share of capital from car dealership and invested it in children's wear label Barry St.John. Unfortunately, the label quickly went down due to theft of the stock and departure of Roberts' business partner. But enthusiastic Roberts wasn't easily discouraged, and quickly sought to start a new buisness. One day in 1966, when he drove his wife to Foale & Tuffin boutique in Marlborough Court, off Carnaby Street, he he stumbled upon a perfect location for his new outlet - Kingly Street.
Tommy Robetrs, left, and his partner Charlie Simpson outside Kleptomania on Kingly Street, 1966
Tommy Roberts , along with his wife Mary and his new business partner Charlie Simpson opened Kleptomania on 10 Kingly Street in 1966. The advantages of the locations were: Its proximity to Carnaby Street - Roberts closely observed the success of John Stephen
who owned 15 boutiques out there as well as Tom Salter's who owned retail outlet called Gear; and the fact that Kleptomania was right next to back stairs of Bag O'Nails restaurant and nightclub - a regular hangout of Beatles, Stones, Jimi Hendrix and anybody who was anybody in Swinging London. Roberts knew that with a little bit of luck, an elite clientele was within his reach.
By 1966, the futurist aesthetics of a Mod era were becoming a thing of the past - now everyone was looking backwards. Space suits, Op-Art and Pop Art were 'out', second-hand Victoriana, Edwardian knick-knacks, Art Nouveau and Fin-de-siecle were 'in'. Tommy Roberts in Kleptomania supplied to that demand.
Mary Roberts (wearing velvet mini which she adapted from an antique wedding dress) and Nicholas Constantine Spinney in an antique embroidered jacket in Kleptomania, 1967
Just like Tom Salter did in Gear, Tommy Roberts started off from selling various interesting non-clothing items (note that term 'vintage' still only applied to wine back then) - Edwardian gramophones, 1920's candlestick telephones, sepia-tone erotic photographs, Chinese opium pipes, busts of General Gordon and Queen Victoria. It was a higgledy-piggledy mess, not a bit like slick Gear, but we found that people wanted to buy these things, especially since the area was opening up studios for the advertising buisness . For £30, a tipsy ad man could wobble away on an original penny-farthing after a Soho lunch
- says Tommy Roberts (p 16).
Soon though, Roberts started selling clothes as well. T-shirts decorated with wacky slogans, made by Roberts' friend Roger Lunn quickly became a trademark of Kleptomania.
It was Lunn - a passionate collector of Victorian military uniforms - who suggested Roberts a an idea of selling such garments in Kleptomania. Roberts struck a deal with Ian Fisk and John Paul - owners of I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet
to share some of their stock on a sale or return basis. Soon Kleptomania was was full of Victorian militaria, 1920's boating blazers and velvet double-breasted jackets. Most of that stock was acquired from various junk shops, theatrical costumiers, hire companies and stockroom clearouts of companies such as Moss Bros.
Just like Roberts expected, Kleptomania developed elite clintele - The Who, Terence Stamp, Julie Christie, The Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page were all regular customers. Jimi Hendrix was a fan of frilly shirts made by a label Sam Pig In Love sold at Kleptomania. He wore one of his shirts during his performance in Savile Theatre in 1967.
Encouraged by all this, Roberts soon started designing and selling Kleptomania's own brand clothes. The East End and Soho rag trade often baulked at his sketches for silver satin bell-botom trousers and trumpet-sleeved shirts with swirling patterns. 'I got round the problem by claiming I was from the costume department of Bertram Mills Circus', he says
(p 24). Tommy and Mary Roberts were also customising various Victorian and 1920's designs adapting them to Swinging 1960's. It was the same policy which was adapted by Michael Rainey in Hung On You
, John Crittle in Dandie Fashions
and John Pearse in Granny Takes A Trip
(incidentally all three were also Kleptomania's regular customers). What Tommy Roberts did was an inspiration for King's Road boutiques, but he was also inspired by them - the mysterious atmosphere inside Granny Takes A Trip made an impression on him, and he wanted to re-create it in Kleptomania. In the style of Granny's decor, the interior of Kleptomania's back room was repainted in purple and magenta and enhanced by the addition of an ultraviolet light surrounded by antique shawls gathered across the ceiling.
(...) a hi-fi
(allowed to) appreciate the aural pleasures of Love, The Mothers Of Invention and the Velvet Underground. 'Kleptomania metamorphosed into an insense-filled, hippie-fied haven' says Roberts. 'Any customer coming through the door and "spoiling the vibes" was felt to be an inconsiderate nuisance'
Kleptomania's psychedelic letterhead, 1968
Tommy Roberts himself became a devoted hippie - a regular at psychedelic parties in Tottenham Court Road's UFO club and all-nighters at Roundhouse. It caused a growing friction between him and his partner Charlie Simpson. 'To Charlie psychedelia wasn't the revelation it had been to me' says Roberts. 'I suspected he thought it a load of old bollocks' (p 22).
Roberts' hippie-ism started to extend into his attitude towards retail policies at Kleptomania. 'One very"hip, cool head" digging the merchendise was much more of a turn-on for me than 50 ordinary cash customers', says Roberts. 'It got to the stage that, when a gament sold well, it turned me off it. And when Kleptomania came up with the winner I was half pleased when the manufacturer nicked our design and supplied the boutique boys in Carnaby Street (p 24).
But as a result of a pressure from Simpson, in December 1967 Roberts agreed to move Kleptomania from Kingly Street to new adress - 22 Carnaby Street. This location meant greater visibility and commercial viability.
Kleptomania on Carnaby Street, 1968
Kleptomania's promotional poster (above) and card (below) featuring a star of London's psychedelic underground - singer Julie Driscoll
At the height of hippie movement and peacock revolution, Carnaby Street Kleptomania sold embroidered sheepskin coats, Afghan mirror-wear garments, tie-dye grandad vests, crushed and panne velvet flared trousers, floppy-brimmed felt hats and psychedelic goggles adapted with prisms from swimmers headgear to provide a trippy effect.
Around that time, Kleptomania started attracting considerable press attention - from newspapers such as Times and Observer, tabloids like Daily Mail, and teen magazines such as Rave. Swedish magazine Hennes featured Kleptomania alongside Gear, Granny Takes A Trip, I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet and Foale & Tuffin in their London tourist guide in August 1968.
Feature in Hennes, 1968
But the commercialisation of hippie movement and Carnaby Street
which happened around that time was too much for Tommy Roberts. He was not impressed by the new type of Carnaby Street customers: They wanted fun souvenirs' says Roberts. 'A Union Jack tie for Dad, a paper Carnaby Street sign for the home and a bell with matching beads for the youngster. It was a waste of time stocking the latest fashion designs. The majority of the people who came to the shop weren't interested'
Paper bag from Kleptomania, 1968
Kleptomania postcard, 1968
By early 1969 Tommy Roberts knew that his days in Kleptomania were numbered. He withdrew his share of capital from the boutique and went on to look for the new business opportunities. The location he had in mind was King's Road in Chelsea. He said: In the King's Road, I could sell style, not just knick-knacks to passing tourists (p 30). He knew that his friend Michael Rainey was selling off his boutique Hung On You (along with most of his possessions) in order to 'drop out from society' and embark on a spiritual journey to India. He struck a deal with Rainey to take over the lease f the former Hung On You premises - 430 King's Road - for £1200 with a weekly rent payment of £25 to the landlord.
Roberts took on board Trevor Myles - who previously supplied Kleptomania with beads and bells. Their first collaboration as designers was a series of t-shirts decorated with zodiac signs - Mick Jagger bought one with his star sign, Leo, and wore it during Stones ill-fated gig at Altamont in December 1969.
Roberts knew what kind of clothes he wanted to design and sell in his new boutique. Not only he wanted to do something completely different from what he did in Kleptomania, but he wanted it to be 'a total reversal of what was being worn n the street (p 34).
What provided him with a clear direction was 1968 film by French based American director/fashion photographer William Klein, titled Mr. Freedom.
Poster for the film Mr.Freedom, 1968
This little curio starring the likes of Delphine Seyrig, Donald Pleasance and Sami Frey was a fierce satire on American Imperialism. The title character - Mr.Freedom is a thick-as-a-brick American superhero/spy trying to bring order, democracy and full-blown capitalism in decadent, 'commie-ridden' France. The film parodied American self-view as 'world's policemen'. The visual side of the film, ridiculed the obsession of Americans with their own flag. There is a generous use of stars n' stripes throughout the film, as well as comic book-style rubber superhero/superheroine costumes. This imagery appealed to Tommy Roberts. After all, what can be further from beads,bells, kaftans and Victoriana than unashamedly futuristic and American imagery used in William Klein's movie? Tommy Roberts' new boutique on 430 King's Road which opened in summer 1969 was called simply Mr. Freedom.
Mr. Freedom boutique,430 King's Road, 1969
The interior of the shop was designed by the arts collective Electric Colour Company. The overall colour of the interior was blue with red flashes. There was a generous use of neon and plexiglass. Shop was decorated with Pop Art posters, stars n' stripes wherever possible and revolving mirrorball.
The designs sold in Mr.Freedom were simple, yet striking - multicolour long-sleeved T-Shirts decorated with a massive star or T-shirts decorated with Disney characters. ' Nobody else had thought of approaching Disney in a fashion context; not long before the shop was due to open, we asked for a meeting at their UK offices in Pall Mall', says Roberts.' It was incredible. They gave us the go-ahead in return for a fee, so we left the same day armed with the exclusive license to print their characters on clothes' (p 40).
Disney T-Shirts from Mr. Freedom, 1970
Although in the first few weeks the business was slow, the word about exciting new boutique had quickly spread around. The clothes of Mr.Freedom screamed of the future, in the time when fashionable young people were growing tired of hippie fashions. The world of fashion was saying goodbye to the Sixties, and Tommy Roberts provided exciting clothes ('Fun Clothes' he called them) for a new decade.
Feature on Mr.Freedom in Petticoat magazine, 1970
Models outside 430 King's Road, 1970
Mr. Freedom label
One of the early clients of Mr.Freedom was Marc Bolan, who recently turned from a hippie minstrel into a star of a new burgeoning musical movement - Glam Rock. Tommy Rorerts' clothes brilliantly complemented his new image. By mid-1970 the clientele of Mr. Freedom included the likes of Twiggy and Justin Villeneuve, Peter Sellers, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Elton John, Cher, Barbara Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, Elizabeth Taylor and Kansai Yamamoto(designer responsible for Bowie's Ziggy Stardust look). After Paloma Picasso turned up at Yves-Saint Laurent's studio dressed head-to-toe in Mr.Freedom, he designed a series of clothes decorated with stars n' stripes quoting Tommy Roberts as an inspiration. Features in Vogue
followed.Mr. Freedom got a massive press coverage - Honey, Mirabelle, Petticoat, Nova
and Harper's & Queen
all ran articles about Tommy Roberts. Paul Reeves said: The press loved Tommy, and rightly so, because he was always good for a story
(...) The mix of Tommy's ebullient, outgoing and extrovert character and the clothes was beguiling
(...) I know Tommy as a caring, compassionate and deep-thinking man, but he can also project the persona of the flamboyant cockney geezer who is as wide as he is short
(p 43). Roberts dubbed himself 'The most vulgar man in fashion'. His celebrity status was assured when he was commissioned by the BBC to do weekly fashion reports on television (his slot was terminated when he made very inappropriate 'fashion predictions' for a newly elected Edward Heath's Conservative government).
Mr.Freedom's clothes on the cover of Mirabelle, 1970
Feature in Club magazine, 1970
By the end of 1970, Mr.Freedom's sales were running at £5000 a week. As Paul Gorman wrote: Within 18 months, Tommy Roberts had transformed himself from Carnaby Street rag trade emigre into a potent force on the international fashion scene (p 52). Mr. Freedom had become too big for the tiny premises of 430 King's Road. It was time to move. Tommy Roberts had ambitious visions of turning a new Mr.Freedom shop into a 'palace of fun' where outrageous fashions would be complemented by equally outrageous look of the shop. He took a lease on three-storey building on 20 Kensington Church Street.His new business partner was his friend from Kleptomania days (and former owner of I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet) John Paul, who invested £50000 into new Mr. Freedom.
Tommy Roberts and John Paul, December 1970
Jon Wealleans outside Mr.Freedom in Kensington, 1970
The interior of the new shop was designed by architect Jon Wealleans. Just like in King's Road, the main themes were Pop Art, comic books, and camp takes on 50's rock n' roll and cinema. But this time everything was bigger and more breathtaking.
Jon Wealleans and his coathanger for coathangers, 1970
Interior of Mr.Freedom, 1970
Alongside Biba, Mr.Freedom was one of the first 'lifestyle boutiques'. Tommy Roberts said: Fashion, buisness, life, love - It's all a game. I want people to enjoy themselves here. I don't want to run a shop. I want to run a circus (p 66).
Among Mr. Freedom's cool, young staff there was a colourful character - a Teddy Boy Harold Harris, who called himself Harold the Ted. 'Harold was a total Ted, beyond fucking mental' says Roberts.' he was a good image. He didn't care who our customers were. There'd be Jill St.John or some film star looking through clothes, and he'd go, "Wot you fuckin' doing with that rack, cock?" He'd say to David Hockney, "So you want a pair of trousers do yer, cocker?" He gave the shop a wonderful feel (p 67).
Mr. Freedom's staff, 1970. Harold the Ted second from left.
New Mr. Freedom opened on 9 December, 1970. The launch party was attended by Cecil Beaton, Ossie Clark, Ryan O'Neal, Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, Susan George, Peter Blake, Paul and Talitha Getty
and many others. Celebrity clientele of Mr. Freedom was now so large, that new shop had a special 'celebrity changing room' completed with a bar providing free drinks, where in a relaxed atmosphere, the rich and famous would chat and try in the new clothes (one of the prominent customers - Elton John - always felt uncomfortable there as he hated taking his clothes off in front of other people, friends or not). In the first year, the Kensington brach of Mr. Freedom had a turnover of staggering £750000. The management now included talented Willy Daly who previously worked with Alice Pollock and Ossie Clark at Quorum and with Laura Jamieson at The Sweet Shop
Shirts and jackets from Mr.Freedom, 1971
Lucky Strike bag from Mr Freedom, 1971
Feature on Mr. Freedom in Look-In Fashion Model Annual, 1971
Mr.Freedom card, 1970
One of the most ambitious projects of Tommy Roberts was opening a restaurant called Mr. Feed'Em in a basement of Mr. Freedom in 1971. Paul Gorman wrote: The message to customers was that they could not only wear works of pop art bought from Roberts' Palace of Fun but also consume them in design-conscious, art-directed circumstances. And the food itself - presented in a kaleidoscope of dyes - became elements of the palette (p 92).
Using artificial colourants, the food at Mr.Feed'Em was dyed - the rice was red, the burgers were blue etc. The restaurant was made to look like a futuristc, Pop Art diner (the link with British Pop Art movement was accentuated by the fact that Dominy Hamilton - daughter of Pop artist Richard Hamilton - was among the staff at Mr.Feed'Em)
The interior of Mr.Feed'Em, 1971
The decor of the restaurant (by Jon Waelleans) instantly earned it a historic place in a British post-war interior design. Design magazine ran a feature on Mr.Feed'Em titled Waiter! There's a Pop movement in my soup! in July 1971. It became a favorite place to dine for music industry people. Folk-rock trio America played the opening night and The Faces had the launch party of their album A Nod Is As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse there in 1971. Tommy Roberts also ran various entertainment shows with surprise guests at the restaurant. Everyone who came to see my music hall shows had a good time. There was nights with Elton playing the piano and Rod singing from the stage just for fun (p 100).
Waitress at Mr.Feed'Em, 1971
Promotional poster, 1971
But despite all the press and celebrity attention, something was wrong. Twiggy's boyfriend/manager Justin De Villeneuve says: I remember one night being there with Twigs and the only other diners were Rod Stewart and a girlfriend. Nobody else. We had a lovely time but I felt for Tommy (p 100). Tommy Roberts confirms it: There weren't enough normal paying customers (p 101). The extortionate prices - £1.50 for a steak, for example (£25 for today's standards) were a turn-off for ordinary people, and business that relied mostly on celebrity customers was not sustainable. Mr. Feed'Em - a great experiment in combining design, entertainment and catering - had to shut down within a few months of the opening.
The demise of Mr. Feed'Em was a beginning of a chain reaction that led to shuttting down the whole Mr.Freedom premises in 1972. The relationship between Tommy Roberts and his business partner John Paul was gradually getting worse in the last few months of Mr. Freedom's existence, which were marked by constant arguments. For many, it felt like the end of an era.
But despite Mr.Freedom shutting down, Tommy Roberts' career was far from over. For the rest of the 1970's, he ran City Lights Studio boutique, designed clothes for David Bowie, managed Kilburn and The High Road (Ian Dury's band) before moving on to furniture design in 1980's and antique dealing in 1990's and 2000's.
In the 1960's Tommy Roberts provided a fashion link between two iconic locations of Swinging London - Carnaby Street and King's Road. With Mr. Freedom, he helped to push fashion into the 1970's. Mr.Freedom might have been the last chapter in the story of the British Boutique Scene of the 1960's, but it was also the missing link between that essentially 1960's scene and what was about to come in the late 1970's. It is perhaps symbolic that when Tommy Roberts left 430 King's Road, the next occupants were (if you don't count short-lived Paradise Garage) Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood ( also Mr.Freedom's customers) who at that address started a boutique with ever-changing names (Let It Rock, Too Fast Too Live Too Young Too Die, Sex, Seditionaries) which created a ground for a Punk revolution.
Read a full , detailed story of Tommy Roberts' career in Paul Gorman's new book. It is the most exciting publication of 2012 on the 1960's/1970's fashion and an essential reading for anybody interested in the subject.
1942 - 2012
(all the photos and quotations taken from Paul Gorman's book)