Book Review: the King of Carnaby Street

Jeremy Reed’s biography of fashion designer John Stephen escapes many of the familiar tropes that biographies tend to fall into. The “life” of John Stephen, as indicated in the title, is really only his professional one, with little of the typical biographical exposition bookending each side. Reed begins his story with the Glaswegian’s arrival in London in 1952 at the age of 18. Six years later he opened the first boutique in Soho’s Carnaby Street and played a key role in transforming the neighbourhood into the a shopping and cultural hub.

Perhaps due to the fact that Stephen himself was a private man during his heyday, Reed has built his story around the major cultural events of the era when he was active. Though Stephen’s career is the focal point, the book equally functions as the story of London in the 1960s, of Carnaby Street and of the mod subculture. Other cultural figures like Mary Quant, Foale & Tuffin, the Beatles and the Who all make appearances, emphasizing the influence of different types of artists on each other. While forging a link between clothing and music is nothing new, Reed also manages to draw parallels between fashion and drug culture, as well as social ideologies popular amongst the young in trendy London. As he detailed the tendency of Mods to prioritize aesthetics and borrow from other cultural movements, I wondered how seamlessly they would fit in with today’s tumblr generation.

Reed’s choice to focus on Stephen’s contribution to fashion rather than dramatizing his personal life is a smart one, making the book read less like the novelization of a Lifetime movie and more like an intelligent deconstruction of an influential designer’s oeuvre. That said, this method does carry its own pitfalls – occasionally, the books lags sometimes when it goes into detailed accounts describing the techniques Stephen used to cut a suit or all the possible colour combinations of striped trousers he designed (though design aficionados – and I’m sure there are many among WORN’s readers – might appreciate these details). Other times it began to feel repetitive where Stephen’s dealings with other famous people are brought up – it seems every page carries at least a few references to the Kinks, Mick Jagger, or other stylish rockstars, to the point of excess.

For me, the most intriguing aspects of Stephen’s story were the ways he used his clothing to provoke the status quo. Stephen, a gay man, was forced to live most of his life in the closet, putting on airs of being an eligible bachelor for his young fan base. However, he used his clothing as a means of blurring the lines of gender presentation, often designing androgynous clothes for both men and women. Men’s clothing was his specialty, and many of his designs were much showier than what men had previously worn – jeans became tighter and shirts came in flamboyant colours like pink and aquamarine. Stephen turned shopping into a recreational activity for men by making his stores have a nightclub feel.

The Kinks take on Carnaby Street with their ’66 single, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion”

The King of Carnaby Street, while giving a general idea of who John Stephen was as a person, is more about the influence a provocative design aesthetic can have on a generation than a typical biography. True, Stephen was the driving force behind his line, his business philosophy, and his success, but it’s the clothes that are the stars of this story.

The King of Carnaby Street: The Life of John Stephen
By Jeremy Reed, Haus Publishing London
book review by Anna Fitzpatrick
photography by Hillary Predko

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