Under the shadow of those two quintessential London streets, that of Regent and Oxford, it’s easy to forget about Carnaby Street. Former stomping-ground of Mary Quant, The Rolling Stones, The Who and any Mod or Hippie worth their Vespa or daisy chain respectively, Carnaby Street was the Oxford Street of the sixties. What’s happened to the old-girl I heard you ask? Well, she’s staged quite the renaissance.
Recently was my first encounter with Carnaby, and ‘encounter’ it certainly was. I’d been trawling the stores of Oxford Street, bumping into a River Island or H&M every-other shop it seemed, but still going in, and still buying. It’s a curse.
It was a Monday – I was trying to escape the crowds, only to be greeted by the bank-holiday crowd – and I was starving, warm and bruised from vicious, shopping elbows. I dragged myself down the nearest side-street and what I found gave an instant wash of energy.
It was the Carnaby effect. Having been pedestrianised in the 70s, the Carnaby district is a haven, a tropical isle away from the black cabs and red buses. The bruised pavements melt into wide streets, giving Carnaby a feeling of relaxation that is in stark contrast to the rest of the capital. Its proximity to Oxford and Regent Street makes it a wonderful area of escapism, providing calm to Central London. However, just because Carnaby is great for escaping the shops, it doesn’t mean that shopping can’t be done here. Carnaby provides an array of fantastic independent and big brand stores for leisurely perusing.
Shopping at Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street is really Carnaby District, a collection of around 6 streets, with Kingly Court creating a wonderful, layered courtyard for your shopping needs.
Carnaby Street itself includes the big names of Ben Sherman, Hugo Boss and the first Diesel Male store of its kind. The highlights are Liam Gallagher’s Pretty Green – the only Pretty Green store in London. Its collection is a wide range of comfortable jeans and polos, whilst also including some fine jackets and stripped shirts. It hits a very nice balance, at a high-end of high-street price.
The Kooples store visit is a must, employing its regular layout of male clothes on one rail, female on another, demanding a rummage. The Kooples must be one of the biggest hitting brands in London this year, cementing its image over buses and grabbing its own corner in Selfridges. It’s a brand of fine tailoring and beautiful accessories. Have a look (or checkout our own analysis here)
Injecting some colour is American Apparel, whose shop alone is a feast for the eyes, with manikins and bright colour galore. Known for its controversial advertising, its clothes can often be overlooked. Concentrating on bright colours and the basic T-shirts, Apparel has most of your clothing essentials.
Carnaby houses an exclusive: the UK’s only standalone Converse store. Crammed with this ultimate of shoe, (checkout David Tennant’s Doctor Who to see how to pull these off) the store contains limited editions and new designs, making it a must visit for anyone thinking of buying a pair.
Picks of the Carnaby Stores:
It’s the Newburgh Quarter where it all gets started. Independent stores begin popping among the names of Fred Perry and Lacoste L!ve. Among the best of these are Blaqua, run by its founding designer.
Blaqua is a joy. Providing unique tailoring and patterns, it certainly is luxurious, so much so it attracts the likes of Martin Freeman, Paul Weller and Chris Evans;
‘Blaqua is a brand for confident men with a sense of themselves and their own identity, they are unafraid of standing out from the crowd’.
Blaqua Designer Simon Green
Blaqua offers a feeling of exclusivity (indeed, bespoke tailoring is offered) with only 20 of each shirt design being created. Inspired by ‘life, music, art and the movies’, Blaqua produce stunning floral designs with matching cufflinks and ties, regardless of trends; ‘This summer we will be pursuing the flamboyant floral trend we have developed with no concern for other trends or what other brands are offering’ says the designer, whose floral shirts have uniquely large cuffs, perfect for bringing colour to a jacket.
‘The bolder designs are those that seem to fly off the shelves the fastest’ says Mr Green, and having seen them, I can see why.
Another gem lies just across the street in the form of Peckham Rye – cockney rhyming slang for tie – who are tie and scarf designers that produce high quality items from the best Italian material. Its cramped store is an Aladdin’s Cave, with ties and bowties cascading down the walls all around, a real visual delight. Peckham Rye produces some of the finest knitted ties I have seen however I personally purchased a lovely bowtie.
The bowties offer the choice of a vast array of colours and are all nicely textured, with good volume, a rarity in bowties from high-street stores. The quality is excellent and I’ve only received compliments for it since.
Picks of the Newburgh Quarter Stores
Further down Newburgh Quarter, the iconic Barbour holds a charming store, focusing on the brands history, showcasing its Heritage range to beautiful effect.
The Great Frog has a store close to its collaborator, The Kooples. The jewellery brand has been in Carnaby Street since 1972, “We grew up alongside all the big rock bands becoming entwined in their history” Chris Thompson, manager of The Great Frog told me, who is soon going to oversee to opening of new stores in LA and New York.
“We’ve made jewellery for Motorhead, Iron Maiden, Metallica; we are actually revisiting the Motorhead collaboration soon. We’re making a new design ring approved by Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, each with its own limited edition number engraving”. Looking at The Great Frog range, we can see why it’s been so popular with the big names of rock. The brand has been selling their signature item, the Skull Ring for longer than anyone, drawing all types to the store;
“We get a tonne of bikers and musicians through the door, but I think everyone should have a Skull Ring in their fashion artillery” says Chris, “often very stylish and smartly dressed guys come in and pick out a ring or pendant. It just shows you have an edge.”
It’s no surprise that it’s a skull ring that is the store’s best seller; “The current best seller by far is the New Skool Skull Ring. It’s a refined version of what has come before. It pretty much suits everybody; its sleek understated, yet makes a statement.”
Chris Thompson thinks that Carnaby Street is certainly still a male style destination;
“Even though the area has changed hugely over the years, lots of people still head to Carnaby due to its history as a male fashion destination, it has an enduring reputation.”
How can The Great Frog be summed up? “The point is, people that wear The Great Frog just have a more Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude.”
I was very happy with my accidental fall through the rabbit hole to Carnaby Street; it was a chance discovery that opened my eyes to many excellent independent stores, all in a wonderful area. This article only gives a glimpse of what Carnaby has to offer, the only way to discover more is to get down there yourself. Mr Simon Green of Blaqua concludes:
“We enjoy being in the Carnaby area with its history as a focal point of London fashion. Though that spirit was lost for many years, it is definitely returning to the area and is once more drawing an interesting mix of brands. We receive inspiration from life, music, art and the movies, all aspects that can be associated with Carnaby Street.”