In 1966, Time Magazine declared a small area on the edge of Soho the heart of ‘swinging London’. Since then, Carnaby Street and its surrounding offshoots have come to represent the epicentre of London cool. The Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and the Sex Pistols all frequented the area in the 1960s and 70s, shopping in its independent boutiques, performing in clubs and hanging out in the local restaurants. Music, fashion and a hint of rebellion have all been part of the Carnaby experience ever since.
In the early 19th century, Carnaby was a quiet area comprising workshops along with a few shops and restaurants. Its transformation began in 1952 when a fire forced John Stephen to move his menswear shop from nearby Beak Street to Carnaby Street. Various small, independent boutiques quickly followed, all offering affordable, fashionable clothing to a youthful clientele. Stores such as Lord John, Take Six, Gear, and ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’ became renowned for their flamboyant fashion ranges, and designers competed to bring the most original, and often outrageous, ideas to the area.
Today, Carnaby remains one of London’s most sought-after shopping streets with a range of flagship stores, high-end restaurants and a diverse programme of events bringing visitors from around the world, as well as Londoners, to the area in their droves. Its links with the UK’s music scene are still strong: it was here that ex-Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher decided to open the first store of his fashion label Pretty Green and a number of brands closely associated with the music industry such as Dr Martens and the Great Frog also have stores here. Meanwhile, the Carnaby Echoes app, an interactive walking tour of the area, gives visitors the opportunity to gain a deeper insight of its diverse musical history, providing film and audio interviews when sites of particular interest are passed.
Stand out from the crowd
In keeping with the area’s unique feel, some of the stores that have found a home here offer bespoke services. Visit Dr Martens to have a pair of its boots made to order or stop at Paul Smith’s Soho concept store, which offers a custom-made jeans service and an exclusive Soho-inspired suit lining.
Californian watch company Nixon is one of the area’s most recent openings. Located on Newburgh Street, the store is a perfect fit for Carnaby’s creative, youthful spirit and features a workshop-inspired customisation bar where visitors can create their own one-of-a-kind timepiece. Reflecting Carnaby’s independent heritage, the bar allows patrons to choose from a range of component parts and engraved detailing options to create a custom-built watch. Three models are available for customisation – the Sentry, the Time Teller and the 48-20 Chrono.
The heart of London
A Carnaby address has a certain cachet and, along with the British brands found here, a number of international companies have chosen Carnaby Street to be their only base in the UK, among them Swedish-label Monki, with its playful collections that stand out from the crowd, ElevenParis, which brings its own brand of Parisian chic to Carnaby, and Spanish-label Lavand.
‘We chose Carnaby as a location for our store as it has been the heart of youth culture and street fashion since the 1960s, making it the ideal shopping location for our 54-year-old brand,’ says Amy Nelson, Dr Martens’ marketing manager. ‘Like Dr Martens, Carnaby has re-invented itself over the decades while maintaining its trendy fashion identity and association with music.’
The food offering in the area has grown in recent years, making Carnaby a gourmet destination. The newly renovated Kingly Court plays host to some of the capital’s most talked about eateries, from casual pizzeria Pizza Pilgrims to seafood restaurant Wright Brothers Soho and acclaimed Indian eatery Cinnamon Soho. Bringing the tastes of downtown Lima to central London, Peruvian restaurant Señor Ceviche is one of the most recent additions to the area’s restaurant scene. ‘Carnaby has been brilliant for us,’ says the restaurant’s founder Harry Edmeades. ‘It’s always buzzing and attracts a fun crowd. Our aim is to make Peruvian food and drink more accessible to Londoners and being located here has made that possible.’