There’s an excellent exhibition on currently at the Jewish Museum, the existence of which I’ve only just become aware of. The museum itself is a gem of good architecture, tucked away on a quiet side street a few minutes walk from the manic babble of Camden Town market. It’s small, but perfectly formed, and gives a fascinating history of British Jewry that made me feel ignorant, and captivated at the same time.
The exhibition is ‘Moses, Mods and Mr Fish’ and covers the enormous contribution that Jewish men and women have made to the garment and textile industry in this country. While the Victorian and pre war periods were engaging, it was the extraordinary burst of creativity in the 1960s and early 1970s that really caught my attention. A small group of highly entrepreneurial and creative men reacted against the ubiquitous and unflattering de-mob suit of the post war years, and looked to Italy for the slim, sharp Mod look. And that was just the start.
Stores with names like ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’ and Take 6 and Mr Fish colonised a sleepy back cut through called Carnaby Street. All this we know, but it is worth revisiting as it’s easy to overlook the excitement and total originality of this period. As the sixties progressed, fashion became more and more daring, with psychedelic colours, frilled shirts and velvet britches. And that was for the men.
One fact that really stuck in my head was that in a six year period, John Stephen went from 6 stores to 140. And at one point, had 14 different shops on Carnaby Street simultaneously. One quote I read said ‘People were making enough money to buy his and hers Lamborghinis.
Few of these visionary and important retailers stayed the course. Most sold at the peak, or just after, some staying in the menswear trade, and others, such as Irvine Sellar, forging new careers in property. Mr Sellar went from giving us flares, to giving us The Shard.
It is unthinkable that menswear retailing could ever be this dynamic and explosive again. If a brand opens a second or third branch, it’s major news. A combination of saturated high streets, malls (which didn’t exist in the 1960s) and colossal rents conspire against us.
But there’s another factor here. This was fashion. Genuine, fast moving, radical fashion. What was the height of cool in the summer would be dead by Autumn. It’s decades since we’ve had fashion like this; today, it’s about styling. A slightly higher rise in a trouser; a smaller notch on a lapel. And until clothing becomes fashionable and relevant again, it will continue to be tough to persuade jaded consumers to part with their hard earned cash.