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Just Dandy

John Stephen

By Michael Yockel | Posted 12/29/2004

A pair of illuminating black-and-white images in the 2001 photography book London in the Sixties deftly signify that decade’s seismic men’s fashion quake. In the first, five young men—dressed in standard dark suits, white shirts, ties, wingtips, shapeless overcoats—stand before the display window of one of Carnaby Street’s countless clothes boutiques, one peering bemusedly at the shop’s wares, the other four gawking in disbelief at yet another young man nearby, his back to them, attired in dark flared trousers, light-colored turtleneck sweater, Greek fisherman’s cap, pointy shoes, and impeccably tailored sports jacket. In the second photo, a quintet of dandies, variously wearing floral shirts, double-breasted jackets, striped trousers, fur overcoats, and pimp-y hats, strolls together amiably through a London park—the Rolling Stones, January 1967.

In the 1960s, a vanguard of young Englishmen shed their fathers’ traditional pallid uniform of gray flannels and department store suits for pink, hip-hugging pants, lace-collared and -cuffed shirts, velvet Edwardian suits, and paisley cravats, among myriad other flamboyant sartorial excesses. London served as the capital of what the press dubbed the “Peacock Revolution,” Carnaby Street was its epicenter, and fashion designer/savvy entrepreneur John Stephen lorded over the eye-popping proceedings—provocateur, orchestrator, and indisputable “King of Carnaby Street.”

From 1957, when Stephen established his beachhead, His Clothes, at 5 Carnaby St., until 1970, by which time his vision and innovations had been thoroughly co-opted and exploited by the mainstream, Stephen radically transformed male fashion and, in the process, dramatically altered, if only briefly, how men considered their public selves. Gleefully, he tricked them out in flowing, vividly colored caftans cut from curtain fabric, crazy-quilted mini-kilts with slits up the sides, and elephant-cord pants that hung lasciviously around the waist. Clothes,
in short, that radiated sexiness and
playfulness.

“He changed styles monthly, weekly, even daily,” recounted cultural critic Nik Cohn in his 1971 book Today There Are No Gentlemen. “Every time you walked past a John Stephen window there was something new and loud in it.”

Aurally loud, too. Inside his numerous Carnaby Street shops blared the shifting soundtrack of “Swinging London”: the Yardbirds, the Who, the Pretty Things, the Small Faces. Outside, he strategically placed racks of clothes as bait, and through his doors passed aristocrats, gangsters, and pop stars. Among the latter: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Bee Gees.

Imitators sprang up all along the street, and spilled over—as did Stephen’s burgeoning retail empire—to the rest of London. Darting ahead of his competition, Stephen colonized in Europe and North America, with Kinks frontman Ray Davies acidly skewering the spiraling phenomenon in the band’s arch 1966 hit “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (“Everywhere the Carnabetian army marches on”).

While Stephen continued to flourish financially, by 1967 the fashion cognoscenti had decamped elsewhere, replaced on Carnaby Street by gaping American tourists expecting to spot Pete Townshend or Brian Jones being measured during a private fitting. His clothes made obsolete by punk’s anti-fashion ethos in the late 1970s, Stephen eventually switched to importing and selling Italian and French menswear, exiting the business altogether as a result of poor health only in 2002. He died, age 69, on Feb. 1.

A tireless worker, John Stephen nonetheless lived luxuriously, acquiring a Rolls-Royce at age 20, purchasing homes in French and Spanish resorts, and dining with his white German shepherd at London’s poshest restaurants. And true to his contrarian sensibility, he always dressed not in his own transgressive designs but, rather, in a gentleman’s elegant suit and white shirt.

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