The street where London swung: Carnaby Street – yesterday and today

Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street

Soho’s Carnaby Street remains synonymous with the ‘Swinging Sixties’; there’s no getting away from it. But why? And frankly, the ’60s were almost half-a-century ago now, so what promotes this pedestrianised precinct in the heart of the UK capital as a must-visit for so many millions of visitors staying at boutique hotels in London every year?

That was then…

Something of an epicentre (well, a commercial one, at least) for the cultural revolution of the UK’s youth in the 1960s, Carnaby Street was the stomping ground back then of simply the hippest of the hip. This was because it was home to a large number of shops that vended the very latest mod-era fashions – and their wares, aesthetics and advertising and marketing massively influenced high-street retail in the years to come, so much so that their fresh, new ways of doing things can be still seen in the all-round approach of today’s most popular retailers (especially those of fashionable clothing).

In fact, it was the arrival of a Glaswegian clothing entrepreneur, John Stephen, that radically revolutionised Carnaby Street and set it on the (ahem) road it would take until the end of the 1960s – and, frankly, beyond. Quickly coined the ‘King of Carnaby Street’, Stephen was the man behind the sharp-looking, tight-fitting men’s jackets favoured by so many mods of the period.

And his legacy continued even after the close of the most recognised decade in the street’s history, for the place retained its cool fashionable status into the ’70s and – to an extent – throughout the ’80s and ’90s too, being a popular hang-out for many of punk, post-punk, New Romantic and, eventually, ’60s-retro-informed Britpop music artists and bands of these eras (and their fans).

… This is now

To bring you right up to date then, the Carnaby Street of today retains much of the aesthetically individual and dynamic that so informed and made it stand out in the ’60s. Sure, it’s not quite the Austin Powers-style time capsule as you may expect it to be, but there’s nonetheless still something of a ‘Swinging Sixties’ vibe about the place, even if its early 21st Century incarnation is filled with expensive and selective boutiques of recognisable brands rather than the daringly bold and adventurous, independent outlets of yesteryear. Moreover, as it’s evolved along with its fame spreading further around the world, it’s grown too; for today’s whole Carnaby shopping vicinity stretches beyond merely the short pedestrianised street itself, comprising also, as it does, the likes of Kingly Street (to the east), Marshal Street (to the west) and Newburgh Street (alternatively referred to as Newburgh Quarter); all of which offers up visitors in excess of 50 restaurants, pop-up eateries, pubs and bars.

Old habits die hard, though, and just as once was the case, as soon as any visitor travels to Carnaby Street (from wherever they might be staying, such as the salubrious and glamorous San Domenico House hotel London United Kingdom) and steps into its hallowed environs they’re greeted with the globally-iconic arch (perfect for selfies!), before they discover – just mere seconds later – the cornucopia of shops beyond that vend everything from vintage and retro clobber to high-quality footwear and awesome vinyl to delightful cosmetics.

Granted, time has moved on, though, which means that sadly very few of Carnaby Street’s shops have survived from the ’60s intact. That said, you will find that vintage/ retro clothes outlets Sherry’s (on Broadwick Street) is fantastic for Mod fashions, while there’s also the mod-tastic scooter shop Lambretta (at 29 Carnaby Street).

Plus, it may not have much to do mods of yesteryear or those of today, for that matter, but The Shakespeare’s Head is where to, er, head for a thirst-sating pint; the pub was legendarily owned by distant relatives of the Bard himself in the 18th Century. And, finally, if you’re a Beatles (and who honestly isn’t?) then you must give the building nearby that’s 3 Savile Row a visit. Why? Because it was here the Fab Four effectively saw out the ’60s with their iconic-for-all-time rooftop concert on 30 January 1969.