As any student of the 1960s will know, interesting characters galore emerged from that decade within the world of music, clothes and film. One such person who has always fascinated me is the designer Tommy Roberts.
I personally became aware of his work at his 1980s furniture store ‘Practical Styling’ which was on the fringes of Covent Garden. But when delving a little deeper into the life of Tommy, you quickly see he was at the centre of so much more.
Born in Wiltshire in 1942, he was raised in Forest Hill. His dad owned and ran a tie business called ‘Roberto Neckwear’ so fashion and style were in the genes. He studied at Goldsmiths Art College, but from an early age, he was also ‘entrepreneurial’ in spirit, buying and selling antiques and running frothy coffee bars. His own clothing style was one of a mixture of jumble sale finds and theatrical costumes. He was years ahead of the vogue for vintage clothing to come.
‘I left the house one day – must have been 18 – wearing a Robin Hood feathered trilby, a shirt I’d dyed bright blue, a red silk scarf, ladies’ tartan trews, Anello & Davide emerald green pumps and my mother’s navy blue swing-back coat. A neighbour advised my mother to take me to see a psychiatrist.’
He turned this love of interesting clobber into a business, opening the shop ‘Kleptomania’ in 1966 with his business partner Charlie Simpson. It was situated on Kingly Street, just behind Carnaby Street, next to the legendary nightclub ‘The Bag O’Nails.’
The stock was Victorian vintage clothes mixed with ex-military wear and odds and sods of objet ‘d’art picked up form various junk shops of his acquaintance. He and the shop were soon visited by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and The Who. Roberts and Simpson soon opened a second store this time on Carnaby Street itself.
‘I don’t want to run a shop. I want to run a circus’ said Tommy at the time.
Next up, he moved to Kings Road and took over the ‘Hung on You’ premises at number 430 and reopened it as ‘Mr Freedom’, this time in conjunction with Trevor Myles.
The shop name came from a film by William Klein. ‘Pop Art meets Disney’ (Roberts had one of the first licences from the company) might be a good way of describing the style of the clothes, many dreamed up by designer ‘Pamla Motown.’ Twiggy was a fan as was Mick Jagger.
“It wasn’t meditative or cool, but garish, loud and Pop. Very upfront – like me!’ said Roberts.
So successful was the shop that larger premises were sought and a move to four floors in Kensington High St. ensued. ‘Kitsch’ was now in and added to the clothes, were furniture collections and homeware as well as a restaurant in the basement called ‘Mr Feed-Em’ where every bowl of soup sold, had a plastic fly in it. Elton John was a huge fan of the shop.
Always ahead of the curve, Roberts then moved to Covent Garden in 1972, amidst the last vestiges of its life as a fruit and veg market. That would finally leave the area and relocate down Battersea way in 1974.
Tommy opened ‘City Lights Studio’ above an old banana warehouse and David Bowie wore one of his suits on the 1973 album ‘Pin Ups.’
Meanwhile back on the Kings Road, Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood took over the lease at 430 Kings road and the Sex Pistols journey would soon be underway.
As well as clothing, Roberts managed the occasional musical act including he of the flaming headwear Arthur Brown, and Ian Dury’s band before the Blockheads, namely Kilburn and the High Roads. Tommy was also an early supporter of the Sex Pistols offering them free rehearsal space.
In1981 ‘Practical Styling’ opens at the foot of the Centrepoint building and I enter the picture buying odds and sods for my old room back home in SE5. Inspired by the Memphis Design Group, all manner of colourful chairs, flooring, kitchen equipment and interesting bits and pieces were on offer.
Tommy was also one of the first to stock the new wave of UK designers coming through, like Tom Dixon.
After losing weight around this time, a slimmer Tommy donated a few of his ‘wide awake’ suits to that other shrinking violet George Melly.
From the mid-90s, ‘Tom Tom’ became his next venture, again on the fringes of Covent Garden and Soho, where he sold art, antiques and collectables as well as Japanese toys.
His last move was to the East End, way before it became its now trendy self and ‘Two Columbia Road’ was a destination of choice for those looking for mid-century and contemporary furniture and complimentary pieces.
He ran the shop with his son Keith until he retired to the South Coast a few years later. There, he painted and collected rare books and Dinky toys.
He sadly died aged 70 in December 2012
Paul Smith said of him ‘he was an inspiration, a real character and one of Britain’s true eccentrics.’
If I may, I’d like to recommend the book dedicated to Tommy’s life and career by Paul Gorman called ‘Mr. Freedom – Tommy Roberts: British Design Hero’
You’ll get no argument on that title from me.
The Mumper of SE5