My personal history with the Kings Road began in the late 1970s, when I popped down there once or twice, but I was never a regular visitor then. Though being aware of it, I just didn’t have the bottle to go into Malcolm and Vivian’s shop at number 430 . Besides, already being a clumsy fucker, I didn’t really want to tempt fate by trotting about in a pair of bondage trousers anyway…
No, my serious adventures with the Kings Road began in the late 80s, early/mid 90’s. If I shut my eyes and think back I spent more time – and money – probably down there than anywhere else over the years. Shops of choice then would include, Johnsons, Johnny Moke’s, Fiorucci, Patrick Cox, Woodhouse, Jones, Flip and a few others I can no longer recall the names of.
As a side note, as I wrote that, another memory flashed back of me always looking out for the blue plaque signifying the home of film director Carol Reed on every trip. My ‘Oliver’ fixation was deep, even then.
By then, I would have been well aware of the 1950s/60s fashion and cultural history of the road, but also that the area had too much of the look and feel of the Sloane Ranger about it for me to get too involved. The ‘Ok Yah’s’ and ‘Chelsea tractor’ brigade were never really me. My first love was always the West End, and the edges of Soho in particular, which always fed my needs and made me feel at home. But, I will admit, every now and then I still felt the urge for a little wander down there to see what was going on.
It was once a private road, opened by King Charles II to allow him to travel from St James Palace to Fulham and Kew, and all 1.9 miles of it remained that way until 1830.
One of the first trendy ‘foodie’ outlets on the road was ‘Orrery’ opened in 1954 by a young Terence Conran. This was his second venture in restaurants after the ‘Soup Kitchen’ in Chandos Place, near to The Strand.
November 1955 saw the opening of ‘Bazaar’ at 138a, owned by Mary Quant, her then boyfriend, later husband Alexander Plunkett Greene and Archie McNair, who was the one time owner of the Fantasie Cafe at 128, which was one of the first Espresso Bars situated out of Soho.
Quant and Greene at just 21 were already well established in the ‘Chelsea Set’ memorably described as containing a ‘bohemian world of painters, photographers, architects, writers, socialites, actors, con-men, and superior tarts.’
The revolutionary window displays at ‘Bazaar’ drew crowds three deep. ‘We wanted people to stop and look,’ Mary later wrote. ‘We wanted to shock people. It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini. I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.’
It worked. The shop sold out of its first range of stock within 10 days.
In 1956, John Osborne opened his play ‘Look Back In Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre, which was and still is, situated next door to Sloane Square tube station. The era of the ‘Angry Young Men’ had begun. Next up there for Osborne was ‘The Entertainer’ featuring the character Archie Rice still performing in the dying days of music hall. ‘Don’t clap too loud, we’re all in a very old building.’
Famous fictional 1960s residents living near the Kings Road, included ‘Jules and Sandy’ from the Round the Horne radio series in their ‘Bona’ abode and James Bond, who’s creator Ian Fleming said resided in an unnamed square.
The boutique ‘Granny Takes a Trip’ opened in 1966 at 488 and it was hard to miss, with its ever changing and inventive shop fronts. Huge blow-ups of a Native American one week, and then a pop art Jean Harlow painted on the shop window the next. It finally had half a 1947 ‘Dodge’ motorcar poking out into the street. Nigel Weymouth, Sheila Cohen and the Savile Row trained John Pearse ran the shop. Customers included Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger on a regular basis. It closed in 1974, changing hands a few times along the way.
In 1968, the very distinctive Chelsea Drugstore opened. Primarily a chemist, it was a covered with brushed steel. Inside there were newsstands, record stores and a soda fountain. It was name checked of course, in the song ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ by The Rolling Stones.
Another name that looms large in the legacy of the Kings Road is Mr Freedom. Opened by a hero of mine, Tommy Roberts at number 430 – that shop again – in 1969. The clothes sold there were very ‘pop art’ in style with Disney cartoon characters on tee shirts – Tommy being the first to officially license from the Disney corporation in the UK – satin jackets with ice cream cones and lightning strikes patches sewn onto most things.
The press launch of The Plastic Ono’s Band first single ‘Give Peace a Chance’ took place at Chelsea Old Town Hall on July 3rd 1969. Ringo Starr and his wife Maureen stood in for John and Yoko, who unfortunately were still injured from a recent car crash. The same venue saw more celebrations of a different sort, when Chelsea FC brought home the FA Cup back to the manor after two epic, and very dirty encounters, versus Leeds United in 1970.
A year later, Malcolm McLaren opened the boutique ‘Let It Rock’ at number 430 with his then wife Vivien Westwood. There they sold Teddy Boy clothing and ephemera. The pair renamed it ‘SEX’ in 1974, and the shop became the centre of the punk explosion to come, Sex Pistols, Jordan and all. Later it became ‘Seditionaries’ in 1977. The shop is now a branch of the Westwood empire where the clock on the outside runs backwards.
Another notable clothes shop run on similar lines to ‘SEX’ was ‘Acme Attractions’ at number 153, where Don Letts worked as a shop assistant and later manager. Punks and Rasta’s were very much the vibe of the customers who hung out there. Don left when Acme closed down, to go on the White Riot tour as DJ with The Clash.
The last time I spent any significant time down there was for the Rolling Stones expo at the Saatchi Gallery in 2016. To me now, it looked like any other high street really, with shop brands familiar to us all.
Only, it still felt posher than most…
The Mumper of SE5
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