Menswear in Soho: Why this is London’s New Mecca

Grenson Meard Street London

Historically a magnet for sartorially minded dukes and dandies, a new influx of high-end – yet brilliant-value – brands is making Soho the destination du jour for well-heeled gents.

In a world of remarkable Savile Row tailoring and inspiring luxury brands, why menswear in Soho? Very simply we now, unquestionably, live in a world of “hi/low”, that is, mixing and matching say a luxury piece along with more humble kit – think an Alexander McQueen blazer matched with premium Levi’s.

But our selection in this piece is far from “low”. Rather, we are spotlighting some seriously premium brands and independent shops in Soho. Grenson, for example, is a very old name in British shoemaking with a range of price points.

Bottom line: the menswear variety in Soho now makes the area a top destination to round out whatever you might already have in your wardrobe by the likes of Burberry, Prada, Dunhill and Gucci.

In just a few years, almost two dozen quality brands have opened their doors in this inimitable square mile, including Mark Powell, Our Legacy, Supreme, Folk, Paul Smith and Weekend Offender while, on Berwick Street alone, Oliver Spencer, Percival, Universal Works and Nudie Jeans have also set up shop.

But Soho has been inextricably linked to menswear since the early 19th century. Savile Row tailors then employed Soho “outworkers” to make their suits, and still do. Thus, in 1834, The London Operative Tailors Union (which boasted some 13,000 members) chose the Blue Posts in Kingly Street as their “house of call” or meeting place.

Percival Berwick Street Soho London
Percival Berwick Street London

The number of tailors in Soho was further bolstered after the area’s all-night saloons, brothels, opium dens and lewd music halls forced out the middle classes, who were replaced by scoundrels, prostitutes, bohemians, dandified poets, artists and Jewish tailors who’d fled the Russian pogroms of 1881.

Said tailors started the famed “slop and show” shops that proffered a rather cheaper alternative to “the posh people’s tailors” over on Regent Street. So successful were they that, by the Thirties, 70 per cent of the businesses on Berwick Street were Jewish tailors, haberdashers and cloth merchants, while the predominant language was Yiddish. The area thus became synonymous with bespoke tailoring, which in turn attracted Italian, Indian and Chinese tailors, who picked up the thimble and joined the merry throng.

The tradition continued throughout World War I as the demand for bespoke uniforms for army officers raged, boomed in the Twenties, when suiting became de rigueur, dipped in the depression-hit Thirties and almost took a big fall during and after World War II, when the wartime cloth rations took hold. But, with the connivance of the famed Soho spivs, the celebrated locale became the place where you could get not only that suit hitherto denied, but also a bevy of other nefarious items and activities to boot.

Subsequently, after the War, Soho became the city’s pre-eminent artists’ quarter, accommodating the likes of Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Augustus John and Jeffrey Bernard, while young teddy boys, well versed in the black market, came to Soho to get their mufti made by the likes of the Diamond Brothers on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Maharishi Great Pulteney Street Soho London
Maharishi Great Pulteney Street London

But as the Fifties moved on, Soho’s streets filled with prostitutes, mainly war widows looking to feed their families, and rents dropped even further. Poor artists, writers and musicians swamped the area.

Jazz venues such as Club Eleven at 41 Great Windmill Street (later the site of Cy Laurie’s Jazz Club), The Flamingo at 33 Wardour Street and Ronnie Scott’s, originally at 39 Gerrard Street, were open all night and catered to not only black American GIs, who loved both the music and the local streetwalkers, but West Indians, Jews, gays, night workers and young inner-city hepcats, while the jazz musicians themselves hung out in the Harmony Cafe in Archer Street, opposite the Musician’s Union HQ.

Thus, Soho became the centre of UK modern jazz, a prerequisite of which was the sharply tailored suit (as sported by the likes of Miles Davis) that coincidentally could be made in any one of the hundreds of tailors in the area.

The number of tailors in Soho was further bolstered after the area’s all-night saloons, brothels, opium dens and lewd music halls forced out the middle classes

As the modernists morphed into mod, a phalanx of teenagers invaded the famed conurbation and quite literally followed suit. “We’d come into Soho, buy mohair cloth from Dormeuil in Golden Square then take it to a tailor in Brewer Street and order a bespoke suit made for a fraction of the cost elsewhere,” informs Alan Tomkins, pioneering mod and the original DJ at London’s first disco, Le Discotheque on Wardour Street from 1962. “We’d then hang out at coffee bars like the Two I’s on Old Compton Street, rob Boots the chemist on Piccadilly for their amphetamines and then go to the all-nighters at The Flamingo or La Discotheque till the trains started the next morning.”

Tailors such as Sam Arkus on Berwick Street thrived while clothing stores such as Austin’s on Shaftesbury Avenue, Cecil Gee, John Michael Ingram’s Sportique (and later John Michael) and John Stephen’s His Clothes all catered to the new mod mode. The latter entrepreneur, dubbed “the million-pound mod”, opened a new store in 1957 on Carnaby Street (which was then an insignificant little street in Soho) and followed up with a brace of stores including Domino Male, Mod Male and Gear Street and started the trend for flamboyant ready-to-wear menswear stores on Carnaby Street, whose twists on traditional menswear and attention to detail hit the mod aesthetic firmly on the nose.

“The clothes weren’t meant to last, but to dazzle,” wrote entertainer George Melly in his 1971 book Revolt Into Style. “Their shops, blaring pop music and vying with each other for the campest window and decor, spread the length of Carnaby Street and its environs.”

Mark Powell Soho Marshall Street London
Mark Powell Marshall Street London

Accordingly, Stephen’s initiative spawned other Carnaby Street outlets such as Lord John, Sid Brent’s Take 6, Warren Gold’s Lord John, and Irvine Sellar’s Mates and shoe store Topper’s, while The Squire Shop opened on Brewer Street and clothed those who’d be called “hard mod” and morphed into “suede heads”.

Undeniably, Soho provided the uniform for the Swinging Sixties male, clothing the likes of The Kinks, Rolling Stones and Small Faces, all of whom played at venues such as the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, hung out, checked out new bands, bought clothing and then wore it to be seen in at one of its many, many nightspots.

But by the Seventies, the writing was on the wall. After Westminster Council paved Carnaby Street in 1973, the thoroughfare lost its soul – its stores a pale imitation of their predecessors – and became a tourist trap. The rest of Soho became synonymous with sex shops (there were 59 in 1973) and strip clubs appeared by the dozen on every street until, by 1982, there were 164 licensed establishments in Soho peddling something to do with sex.

And it must be said that back then Soho wasn’t a very nice place: hookers, pimps and thieves walked the streets gleaning a living from the gangs of tourists and stags out for naughtiness. Having said that, its sleaziness allowed a certain liberality that ushered in a new breed of one-night clubs that attracted a whole new generation of devil-may-care style-mongers who reinvigorated tired old discos such as Billy’s, Le Kilt, Le Beat Route, and St Moritz, and introduced the area to a whole new audience.

In 1983, yours truly opened The Wag Club on the site of Whisky a Go Go, at 33 Wardour Street (above the old Flamingo), the first club to cater to this new crowd (made up, basically, of the readers of The Face and i-D magazines), seven nights a week.

Weekend Offender D’Arblay Street Soho London
Weekend Offender D’Arblay Street London

After that came the Soho Brasserie and The Groucho Club and Soho was considered almost trendy again. Groovy clothes stores followed such as Demob on Beak Street, Mark Powell on Archer Street and John Pearce on Meard Street, and Soho gained a reputation as something more than a red-light district. But, in the main, men’s clothing – with the exception of a brace of tailors – took a back seat for almost 30 years. Today, however, through some rather anomalous quirk of fate, menswear is back in Soho – and back with a right royal vengeance. ML


BETWEEN THE BUTTONS

The central characters behind Soho’s finest outfitters discuss their brand, customers and why W1 is the place to be.

MARK POWELL BESPOKE TAILORING

2 Marshall Street, London W1, markpowellbespoke.co.uk

Mark Powell’s first Soho store opened in 1985 in Archer Street.

“It was a former peep show,” he chuckles. “I then had a bespoke studio in an old knocking shop on Brewer Street.” Since then the man has come a long way. He is the chosen tailor of, among others, Paul Weller, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Martin Freeman.

YMC (YOU MUST CREATE)

1 Poland Street, London W1, youmustcreate.com

YMC designer and main man Fraser Moss started with a ready-to-wear store in Conduit Street in 1998 but switched to Poland Street in 2009, where he has been knocking out his characteristically elegant casual wear ever since. “Soho is where it all started,” he recalls.

JACK SHEPPARD 1724

76-78 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2, achildofthejago.com

“My first shop opened in Soho in 1994 when the rent was dirt cheap,” explains Joe Corré, son of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. “We called it Agent Provocateur and it became this monster. The brand is named after the 18th-century thief and dandy who escaped from Newgate Prison four times and was taken down Charing Cross Road, past my shop, to be hung at Tyburn, aged only 22.”

MAHARISHI

2-3 Great Pulteney Street, London W1, maharishistore.com

In 1994, Hardy Bleichman, a former dealer in army surplus, married his love of utility wear with his passion for eastern mysticism and embroidered

his military mufti with ancient mythological characters creating a deft “union of opposites”. Today his store is one of Soho’s highlights and an example of “pacifist military design”. “Shoreditch made sense in the Nineties,” smiles Bleichman. “But I moved to Soho as soon as I had the option.

It’s the heartbeat of the city.”

OLIVER SPENCER

81 Berwick Street, London W1, oliverspencer.co.uk

“For me, Soho is the heart of the creative industry, music, film and design,” informs Oliver Spencer, whose stock in trade is extremely well made, simple menswear that, although stylish and modern, never over-eggs the pudding. “It all exists here, so naturally with that comes fashion and style. Soho offers a window straight to my customer and the kudos of being in Soho is very important.”

FOLK

24 Great Windmill Street W1, folkclothing.com

“We had a shop East but it didn’t have the same footfall as here  or our type of customer, who work in the media and are a little older, have a disposable income and know what they want,” states Leon Serronin, overseer of Folk stores nationwide. Folk opened here in November 2014 and supplies the likes of Ewan McGregor, Ethan Hawke and Jamie Oliver with clean-cut, functional clothing.

PERCIVAL

43 Berwick Street, London W1, percivalclo.com

“We identify with the people who work and come to Soho – men who work in marketing, film, magazines and other media and who don’t have to wear a suit to work,” informs Percival co-owner Olivia Hegarty, who opened its store in 2012. “We tried other pop-up shops in other areas but we loved that Soho still has an edge.”

UNIVERSAL WORKS

40 Berwick Street, London W1, universalworks.co.uk

“We are friends with many of the other brands and stores here
and we all see ourselves as contributing to the development of a great destination for quality independent clothing, music and food,” asserts David Keyte, owner and creative director of Universal Works, whose no-nonsense, casually utilitarian kit slips easily into the prevailing ethic of the new Soho outlets. “Soho is the hub of some of the best ready-to-wear menswear brands in the UK. Our brand’s ideology is based on the idea of understanding history, while injecting contemporary ideas into the mix.”

WEEKEND OFFENDER

19 D’Arblay Street, London W1, weekendoffender.com

“When we started looking for a shop we went East but found it too pretentious so looked in Soho, found this space and immediately felt very comfortable,” informs Weekend Offender’s Sam Jones, who can count Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Arctic Monkeys as customers for their no- nonsense functional clothes with a twist. “Soho is proper London.”

OI POLLOI

1 Marshall Street, London W1, oipolloi.com

“All the best London men’s clothing stores have always been in Soho,” remarks Steve Sanderson of Oi Polloi, whose collective aesthetic is 21st- century urban casual. “And there are so many good independent businesses around Soho, so there’s the opportunity to show all the creative and media companies the thing we do. We like real shops; you can’t replicate that online. Real shops are like vinyl to music. If you go into a good store, you always remember it.”

GRENSON

Meard Street, London W1, grenson.co.uk

“Grenson and Soho have a shared authenticity – neither is fake, both have integrity. I hope neither changes too much,” proclaims Grenson MD, Tim Little. Grenson is one the UK’s great traditional shoemakers. The company set up in 1866 and, to this day, continues to make bespoke and ready-to- wear shoes with a twist.