John Stephen moved to London from Glasgow, aged 18, in 1952. Within four years he had opened his first shop in Beak Street. A year later, he moved round the corner to the dingy and distinctly down-at-heel Carnaby Street, where he made up his flamboyant and innovative designs in a workroom at the back of his shop at number 5. From these humble beginnings John soon went on to open 15 shops in the area under different names, dominating Carnaby Street, transforming it into the cool place to shop if you were young and hip.
Young John Stephen — he’s 28 but looks more like 17 — practically owns Carnaby Street,” reported the American journalist John Crosby in the Evening Telegraph in 1965. “ ‘England leads the world in young people’s fashions both female and male,’ says young Stephen in his rolling Glasgow burr . “Buyers from American department stores come here and are absolutely astounded at what is happening. Why — they say — is this happening here and not in America?’ ”
John Stephen had an unquenchable ambition and a sharp business sense. He knew outlandish clothes could sell — and for a good price — but he knew also how to make them faster and cheaper, and never to let anything remain in the window for too long. More importantly, he knew that such clothes would not be seen as “camp” or “queer” for much longer.
The explosion of Carnaby Street was pivotal to Swinging London and the new youth tribes that sprang from the end of postwar austerity. In the early years, the burgeoning street was claimed by the Mods, who sought sharp Italian suits and shoes. The impact of the fashion was such that even the Daily Mail ran a series entitled “How to Look Mod” in 1963.
By 1970 the British high street had absorbed his revolution, leaving only tourists in the former Carnaby Street fashion Mecca. Sensing the change, Stephen had ventured into wholesale, opening a factory with almost 100 employees in Glasgow.
In recognition of John Stephen’s achievements a blue plaque has been placed in his name at 1 Carnaby Street, close to the site of his first shop, His Clothes. His other outlets were Mod Male and Male West One, all frequented by the era’s leading pop stars, models and actors.