King of Carnaby Street

Jeremy Reed

John Stephen first came to London in 1952 at just eighteen years old, but his expertise and unerring eye for cut and detail propelled him to the front of the fashion brigade. His iconoclastic clothes became compulsory among young ‘mods’ and popstars such as the Beatles, the Bee Gees and the Kinks, while his shops turned Carnaby Street from a quiet back-alley to the most fashionable street in the world. Stephen was not alone; on Kings Road in Chelsea, his friend Mary Quant offered the same escape for young women with her own take on modern fashion.

His great creative and commercial success was, however, not without its price. Like other gay men of his day, he was forced to hide his sexuality, posing with pretend girlfriends in teen magazines to preserve his ‘eligible bachelor’ front. More dangerously, his bouts of manic depression were exacerbated by the drug scene of the day, where speed in the form of ‘purple hearts’ fuelled all-night long raves. Stephen’s brush with death in 1966 after taking a massive overdose showed him to be akin to so many of the seminal figures of the ‘swinging sixties’; as the decade burnt out, so did their careers and in some cases, even their lives.

JEREMY REED is a well-known poet and biographer. He has published over thirty books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, including biographies of Lou Reed, Marc Almond and Anna Kavan. Among the prizes he has won are the National Poetry Competition, the Eric Gregory Award, and the Somerset Maugham Award.

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