Swinging down the King’s Road, Chelsea. Part two
King’s Road or Kings Road? I go for the apostrophe; it was originally ‘The King’s Private Road’, literally. King Charles II had it built for his own purposes to allow him to travel between London and Kew.
Mary Quant opened her boutique on King’s Road in 1955 when young people were beginning to demand their own fashions. Property prices shot up as it became the boutique centre of London; gentrification set in, squeezing out the bohemian artists and writers. By the late 1960s, King’s Road became the place to be seen and its regular customers were the new celebrities of swinging London.
Many boutiques sold clothes designed and made by the shop owners, similar to established fashion houses. Prices (still in guineas) were out of the reach of many people, especially students on a grant. My student colleagues at Chelsea College showed very little interest and I would walk alone past the colours and noise of the boutiques. King’s Road, however, had competition; Carnaby Street and Portobello Road were becoming even more lively and cheaper.
I was introduced to Carnaby Street by a young woman I met in a café one day. It was just a friendly encounter as we both tried to find somewhere to sit. She was shopping in King’s Road but said she didn’t like it because the shops were too snooty. She was about 19 and dressed in the short-skirted fashion that identified her as a ‘dolly bird’ in the sexist slang of the time. I had finally met my first real Londoner, complete with East End accent. She called herself Debs.
This was not a pick-up ruse. She told me about her boyfriend, Courtney, and I told her why I was in Chelsea. She promised to take me to Carnaby Street which she said was much more fun. A few days later we went there and she showed me the brasher, less pretentious boutiques. She headed straight for Aristos boutique and went upstairs saying she knew the owner. Aristos Constantinou was sitting cross-legged in traditional tailor pose sewing the finishing touches to an orange mini-dress. We sat in the shop, drinking instant coffee and deafened by the pop music coming through the speakers. Despite, or perhaps because of, the noise, there was a steady stream of customers.
It was certainly more fun than Chelsea. The clothes were more affordable, made in the tailors’ workshops and sweatshops of the East End and Finsbury Park. This was where their customers came from too, rather than the well-heeled corners of Knightsbridge and Sloane Square. They developed their own fashions, including military jackets, trouser suits for women and patterned suits for men.
Aristos Constantinou became known as ‘the power of Carnaby Street’. He later joined up with his brother, Achilleas, and set up Ariella Fashions which supplied department stores and boutiques. The new fashions spread across the country at prices anyone could afford. And if you couldn’t get to a boutique, you could order fashion by post from Biba and many other mail order companies. The ‘rag trade’ expanded with old and new companies opening boutiques. A well-established fashion chain called Lewis Separates, selling women’s skirts, blouses and cardigans, opened a shop on King’s Road selling the new styles, renamed it Chelsea Girl; it became the first nationwide chain of boutiques.
Even then, I couldn’t afford the clothes. My mother offered to make me a dressing gown which she did after I had described the kaftan style and paisley pattern I wanted. I would wear it as a shirt but it still looked like a dressing gown.
I met Debs and her boyfriend a couple of times when we might go to a club such as the 100 Club. Once, she even arranged a blind date but there was nothing I could say to Sandra, a bouffanted, powdered trendsetter and she wasn’t impressed by me as a hairy scruffy student. I realised that I was out of place and let Debs and company drift away.
But, I had a taste of trendy London and it was pleasant. I was still alone but if I was lonely I did not feel it at the time.
 A ‘guinea’ was 21 shillings. A pound (£) was 20 shillings. This was a ruse to make prices look less than they were and was commonly used for fashion and high value items. The practice fell out of use with metrication in 1971 to be replaced by prices ending in 99p.
 I never really got on with much of the slang of the 1960s such as ‘fab’, ‘groovy’ or calling everyone ‘man’.
 Aristos Constantinou became very rich and moved to Bishop’s Avenue, Hampstead commonly referred to as Millionaire’s Row. By coincidence, I lived near his factory in Wood Green in 1985 when I heard that he had been shot dead in unconfirmed circumstances. Despite hanging round these parts of London I never met anyone else who could be described as a ‘celebrity’.
Aristos in the late 1960s, with his brother and his Carnaby Street shop
© Derek Perry 2017
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