Saturday, 22 September 2012

Mr Freedom Tommy Roberts:British Design Hero by Paul Gorman - Book Review

There have been numerous books written on the subject of fashion from the 1960s and 1970s, but every now and then, a brand new one appears on the horizon and I instinctively know that it will become an instant favourite...which leads me to believe that perhaps sometimes you can actually judge a book by its cover!  So a couple of months ago I reserved a special place on the Sweet Jane bookshelf as I awaited the arrival of Mr Freedom - Tommy Roberts: British Design Hero by Paul Gorman. I have been following the progress of this book for the past year or so and enjoying all of the updates via twitter and The Look's blog, there have also been some very entertaining promotional radio interviews with Tommy Roberts in recent times too prior to its publication. He truly is a British Design Hero and one that seems to have been totally overlooked until now for some reason, which amazes me! Especially when contemplating the iconic visual impact that his many contributions have made on the collective consciousness regarding popular culture from those particular eras.


Thanks to author Paul Gorman, this oversight has now been put to right and Tommy Roberts has finally been given the credit and acknowledgment that he deserves. The book itself is wealth of knowledge, thoroughly researched, brilliantly written and evidently a labour of love! Every page is an inspiration, as it tells Roberts' story from his childhood, through to his early modernist years spent in Soho jazz clubs and coffee bars before moving on to the opening of Kleptomania in 1966, which was to be the first of several highly successful and innovative forays into world of retail and design. The pinnacle of these ventures being Mr. Freedom, the boutique which Roberts and his partner Trevor Myles launched in late 1969 as the decade descended into a sartorially drab decline. Taking inspiration from the William Klein movie released earlier the same year, the emerging fashion label lived up to the superhero connotations that its name suggested, exploding onto the high street with an infectious vibrancy that essentially pumped new life back into the flagging fashion scene and carried it safely over the threshold  from '69 into 1970. 


According to Roberts, sales got off to somewhat of a slow start but business eventually picked up via a very favourable double-page spread in the Sunday Times by influential fashion editor Molly Parkin. The new shop at 430 king's road, which had been completely refurbished in pop art style by the Electric Colour Company, soon became a mecca for visiting celebrities. On a typical day you could wander in to find the likes of Peter Sellers, Twiggy, Mick Jagger, Paloma Picasso, David Bailey and Marc & June Bolan, all shopping or hanging out, while Tommy and Pamela Motown (one of the Mr Freedom design team) jived around the clothes racks to the sound of their favourite album of surf hits, Cruising '61. As popularity grew, demand rapidly increased, everyone wanted a slice of the Mr Freedom action, Barbra streisand and Cher both purchased an entire rail of merchandise each! And when they decided to remarry, Liz Taylor commissioned the shop to  make a vest with Richard Burton's face appliquéd onto it and one for Richard with hers...people were flying in from the continent just to purchase the signature Mr Freedom star design T-shirts!


In a little over a year of opening they had relocated to a much larger three story premises at 20 Kensington Church Street. With extra space at their disposal, the characteristic Mr Freedom Pop Art decor now took on an even more elaborate progression of this design concept under the creative guidance of architect Jon Wealleans, its success was closely followed by the launch of an equally flamboyant themed restaurant called Mr Feed'em in the basement. The Mr Freedom moment was one of the most innovative and visually spectacular in British retail, and as they branched out into other areas of merchandise it became the first true lifestyle fashion shop. However, its existence was relatively short lived, by 1972 it was all over and Tommy Roberts was soon on to his next venture. He launched City Lights in Covent Garden, which was yet another groundbreaking boutique, patrons included Angie & David Bowie, Roxy Music and Jerry Hall. At one point in his illustrious career he also managed Kilburn and the High Roads-Ian Dury's art rock outfit, before eventually moving on to become one of the first purveyors of  high-tech/kitsch homewares and original art and design collectibles at his Practical Styling and Tom Tom outlets in the 1980s and 1990s. And in 2001, along with his son Keith, Roberts launched Two Columbia Road, specializing in a broad range of collectible furniture, associated design, works of art and photography.


Although I've never met Tommy Roberts, I have come away from this book with a great regard for him. He exemplifies British boutique culture at its best and is a man of many talents...visionary, pioneer and the ultimate shopkeeper. But I think his greatest attribute is his natural sense of entreprenuerialism, it has successfully led him from one business to another for the past fifty years. I admire his ability to make things happen, his knack of surrounding himself with a stellar cast of exceptionally creative contributors and co-conspirators along the way, far too many to name individually, who all equally played a part in translating his incredible vision into a tangible reality. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, book of the year for me so far! and one that I can see myself referring to for many years to come. Mr Freedom Tommy Roberts: British Design Hero by Paul Gorman is available to order directly from the publisher, here.


                                                         







A promo card from Kleptomania-Tommy Roberts' first boutique, which he opened in the summer of 1966 along with his wife Mary and partner Charlie Simpson. They initially tapped into the second-hand market, selling an eclectic mix of paraphernalia from bygone eras. On opening, the stock itinerary included Edwardian wind-up gramophones, Chinese opium pipes, 1920s candlestick telephones, old military uniforms, police capes and an assortment of Victorian oddments and curiosities such as What The Butler Saw Mutoscope machines and Penny Farthing bicycles. As the business progressed they began to introduce new stock from young and upcoming designers, meanwhile the customising of second-hand garments and the introduction of a line of kitsch slogan printed t-shirts and accessories gradually moved them towards the eventual manufacture of their own label.



                                 
                                       Postcard from Kleptomania, 22 Carnaby Street W1. 1968. 
                              



By 1967, they had fully embraced the first summer of love and Flower-Power with open arms, selling Kaftans, beads, bells and incense, followed by embroidered afghan coats, floppy-brimmed felt hats, crushed and panne velvet flared trousers, granny glasses and psychedelic goggles adapted with prism lenses to provide a trippy effect! Examples of which, can be seen in this Rave Magazine article, first published in october 1967.

Rave Magazine's in-house dandy decked out in flower-power finery from Kleptomania 1967
Like most ravers i'm all love and flowers this month. It's a great idea in itself, but I don't go much on some of the nastier things that have been associated with flower-power, like drug-taking. I got this complete hippy outfit from that great boutique, Kleptomania, at Kingly Street, London W.1. The loose green, cotton kaftan shirt costs £4 15s. and the white bell-bottom trousers, 50s. The trousers are available in a variety of colours for 55s. a pair. The bell bracelets costs 21s., the joss-sticks 2s.,the beads 7s. 6d. and 9s 11d., The posters are 7s., 9d. for the English* ones and 12s., 11d., for the American ones. All the above are available by post for 3s., extra. (You can read more about the posters mentioned in this article from Rave in one of my previous posts here.)



A Kleptomania boutique slogan, just one of the many hundreds of amazing archival images (both classic and previously unpublished) contained within the book.




Jimi Hendrix, London 1967, wearing a shirt by the label Sam Pig in Lovea new line of clothing introduced to the shop which became a Kleptomania staple, any discerning Rolling Stones fan will be able to tell you that Brian Jones also wore the very same style of shirt. Because, although Kleptomania's location in Kingly Street was off the main Carnaby Street shopping thoroughfare, it was ideally situated in close proximity to the Bag O' Nails club which was one of swinging London's most popular late-night establishments. Frequented by the top echelon of the new rock elite, it's clientele included The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience among others,who all became regular customers of the Kingly Street shop. According to Tommy, they'd spill out out of the club at three or four o'clock in the morning and spot something in the window that they liked, then send someone around to get it for them the following day.



The exterior of the first Mr Freedom outlet located at 430 King's Road, which previously operated as Michael Rainey's  Hung On You, before his departure from the premises in the summer of 1969, Roberts struck a deal with him to take over the shop lease for £1,200 with a weekly rent payment of £25 to the landlord. The shop refit was handled by the incredibly talented art collective known as the Electric Colour Company which consisted of four fine art students: Andrew Greaves, Jeffrey Pine, Rod Stokes and David Smith. The refurbishment took place over a period of a couple of weeks in july, the transformation created the perfect pop art environment for Roberts and Myles new venture. The shop sign displayed the 'Mr Freedom' name in red and black concertina lettering embracing the planet earth which was painted in blue and green against a yellow background. A flag bearing the comic strip profile of detective Dick Tracey in appliqué and plastic, rendered in the style of Andy Warhol's 1960 painting of the same image fluttered on a pole above, and on the ledge over the shop there was a 50% life size hollow resin sculpture of 1940s Western movie star Roy Rogers on the back of his rearing steed Trigger.




Mick Jagger wearing a Tommy Roberts/Trevor Myles designed T-shirt which he purchased as stagewear for the Stones fateful American tour of autumn 1969. This photograph is from their show at Madison Square Garden. The T-shirt was one of a series of twelve zodiac designs which Tommy and Trevor had created just prior to launching the Mr Freedom shop at 430 King's Road in august of the same year.



              The ground floor interior of the Mr Freedom shop at 20 Kensington Church Street , 1971.




David Bowie photographed by Mick Rock at a photo session for the cover of his 1973 Pin-Ups album in a suit designed and made by Derek Morton for City Lights Studio, which was Tommy Roberts third great adventure in retail. Tommy had launched City Lights in 1972 after the demise of Mr Freedom earlier that year, once more engaging the talents of Andrew Greaves and Jeffrey Pine from ECC for a spectacular refit. The new shop was yet again a complete departure from from the previous one in every way possible, all traces of the fun clothing and bright Pop Art aesthetic that had gone before were now eliminated in favour of an emphasis on maturity of design, which was realised by collections that were smart, sexy and noir-ish, set against the decadent proto-goth/industrialised environment of the secluded high concept Covent Garden outlet.





Absolutely fantastic footage from 1970 of the new Mr Freedom look in action, this clip features some of their most iconic designs..brightly coloured midi length jersey dresses, T-shirts and accessories decorated with Pop Art appliqué and Disney prints, satin hot pants, dungarees and over-sized baker boy caps. When Tommy Roberts and his partner Trevor Myles launched the Mr Freedom boutique at 430 King's Road, their mission statement declared that it would be "A total reversal of what was being worn on the street", and what was generally being worn on the streets in London as the 60s came to a close says Roberts 'was an agglomeration of dreary browns'...so I think this footage is definitely proof that they succeeded, the 1970s had 'arrived'.




The Pretty Things performing live in '71, drummer Skip Allen is wearing one of the first Mr Freedom star print long sleeved T-shirts (as seen on the cover of the Mr Freedom book). The star is printed in bright red against a green background with alternate trim detail around the neck and cuffs. The essence of this one simple but very effective design formed the basis upon which the entire Mr Freedom design aesthetic was built.




A great rendition of The Yardbirds' For Your Love performed here by Humble Pie in 1970, Peter Frampton is also wearing yet another variation of a Mr Freedom star design printed  T-shirt.




Marc Bolan, a regular customer, can be seen here (1:27) wearing a Mr Freedom mint green single-breasted fitted jacket with wide lapels, embellished with black sequin musical notes and diamante treble clef motifs. Marc wore the jacket several times throughout the filming of this 1972 Apple film 'Born To Boogie'. . Elton John also a regular at Mr Freedom, had decked himself out in clothes from the shop for his debut US appearance at LA's legendary Troubadour club in august 1970, the outfit consisted of velvet dungarees, a baker boy cap and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase 'Rock and Roll'. (The velvet suit that Marc is wearing at the beginning of the video is by Granny Takes a Trip.)


                                          Photo Credits, Further Reading & Links
Mr Freedom book cover, Kleptomania promo card, Johnny Rave/Rave magazine article, kleptomania boutique slogan, Jimi Hendrix, Mr Freedom shop interior/exterior and David Bowie images - all scanned by Sweet Jane from Mr Freedom Tommy Roberts: British Design Hero by Paul Gorman, published by Adelita.

Mick Jagger, Madison Square Garden, photograph scanned from The Rolling Stones by Jeremy Pascall & Rob Burt, published by  Hamlyn.

Recommended reading by the same author; The Look-Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion by Paul Gorman, published by Adelita.

A very entertaining BBC Radio 4 interview with Tommy Roberts from june 2012 which you can listen to via the BBC iplayer here.

Spend 5 minutes with Jon Wealleans (Mr Freedom's interior architect) and view some of the amazing Mr Freedom furniture designs. here

Two Columbia Road-20th Century Art , Furnitiure & Design Collectibles. Here

The Electric Colour Company website and ECC Facebook page.

Visit the website of Jim O'Connor, designer of the incredible winged boots on the cover and more here

4 comments:

  1. I never properly met the man, but exchanged several pleasant conversations with him in the mid-90's at his 60's & 70's homeware shop TomTom (near Denmark Street). Can't remember actually being able to afford to buy anything there. In fact the one thing I remember most was being about to but a little Italian ceramic lipstick stand when the actress Janine Duvitski beat me to it, having followed me round the shop buying everything else I'd taken an interest in.

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  2. Great post - I'm ordering the book straight away!

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  3. Wow, what a great post! So informative!! Your blog is always such a treasure trove of inspiration... adding this book to my wish list as well!

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