London Fashion Week is upping sticks from Somerset House to Soho. Although only one mile separates the two spots, they couldn’t be more different.
Both places have had pretty incredible histories. Somerset House was built as a palace for a 16th century nobleman. Elizabeth 1st lived there while she was waiting to be queen. Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state there in 1658. In more recent centuries it has been home to many learned societies, such as the Royal Academy and the Royal Society. King’s College London is attached on the East and the Courtauld Insitute of Art is located has been located there since 1989. It was also home to less inspiring institutions, like HM Revenue & Customs, for many years.
London Fashion week had been held there since February 2009, but now is moving a little distance to Brewer Street Car Park in legendary Soho.
While Somerset House was housing aristocracy, royalty, learned societies and government offices, Soho has had a decidedly seedier history.
In the early 17th century, some aristocracy moved into Soho, chiefly around Soho Square and Gerrard Street. Soon, though, the area was flooded with immigrants. French Huguenots poured in, and the area got to be known as the French quarter. Indeed, it is still home to the legendary French House, a pub and restaurant that has been frequented by some of Soho’s greatest rogues.
With all the riff raff moving in the aristocracy promptly left. By the middle of the 19th century Soho was filled with music halls, small theatres, brothels and licensed establishments. It’s population was poets, prostitutes, political dissidents and revolutionaries, including Karl Marx and Arthur Rimbaud.
This tradition carried on into the 20th century. Drunken writers, actors, poets and artists packed the pubs every night. Most didn’t stay sober long enough to become greats, but some did, including Francis Bacon, Peter O’Toole and Dylan Thomas.
Soho was also probably the first place in the country to be friendly to the gay community, possibly because of its outsider population. Soho is still home to many legendary gay bars and clubs, and hosts the annual Gay Pride parade.
Soho also has a pretty serious fashion pedigree. The Mods began in Soho, the sharp-suited lovers of modern jazz, who incorporated Caribbean and Scottish influences into their (hugely influential) sartorial style. The Mods signified that London was a hub for fashion, music and entertainment and Soho was its beating heart.
Later on the New Romantics moved in. Part of an ever more theatrical club scene, they dressed in extravagant and androgynous outfits and were often, like the Mods, fuelled by amphetamines. Counted among their ranks were such fashion influencers as John Galliano and Boy George, as well as the late, great Leigh Bowery.
In the last 20 years Soho has become a little more gentrified. A lot of great and historic venues have closed, while major movie studios have opened. Trendy restaurants and elite private clubs are now Soho’s stock in trade.
But despite the closures and the expense the spirit of Soho lives on. Soho is home to both rich and poor. There are still great pubs, theatres, sex shops and gay clubs, as well as some of the capital’s best independent stores. The Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street opened its doors in 1887 and is still selling a mind-bending selection of excellent coffee beans and tea leaves. Lina Stores was established in the 1940’s and remains one of the best Italian delis in London.
Brewer Street Car Park itself is an art deco building from 1929 that is fast becoming one of the most creative locations in Soho. Richard Mosse, Robert Storey and Dinos Chapman have all shown work there and last season it played host to the International Fashion Showcase, run by the BFC.
Just yesterday we were in Soho hunting for samples among Berwick Street’s great fabric suppliers. BFC chief executive Caroline Rush said this was a big part of the move. So many designers, students and people in the industry have a real emotional connection to the area from their days of hunting for fabrics and also, maybe, sampling some of the bars too.
Soho is fine with us.