Mark Powell

Mark Powell

Words Martin Copland-Gray

Portraits Sandra Vijandi

I still think Soho is very much about the people and that’s what I want to celebrate…”

He straightens his tie, eyes me across the desk, where I sit pondering my first question, and says, “I’m in a bad mood today.” Then there’s a twinkle in the eye, the flash of a smile and he says, “No, I’m alright actually.” If ever there was a thing called Soho charm that was it.

Mark Powell is probably as Soho as you can get. Born in London but brought up in Romford, Essex, he has become one of the characters that this famous area can be proud of. “My mum, she worked in the theatre and I think that was some of the reason why I do what I do. She used to work for Charles Fox who became famous for their make-up, but they were costumiers. She’d walk me round Soho, go to Carnaby Street and I was fascinated by all the shops.”

So how did he become the man who has appeared on the pages of Esquire & GQ and dressed celebrities from George Michael to Naomi Campbell – “I was into fashion from a very young age. I got my first pair of Levis when I was six or seven years old. I was a first generation Soul boy, always individual, always into style, followed the crowd early on but then started to think outside the box. To realise the power of dress, how significant that could be with giving you credibility, giving you a better reputation in certain ways. Course I was a West-Ham fan and we were far more stylish than the other clubs. When we were growing up in the ‘70s there was still very much that working class ethic of trying to be individuals and stand out from the crowd because you were from a quite humble, ordinary background. But it was the power of dress.”

After starting out at gentleman’s outfitters, Washington Tremlett on Conduit Street, Mark opened his first store on Archer Street in 1985.  Initially selling vintage suits from the ‘40s onwards, he developed his own style and, as he says of those days, “The early Mark Powell look which defined what I do was the Edwardian style. Back then I was doing Covert coats as suits, maybe in velvet or a Prince of Wales check. Also, the Gangster thing, when Lock Stock happened I couldn’t bare it – it all became a bit of a parody. I think the key thing is taking elements of street style, embracing the Savile Row thing and then updating the look.  Tailoring is the way for a guy to express his own individual style.”

So what of his link to the Krays and his own, albeit brief, spell inside – “A mate of mine was very connected in the underworld, he knew Ronnie Kray. We thought at the time it would be a good move because they were about to do that film The Krays. So the measurements were sent by Ron, I sent the suit and then I went to visit him in Broadmoor, and that was in 1988. I was only inside for a driving offence and it was a doddle, especially when you know you’re going to be out in a few weeks. It was a stupid thing that happened when I was an arrogant young man.”

Leaving this period of his life behind him, Mark has now expanded his business with a Read-to-Wear collection, and is soon to introduce an Online Shop. He remains an inspiration to such gentlemen as Paul Weller, Bradley Wiggins & Martin Freeman – “I think someone like Martin does that thing of looking Modern & Contemporary very well. He doesn’t look all Mod but you can see he takes his influences from the whole Mod ethic and he’s got great style. Martin became a customer six/seven years ago and in fact, even though we have done maybe three or four bespoke suits, he’s still very much a ready to wear client. He loves coming in, picking up a suit and then we do the adjustments on it.”

“Bradley then heard me on the Modcast, came in and thank god for Bradley because he’s been an amazing client. I think he looks great, very stylish. Weller somehow pulls it off just because it’s Paul Weller maybe. But when you get the older guys try and copy Paul they look a bit of a joke. The whole thing about a guy being a Mod was they were always moving on and evolving.”

So what does he think of the gentrification of the Soho he has come to know and love? “I was a bit pissed off at first, but this is the way of the world now and unfortunately it is the corporate world. Soho’s secret ingredient was always having wonderful independent, family run businesses. There’re characters & faces that have been born and are still living in Soho ‘cos there is a lot of social housing – people forget that. I know everybody round here, I always have done. I knew Paul Raymond, I used to know all the dodgy landlords, the gangsters, the beggars on the street & the hustlers in all the alleyways, and I’ve made a point of being friendly to everybody. But I know how it works. There’s nothing you can do, all the demonstrating is not going to change it. I still think Soho is very much about the people and that’s what I want to celebrate.”

Given his status as an icon on the streets of Soho is there still some of the hell-raiser of days gone by in his own character now? – “God you’ve done some good research! That was years ago! Of course I still like to enjoy life, you just mellow out don’t you? Some of the stuff that I’ve done and did would be legendary. I’ve been toying about doing a book for about ten years now. I’ve just decided not to do it because it’d be too controversial really.”

The smile and the twinkle have returned and, as we wind up, I ask him what he’d like his legacy to be. “I’d like to be remembered as a very pioneering and passionate person with regard to my style and what I do and also being a quite eclectic & important part of what Soho is because I’ve been involved in every layer of it, whether it be as an artisan, or on the dodgy side, or in the club world, ‘cause I had a nightclub round here at one point. Did you know that? It was the first Easy Listening nightclub in London. What was it called? Violet’s… after Ron & Reggie’s Mum!”

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