Tag Archives: old compton street



Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan

“…many of the distinctive fabrics used were originally developed and created by the company; these continue to be used for our designs today.”

Among the maze of Soho’s historic streets it’s hard to single out one that could be termed the area’s epicentre: would it be Carnaby Street? Brewer Street, perhaps? Wardour Street has a good claim. But arguably Old Compton Street remains the quintessential heart of the neighbourhood; and in the past few years the street has become home to a welcome new addition bringing yet another layer of history and a unique heritage to the area. Originating in Nottingham, Sunspel has been crafting its high quality garments from the world’s most luxurious fabrics for 160 years. I spoke to the company’s CEO, Nicholas Brooke, about Sunspel’s Midlands roots, pioneering approach and iconic boxer shorts.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, steam power had kick-started a period of enormous worldwide change. Born in 1822, Thomas Arthur Hill founded Sunspel in 1860. His father was a hosiery maker in Nottingham, and Thomas chose to follow in his paternal footsteps and enter the hosiery and lace trade. Hill found himself at the heart of one of the earliest manufacturing sectors to embrace the introduction of steam power – and he responded by becoming a fabric innovator, and one of the great early British industrialists. Opening a textile factory in Newdigate, Nottingham – which became the centre of British lacemaking – his vision was to create simple, everyday clothing from beautiful fabrics. It’s a philosophy that Sunspel continues to follow today. Hill’s use of lightweight and very fine cotton allowed him to pioneer the development of luxury undergarments as we know them today. In addition, some of the earliest garments produced at the Newdigate factory included some of the first T-shirts, tunics and undershirts ever made.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Sunspel had become one of the first British companies to export to the Far East, having built an extensive business across the British Empire. It was during this period that Sunspel came to develop its unique Sea Island cotton fabrics, sourced from the West Indies and used in its most luxurious products. “Sunspel became renowned for producing undergarments of exceptional quality,” says Nicholas. “Many of the distinctive fabrics used were originally developed and created by the company; these continue to be used for our designs today.”

Long established as a menswear label, Sunspel today is an authentic English heritage brand, making luxury wardrobe essentials for both men and women. Current CEO Nicholas Brooke became involved with the brand through a family connection, having been aware of Sunspel for some time and having a genuine admiration for the company’s heritage and history of innovation. When Nicholas and business partner Dominic Hazlehurst bought the company from existing owner Peter Hill, a relative of founder Thomas Hill, in 2005, it was important to them that the new owners would not close the existing factory, outsource the production or tamper with the fundamentals – but there was work to be done in bringing Sunspel into the 21st century. “The brand was not in great shape. We worked hard to bring it up to date. We had lots to work with: a great heritage, fantastic product and the potential for it to be restored to its former glory. It’s been wonderful to see how much the company has transformed and grown,” says Nicholas. “Cook pioneered the development of the T-shirt as we know it and also introduced the boxer short to Britain from the US in 1947,” he tells me. “The Sunspel boxer short was later immortalised in the 1985 Levi’s commercial with Nick Kamen, who was seen stripping down to his white Sunspel boxers. The brand has also come to develop a close association with cinema, working closely with costume designer Lindy Hemming to re-fit the Riviera polo shirt for Daniel Craig in Casino Royale (2006). It was an existing style, tailored to fit Daniel Craig – and the re-fitted version that he wore is the new standard for the polo. The brand has stayed true to its heritage, combining tradition and innovation to make exceptional quality, modern clothing for everyday wear.”

In 2012, Sunspel turned its eyes to Soho, opening at 40 Old Compton Street, on the site where the infamous Janus Bookstore once sold bespoke erotica. “Our next door neighbours are a vintage liquor store on one side and the original Patisserie Valerie on the other. Fine booze, fine pastries and fine clothing – what more could you ask for?” says Nicholas. As with their Chiltern Street and Redchurch Street stores, each Sunspel branch is the result of a carefully thought out process. Nicholas cites the Old Compton Street store as a destination for the brand’s fans and a place to be discovered by new customers. “The store stands apart as one of the only clothing stores on the street, and definitely the only store offering British luxury wardrobe essentials for men and women. It’s a vibrant area and I think Sunspel fits nicely into the architecture of the street,” he says.

If fits, too, into the way the ever-changing area is evolving. “It’s a place of neon lights and night-time haunts, eccentric characters and exotic entertainments,” says Nicholas. “Traditionally, Soho was known for its less salubrious offerings and over the years Old Compton Street has gone from a down-at-heel, seedy street to a more up-and-coming destination with a great mix of entertainment, food and stores. Albeit a bit more polished these days, I think it’s still an incredibly exciting area.” The Soho store is now established as an important and successful part of the brand, catering to a wide cross-section of Sunspel’s customer base. Nicholas feels that it has become an integral part of the fabric of the street and the wider neighbourhood. Having recently opened stores in Berlin’s fashionable Mitte district and in Omotesando, Tokyo, Sunspel is looking carefully at other store locations for the future, but Old Compton Street looks set to remain a major London home for the growing brand.

Algerian Coffee Stores

Algerian Coffee Stores

Words Ezra Axelrod

Photography Manu Zafra

“If you ripped out the original fixtures, made it nice and shiny, you could say it’s from 1887, but where’s the charm in that?”

For the past 128 years, something has been brewing at 52 Old Compton Street. The seductive aroma drifts into the street and grabs creatives as they hurry to work. It stops wide-eyed tourists in their tracks. It shakes the upstairs neighbours awake. Its strength lures them through the small red door and into a temple devoted to a small brown bean. Welcome to the Algerian Coffee Stores.

On a street where institutions boldly mark their territory – and the fleeting and fashionable cling for survival – the Algerian Coffee Stores firmly stands its ground, with a flock of faithful customers and new converts cramming into the cosy shop to stock up on their favourite roasts. Originally opened in 1887 by an Algerian merchant named Mr Hassan, and passing through various hands over the decades, the shop has spent the past 43 years under owner, Paul Crocetta, and his family. The Crocettas have preserved much of the original décor, including hardwood counters and bright red shelves packed with hundreds of coffees (and teas) from every corner of the world. “If you ripped out the original fixtures, made it nice and shiny, you could say it’s from 1887, but where’s the charm in that?” Paul’s daughter Marisa, who helps run the shop, asks.

Marisa says that the shop takes its heritage very seriously, and their customers are equally serious in their relationship to the drink. “People are very into coffee: they want to know about what they’re buying and how to make it right.” Today, coffee is one of the world’s top three preferred beverages next to water and tea, powering our global quest for improved cognition and enhanced energy. Our love affair with the drink is ancient: the coffee tree is native to Ethiopia and Sufi mystics were spreading the miracle beans and their murky brew throughout the Middle East as early as the 13th century. If today coffee consumption feels like a religious rite, that’s probably because traditionally these mystics drank to achieve a heightened state of alertness while chanting prayers.

The Algerian Coffee Stores benefits from its prime location at the heart of London’s most influential neighbourhood, and it’s safe to say that the shop has been instrumental in fuelling Britain’s conversion to coffee. In the shop, the lively international staff are eager to instruct coffee enthusiasts on the ideal caffeine fix or the perfect flavour for a brew. “If you want the full effects of a high caffeine content,” explains Marisa, “it’s best to go with the Indonesian Sulawesi Kalossi, Brazilian Bourbon, or Bolivian High Roast.” But Marisa points out that the classic “jolt” associated with coffee can be psychological, a response to an intense flavour, and recommends customers experiment with their preferred roast, whether it be an earthy, edgy Costa Rican, a smooth Colombian, or something in-between.

Being surrounded by coffee all day, you might wonder if the staff have grown tired of drinking the beverage. “We still like coffee,” says Marisa, “and we’ll drink it throughout the day, maybe five or six cups, depends on the day.” And what about the aroma that entices so many passers-by, can the staff still feel it? “In the morning you smell it, but as the day goes on, you stop being aware of it. The other day, I had changed my clothes and was on the train home, but suddenly I smelled coffee everywhere. I realised it had worked its way into my skin!”

Some coffee drinkers might be looking for an alternative (it’s okay, we’ve all been there.) Priding itself on being au fait with global warm beverage traditions and cults, the Algerian Coffee Stores has a whole shelf devoted to the Argentinian tea and national pastime, yerba mate. Toted as having even more kick than coffee but without the jitters, yerba mate is intensely bitter and not for the faint hearted. It’s prepared by stuffing a gourd (simply called ‘the mate’ in Spanish) with the loose-leaf tea, pouring in hot water, and drinking through a metal straw called a bombilla. The tea comes with a cultural mandate to drink in a communal setting, passing the gourd around a circle of friends, new acquaintances or even strangers.

This is the charm of the Algerian Coffee Stores: browsing its shelves is an adventure into so many traditions and far-flung corners of the world, a reminder of places we’ve lived or visited, and the moments we shared over a cup of our favourite roast. Beyond the beans and the tea leaves, shelves are adorned with the most appropriate array of sweet accompaniments, from panforte to Turkish delights to marzipan biscuits. While many of the treats are provided by specialist vendors, Marisa says that sometimes it’s a sweet memory that brings an item into the shop: “I remember years ago in France, I had these amazing cognac-soaked, marzipan and chocolate-coated raisins, and I’ve been searching for them since. I finally found them, they are the François Doucet chocolates here,” she explains, pointing to the colourful packets next to the till. It is in this way that the Corcetta family has succeeded in carrying on the tradition of one of Soho’s treasures, while bringing to it a personal, familiar touch that inspires customers to be passionate coffee connoisseurs.

Over the centuries, from the Sufi mystics bringing coffee from Ethopia to Mr Hassan bringing it to the streets of Soho, this bitter bean has enchanted humans. And if the continued increase in business at the Algerian Coffee Stores is any indication, the temple to coffee on Old Compton Street is here to stay.