Words Martin Copland-Gray
Photography Manu Zafra
“I think Soho will retain its character in small pockets, it has survived and evolved for so many years, it will be impossible to eradicate completely.”
It’s easy to forget that, amongst the brands, super brands and chains that line Carnaby Street and the surrounding avenues of Newburgh, Kingly et al. this area was once a quiet backwater off Regent Street that attracted little attention to many. But, in 1958 when John Stephen opened the boutique, His Clothes, on Carnaby Street and began the tendency for youth orientated stores playing loud pop music, with brightly coloured window displays and young staff, he opened the flood gates to a trend that is still going strong to this very day.
Take the few steps off the main parade, turn onto Kingly Street and you’ll come across a men’s and ladies fashion store called OTHER/Shop, a name that could quite easily sit comfortably back in the swinging ‘60s heyday, with stores such as Kleptomania and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet.
Speaking to Matthew Murphy of OTHER/Shop, who have been in their current premises for nearly 4 years, it seems that things are changing just as quickly as they did back in the day – for the store, the dramatic changes in such a short period have been astonishing, not just on Kingly Street but the whole of Soho. “It has retained its heart of being the centre of London and birth place of so many iconic London caricatures, but there is now a new wave of energy from a resurgence of independent stores, galleries, and an explosion of great quality/value restaurants,” he explains.
The Fashion world is notoriously fickle and I am curious to know from Matthew what sets them apart from the local competition. As he says of the area, “The great thing about Kingly Street is that it exists as an island and, although linked to the Carnaby area, has an independent feel. With Liberty, a pillar of independence, anchoring one end of the street and Sadie Coles, one of London’s most successful contemporary art galleries, at the opposite end, it almost feels like an oasis alongside the busy Carnaby Street,” the difference is having the time to talk to customers and offering a personal service. Matthew agrees that “this approach builds our community. We stand by our vision of independence and for as long as we can, offer an alternative view of retail in general within a busy thoroughfare.”
Tempting those die hard customers away from the perceived safety of the big brands towards something more individual can be difficult but, according to Matthew, it would appear that OTHER/Shop has gained and continues to attract a healthy client base that is a hugely mixed demographic of all ages and types. “We obviously see a good amount of visitors who are transient, but we do tend to see the same customers every time they visit the city. We have a lot of people from the arts and creatives, but we also have a lot of customers that like to be a little more individual, I believe this is the common link between all of our customers,” he says.
As an independent store with their own label, but also stocking key fashion brands, I wonder whether they keep an eye on trends or see it more as setting them themselves. Matthew is keen to point out that they are not advocates of ‘trends’ but that they “believe in taste and style, which generally comes from timeless pieces, which is not to say that our selection of product is by any means ‘classic’ but, if it is not a seasonal trend it becomes a wardrobe staple which evolves.” It’s good to hear that OTHER/Shop want their customers to be inspired and then ‘love’ the items they purchase. “We feel in this way, we will be their first choice destination when looking for something new.”
In this age of disposable fashion, it is comforting to hear a brand talk up the importance of wardrobe staples and not just items destined for the charity shop after a few wears. This is something that is of importance to OTHER/Shop who are conscious of not adding to the issues the world currently has with sustainability. “We try to combat this with communicating the benefit of investment purchases, not trend items that are discarded within weeks of purchasing and end up in more landfill: the counter to the throw-away high street approach. With our own brand we work with UK manufacturers and fabric suppliers both for efficiency and not to add air miles to our carbon footprint,” Matthew says.
As you walk around the light and well laid out store, you get the impression that the collection could almost have been curated rather than merchandised. Matthew is keen to impress on me how the brands are selected for the store. The focus is to only add something that they feel is missing from the existing collection, whether it is the style of a brand or product, or simply because it excites them and hopefully their customers too. As he says, “There is such a huge pool of talented designers and brands that it gets harder each season to stay focused but, as the main focus of the store is our own brand, we can only carry a certain amount of additional brands”.
And, when it comes to their own brand, they approach it very meticulously. Matthew says, “Myself, Kirk and our women’s designer, Loukia, start every new collection with a mood board meeting, discussing our inspirations, feel for the season, and then previous season performance. Our collection evolves based on key signatures; it is not a conceptual, catwalk collection but an expansion on creating modern, wearable clothes that compliment key pieces.” Interestingly, this evolves from season to season. “Our silhouettes mutate and the fabric selection changes with both seasonality and the inspiration for the collection, but the process always starts with how we develop our ‘signature styles’ to retain their desirability,” he says.
The face of Soho is changing, and perhaps not for the better, but OTHER/Shop are prepared for the worse, but will they be here in a few years’ time? Matthew hopes they will, but concedes that sadly the area may become too rich to support a business like theirs. One can hope that a store like OTHER/Shop will continue to retain their identity, their commitment to their customers both old and new and that they will remain a strong presence in the area for some time to come. After all, why would you choose to have the soulless experience of battling the hoards on Oxford Street when something as well thought out and fashion forward as OTHER/Shop is waiting to service all your fashion needs on the relative calm of Kingly Street?