A fascinating insight into the creation of Mr Freedom in Kensington – the most innovative boutique in rock fashion history – is afforded by a folio featured in Paul Reeves’ forthcoming The Best of British Design at Sotheby’s, which also includes contributions from Jimmy Page and Gary Kemp.
Created by interiors architect Jon Wealleans, the working drawings – which date from late 1970 – are populated with designs for giant chrome coat hangers (on which were positioned regular size wire coat hangers), a large set of upholstered false teeth which opened into an armchair, interlocking seats shaped as jigsaw puzzle pieces which interlocked as seats, winged shoes designed by Jim O’Connor and Pamla Motown which were worn by Elton John and are now part of the V&A permanent collection, and a huge fibre glass Statue Of Liberty light fitting made by John Dove.
With seats and cushions in the shapes of over-sized Licorice Allsorts, there was much, much more besides – including the bordering-on-insane companion restaurant Mr Feed’em in the basement which featured food dyed in unusual colours: green mashed potatoes with mauve sausages and orange ketchup, anybody?
The folio, which has a reserve of £5,000-£8,000, also underlines the headline-grabbing ambition and sheer chutzpah of Mr Freedom’s brilliant boss Tommy Roberts, his partner Trevor Myles and backer John Paul of I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet.
Roberts and Myles had spent the previous18 months turning British fashion away from hippie in favour of a pop-art aesthetic at 430 King’s Road, emphasising playfulness and Americana with repeated Disney prints, stars and glitter on colourful dungarees, knitwear, tees and separates. They had also assembled around them the cream of young British design talent, including Motown and O’Connor, Diane Crawshaw and Dinah Adams, the Doves and others, with custom from Mick Jagger, Elton John, Twiggy and Peter Sellers.
Then the opportunity came to take over the entirety of 20 Kensington Church Street, a dilapidated building containing four floors and a basement next door to Dino’s coffee bar in the west London neighbourhood.
As Roberts notes in THE LOOK, their imaginations went into overdrive at this point (the fit out cost a then-staggering £35,000).
“It was totally different, like comic land,” he says. “The bones of the idea had been in Chelsea so we just worked them up because I had a bigger canvas. I had wonderful Catholic bikers’ jackets with the saints embroidered into the leather on the front and St Francis Of Assissi on the back, a rock & roll suit with semi-quavers stitched all over it. Real mad ideas.”And Wealleans was the perfect choice to realise the dream, having studied architecture and worked in the offices of Building Design Partnership with Norman Foster and Max Glendinning before spending three years in America.
“I’d written a thesis called Dolce Vita Design & The Super Sensualists; the big three were Ettorre Sottsass (who died last month), Joe Colombo and the architectural group Archizoom,” he says. “This Italian influence colliding with Captain Marvel was to provide the prevailing aesthetic for Mr Freedom.”
Wealleans’ wife Jane had already designed for Roberts, whose influence on British retailing isn’t to be underestimated. “It was always the intention that Mr Freedom would offer a whole range of merchandise including furniture, so it effectively became the first ‘lifestyle’ fashion shop, thanks entirely to the foresight and vision of Tommy Roberts,” confirms Wealleans.
“The idea was quickly emulated by Biba and, among others, Fiorucci.My role was to design the environment and provide a high-speed production range of objects and furniture, often working alongside the fashion designers who occupied a chaotic rabbit warren of rooms above the main shop area.
“Cost control was a neglected issue. Practical and management issues were entirely overlooked. The shop was an immediate and enormous success and we quickly followed it up with Mr Feed’em.”
Mr Feed’em waiters wore US gas-station boiler suits and the waitresses sported hamburger-printed mini skirts and 40s head scarves. Fake flies featured in the soup, while cakes were baked in the shape of pairs of Levi’s. The napkins depicted Mae West as the Statue Of Liberty.
The walls of the shop were decorated by Mediocre Murals (Les Coleman and Jeff Edwards), George Hardie of Nicholas Thirkell Associates was the principal graphic designer, and a steady stream of ideas came from Roberts himself.
“Tommy’s boardroom table was a pinball machine. As a fashion statement, Mr Freedom provided an interesting punctuation mark between the demise of the Hippie/Dandy look exemplified by Hung On You and Granny Takes A Trip and the emergence of Glam Rock/Androgynous.”
Yet the shop lasted just over a year; Myles exited quickly and moved back to 430 King’s Road to open Paradise Garage (which was later taken over by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood) and Roberts was forced to call in the receivers in March 1972; the cost of running a factory in south London proved too much.
Undaunted, he continued pioneering, becoming the first fashion retailer to open in Covent Garden with his shop City Lights Studio where he served customers such as David Bowie with the suit he wears on the back cover of Pin-Ups.
“The increased use of glitter, sequins and fake fur effectively morphed Mr Freedom into glam rock,” says Wealleans, who believes City Lights “entirely and prematurely predicted punk fashion”.
Given the drab nature of contemporary fashion retailing in most Western cities – in THE LOOK’s opinion only a handful of stores, such as Pokit , Shop At Maison Bertaux and Colette, are carrying the torch – the very idea of Mr Freedom seems extraordinary.Still, as Wealleans says: “There were giants in those days.”
Tommy Roberts has remained at the cultural cutting-edge since City Lights Studio; his shops Practical Styling and Tom-Tom were era-defining in the 70s, 80s and 90s and though largely retired he can still sometimes be found at Two Columbia Road, which is run by son Keith.
Among Trevor Myles’ current activities is the reinvention of the Johnsons’ label LaRocka! as a t-shirt brand.
The Best Of British Design exhibition is from March 14-20 with the sale on the final day.