Mr Freedom: The greatest boutique ever, ever, ever?

mrfreedom-int1

//Interior, Mr Freedom, 20 Kensington Church Street, London W8, 1971. Photo: Rex.//

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.

mrfreedom-int2

//Interior, Mr Freedom, 20 Kensington Church Street, London W8, 1971. Photo: Rex.//

wealleanscomposite

//Working drawings + commission letter, 1970, Jon Wealleans.//

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.

mrfreedom-jukebox+hammer

//Left: At Mr Freedom Kensington, 1971. Rex. Right: Rebecca Ward in trompe de l'oeil outfit by the jukebox. Topham Picturepoint.//

mrfreedom-cuttings

//Media coverage of the shop opening, December 1970.//

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.”

mrfreedom-feedemdesign

//Design magazine feature on Mr Feed'Em, May 1971. Photos: Tim Street-Porter.//

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.

“The colour palette owed a lot to Tom Wesselman and there was more than a nod in the direction of Claes Oldenburg,” says Wealleans.

“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.

A consultant architect and designer, Jon Wealleans is an active artist represented by Francis Kyle Gallery and is occasionally mentioned by his friend Will Self.

Among Trevor Myles’ current activities is the reinvention of the Johnsons’ label LaRocka! as a t-shirt brand.

Until recently 20 Kensington Church Street was bar/nightclub Dunes; this month it took the name of its street address as part of a relaunch.

The Best Of British Design exhibition is from March 14-20 with the sale on the final day.

[...] ::THE LOOK – adventures in rock and pop fashion:: wrote an interesting post today on Mr Freedom: The greatest boutique ever, ever, ever?Here’s a quick excerptA 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 R… [...]

Rebecca Ward said,

July 10, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

Thats me age 14 modelling for Mr.Freedom. can you send me a better picture by email so I can print it…also maybe a credit.
Thanks. Rebecca Ward

Mrs Leone Evrenos said,

December 23, 2008 @ 10:26 pm

Hi,
I remember buying a fabulous Mr Freedom Blue long sleeved T-Shirt from the Kensington store, it had a Pink Satin star across the chest. When I wore it to the office I was working at in the early seventies I was nearly sent home! it was considered quite outrageous at the time!
Only wish I still had it, I cut the sleeves out and my then boyfriend wore it!
,
Ah! those were the days! Mrs Leone Evrenos

Tommy Roberts said,

September 19, 2009 @ 8:48 am

Heh seemed like good times. I’m Tommy’s third son named…Tommy. Looks like my dad had one hell of a time.

rockpopfashion said,

September 19, 2009 @ 11:03 am

Certainly does doesn’t Tommy? Glad to have you on board – I’m going to post another soon – got a great pic of yr Dad with Gerald, Trevor and John Paul…

diana crawshaw said,

October 7, 2009 @ 8:03 am

Chris Snow and I sat designing on the top floor opposite one another.

He on his sewing machine, creating the applique for all the clothes which made Freedom famous. I sat at an old school desk with an inkwell, drawing all day.

One day a load of velveteen trousers were sent up from the shop to have a foot and a half taken off the legs…for
Elton John. Another day, I was summoned downstairs to help a customer needing some alteration advice. Armed with pins and tape measure, I came face to face with Raquel Welch’s minder (face to navel actually) and was introduced to a surprisingly tiny Miss Welch, who needed two inches taken off the bottoms of some shorts.

I took them upstairs and chopped and stitched and sent them down to the waiting minder.

Paddy said,

December 7, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

Wow! To whoever posted the story, thank you so much! Talk about bringing back memories! And memories of a different world as well!

I was a fashion-obsessed teenage boy, aged 16-17, living in Newcastle, where the height of male fashion was still strictly mod – Ben Sherman shirt, Levi sta-prest and loafers. Which, you have to admit, is still a classic and long overdue a revival. But anyway…

I’d applied to go to Central London Polytechnic in Regent Street (now known as Westminster University) to do what was the only communication studies course in the entire country. To get on the course, you had to supply a “portfolio of creativity” – up to you what you put in it. One of the things I did was to take an old shoe , carefully paint it white, then spray coloured stars onto it through a stencil. That will sound familiar to people who remember Mr. Freedom, but I promise you it was a coincidence, or maybe an example of what Jung called ‘the collective unconscious’.

It turned out there was a postal strike (used to be a lot of strikes in those days) in the week when the portfolio was to be delivered, so with parental permission I hitch hiked (used to be a lot of hitch hiking too) to London and delivered it myself. I was overjoyed. It would mean I could visit the temples of Kensington Market, Anello & Davide, Biba and of course Mr. Freedom.

That pic at the top of this story is exactly how I remember it! And those primary colour Mickey Mouse shoes! And the lunchboxes! I had enough money to buy one of those Mr. Freedom T-shirts, the one with loads of black stars printed on them. I got mine on a brown background and nearly got it torn off my back a few times back in Newcastle.

Thanks again!

caz rioche said,

December 29, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

I worked in Mr Freedom in the Kings Road – where our Manager used to spend most of his time in the pub across the road! We had so many famous people visit the store.Bianca Jagger came in stripped stark naked and tried on some clothes in the middle of the shop. Charlie Watts came in and was a real nice guy – Yul Brynner came in and blew my mind and Tony Curtis came in and bought his wife a hat.Diana Ross and the Osmonds were customers – I loved working there , every day weas a blast as we could take anything from the rails and wear them in the shop – We changed our outfits every day, the cleaning bill was extortionate – we all had the most amazing time there. I still have a photo of myself, Mary standing outside the shop – me wearing a mans silk pin-stripe suit and a purple velvet hat and matching feather boa – It was Brilliant !

Tommy Roberts said,

March 21, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

I’ve told my dad too look at this, he loved it and thinks its very intresting ta very much :)

Tommy Roberts said,

March 21, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

Oh and sorry for the wait! hehe, GCSE’s and all :)

rockpopfashion said,

March 30, 2010 @ 11:09 am

Totally understood Tommy. Saw Keith on Sunday. regards to your Dad – hope his back is improving.

Tommy Roberts said,

May 21, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

Thanks, once again a amazingly late comment.

Jon Wealleans said,

October 11, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

Tommy – I heard you weren’t feeling too good and I sincerely hope you are on the mend – loves and all best wishes, Jon Wealleans and Natalie Gibson xx

mickey solomons said,

October 19, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

hi tommy,wishing you all the best mate,i have been living in amsterdam for the past 20yrs..you geovanied all of us..i fondly remember mr freedom in the worlds end..remember the bus men cafe where you use to geee everybody…love you tommy..

andrew morris said,

November 20, 2010 @ 12:35 am

Hello. i just had to write something about Mr Freedom. I worked for Dick James Music in London in 1971 and used to go there to pick up clothes, shoes etc for Elton John. I would sometime make three trips a week to pick up his clothes. One word: they were/are amazing. All the great stores were in London at the time: Biba, Alkasura, Granny Takes A Trip…wow, what a time.
I am now in the US managing a new band from the UK called New Cassettes.
Wish there was still a store anywhere that had clothes like yours.
A trip down memory lane. London in 1971 was a dream for me as a 15 year old kid immersed in fashion and music culture.
Hats off to you Tommy
Andy Morris.

rockpopfashion said,

November 20, 2010 @ 11:48 am

Interesting Andy – you’ll be pleased to know I have a fabulous Mr Freedom exclusive coming up; I went down to see Tommy the other day and we will be featuring some classic items here.

Jan said,

March 4, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

I was about 14 when I discovered his shop. I can remember saving hard to buy a yellow satin jocket jacket covered in big red spots. I loved it so much – I couldn’t wait to put it on and ended up taking my top off in between stations on the tube so that I could wear it home. His clothes were the best !!

Tanya Quaye said,

March 20, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

My brother was signed to DJM and through that I heard all about Mr Freedom. Oh how I loved my bottle green T shirt with decorated with a huge satin applique mushroom, purple velvet trousers with cream contrasting ‘V’s across my knees and at times a navy poker dot blazer with my jeans. God I thought I was the dogs bollocks! All that and an afro. Can you guess my style icon was Cleopatra Jones? Was a near miss for Finchley though.

rockpopfashion said,

March 20, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

Hi Tanya
So your brother was Caleb? What a great memory. Do you any photos of yourself in Mr Freedom gear? I’m putting together a book on Tommy Roberts. Hopefully he will finally receive the wider recognition he deserves.

rockpopfashion said,

March 20, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

Great to hear from you Jan. Do you have any photos of yourself in Mr Freedom gear? I’m thinking maybe we could tun a blog on people in their favourite Freedom clothes.

rockpopfashion said,

March 20, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

Dear Andrew

Would like to run a post on you/what you you picked up for Elton. As mentioned elsewhere I’m putting together a book on Tommy so all anecdotes, memories + images are welcome.

Tanya Quaye said,

March 25, 2011 @ 12:20 am

To rockandpopfashion
Can we talk off list?

Ben Cowell said,

May 27, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

Hi. Terrific, great site and blog. And I thought that (the memory of) Mr Freedom has been consigned to the salvage bin of time.
I was in the business for 40 years and worked with/knew many of fashion’s movers & shakers, but Tommy’s concept of a fashion brand has never been surpassed in my view!
Knew many of the crew. My partner and I, after closing up our shop in Notting Hill ‘Brave New World’, would go on either a Friday or Saturday evening to Mr Feed’em – have fond memories of the cabaret – then we’d be off to The Speakeasy. Those were the days. Cheers Ben
PS Ever heard the sage of the the ‘Return to Sender’ fabric print,saga? You could ask Lesley G!

Gavin said,

May 29, 2011 @ 11:25 am

I was 19 in 1970 and lived in Chelsea. I worked on the Kings road and was a regular visitor to Mr. Freedom, both shops, and have to say 20 KCS blew my mind, design-wise that is. Such talented people and where are they now?
I feel a twinge of deja vu as I remember my two girlfriends then who both worked at the shops, oh happy days so wild & carefree.
Thanks for the memories…

rockpopfashion said,

May 30, 2011 @ 7:54 am

HI Ben

Thanks for your kind words.
Will certainly ask Lesley about the RTS print; I’m seeing her soon for the Tommy Roberts book. Any photographs of Brave New World you’d care to share? What was the address btw?

Hi Gavin
Jon Wealleans, who designed the interior of 20 KCS is now a full-time painter, while George Hardie, who handled the graphics, teaches.
I’ve interviewed them both for the Tommy Roberts book and they are submitting fantastic images from their archives.
Who were your girlfriends who worked there?

Amber Humphreys said,

August 1, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

Hi, just enjoyed reading all the posts. I lived in Old Compton Street from 1963. Biba, Busstop all the early Kings rd. shops, Had loads of boots made at Anello’s remember the Cambridge Circus and then the Oxford street shops as well as the factory in Drury lane. Mr Freedom was a great love of mine. The clothes were so beautifully detailed. I had a black velveteen bib trousers and jacket, saddlestitched in scarlet and scarlet lining, masses of pockets with flaps, also a trouser suit, very simple like a man’s, big collar, revers, slanted pockets with flaps, it was an amazing red blue green and yellow quarter inch stripe on a black background, great flares. I did Speakeasy a lot with Stu Collins my boyfriend. He worked for John Bloom the washing machine tycoon. 1420 AD and Reflections disco in Scotts Gentlemans club Picadilly, and Crazy Horse Baker st in the old Phone booth. Could write a book about the 60’s.

[...] both fashion & interiors, a craft renaissance – and the impact of shops such as Habitat, Mr Freedom, Biba and Granny Takes a [...]

[...] in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); Mr Feed’em waitress (the basement eatery of boutique Mr Freedom) from 70s Style & Design; and Peggy Lipton as Norma Jennings in Twin Peaks (1990). Read more at [...]

Jez Randell said,

October 27, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

I have been reading a great book “Rady, Steady, Go! :Swinging London and the invention of cool” by Shawn Levy. Anyway, it mentions Mr Freedom (p.219) and reminded me of the red and cream satin jacket I have had hanging on the back of the den door!
My dad did wigs and wardrobe for the production of Hair at the Roundhouse. This jacket was used on stage for that groovy production. He gave it to me and I wore it everywhere!
Sadly the elastic at the base is a little saggy! Anyway – great to se this blog. Cheers.

Graeme Lawson said,

December 29, 2011 @ 10:55 pm

I’m from North Yorkshire, & in the 60’s & early 70’s, I used to come to London to stay with my sister & her husband, in Ealing. On their recommendation, I tracked down Mr Freedom in the King’s Road. I bought 2 long sleeve Tee-shirts – 1 was dark blue, with a big red star on the front & the other was yellow covered in smaller brown stars….I have a black & white photograph somewhere of me wearing the yellow one, at our local youth club, sitting by the record player looking at the sleeve of Atom Heart Mother….would guess about 1970….I was 19. What a wonderful shop!!!!!!!!!

Ben Cowell said,

February 21, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

Hi, was just perusing the site and realised you asked me for pics and I didnt pick up on it. D’uh! Sure do have, can you Skype/mail me,or Doris has my contact details, but then again its London Fashion Week! I live in Stow on the Wold Gloucs. Ben Cowell

rockpopfashion said,

March 3, 2012 @ 7:31 am

You can always contact me at paul@paulgormanis.com Ben.

All best

PG

avril barrington said,

January 27, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

Still have a Mr Freedom tartan coat which I loved even though I will never get into it now. My daughter wants me to reline it for her – I am thinking about it. I can’t give up the past – great days. Is my coat worth anything?

Avril

Florence Vincent said,

March 9, 2014 @ 5:10 pm

My husband and I had the only store in Ireland that sold Mr. Freedom. It was in Duke Lane, Dublin called its a Beautiful Day (after the group). I remember all the t-shirts with assorted stars, but what sticks in my mind were the velvet jackets, and trousers that finished just below the knees. Also the satin appliqués jackets. What exciting times those were.

rockpopfashion said,

April 10, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

Good to hear from you Florence – do you have any photos? Would love to feature the shop on my main blog paulgormanis.com (this is archive material). Best, Paul

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