The King’s Road’s new property groove

  • By Bertie Russell
  • 10 April 2019

For the poet Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began in 1963”. As far as fashion was concerned, however, the Swinging Sixties began rather earlier, exploding on the King’s Road in 1955, when a sparky girl from south London set up shop with a posh boy from Chelsea at No 138A. Bazaar and its owner Mary Quant became the face of a new generation. “She created a brand that embodied social transformation,” says Jenny Lister, a curator of fashion and textiles at the Victoria and Albert Museum. “The surreal windows at the store – such as a lobster on a lead – fed that image.” Quant’s shopper-grabbing pyrotechnics helped transform the King’s Road into an icon of London cool. Now, as a major retrospective of her work opens at the V&A, the launch pad of her revolution is also re-entering the spotlight. “The King’s Road is changing,” says Hugh Seaborn, chief executive of Cadogan, the property company that manages Earl Cadogan’s £6bn Chelsea holding. “As retail faces a seismic shift with the evolution of online shopping, it’s had to balance its heritage with a new openness to creativity and innovation.”

The King’s Road has a fashion history that long predates its 20th-century celebrity. It owes its name to Charles II, who constructed it as his own personal highway between St James’s Palace and Hampton Court. In the 17th century, its exclusivity was in no doubt, as only those with a monogrammed pass could enjoy its rural length. The road was finally opened to the public in 1830, but window-shopping remained largely confined to daily necessities until Archie McNair, Quant’s business partner, sensed it “was going to take off” and established the first espresso bar outside of Soho, a restaurant (Alexander’s, named after Quant’s husband and co-owner, Alexander Plunket Greene) and Bazaar. In doing so he lit a fashion fuse that, over the next two decades, was fuelled by a stream of celebrated successors. Shops like Granny Takes a Trip, opened in 1966, became the first “psychedelic” boutique, and Sex, launched in 1974 by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, helped define the punk era and ensured the King’s Road brand burned ever more brightly.

From the late 1970s, however, as radical youth was edged out by rising shop rents, it lost much of its retailing fire. More recently, a holistic intervention has reignited that spark. “The King’s Road had largely relied on its reputation,” says James Pace, partner and head of the Chelsea office of estate agent Knight Frank. “There’s never really been the same effort to coordinate it that there’s been in Marylebone and Mayfair. Now, landlords have got together to target the right retailers and brands.”

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