Fashion movements are somewhat hive-minded. One person with great style is simply a well-dressed individual. But a group of people with great style and similar aesthetics—well, that’s a trend. Like any good story, there needs to be a who, what, where, when, and why, and if it’s a tale of fashion, the “where” is usually a boutique. Many eras, sub-cultures, and movements have had a store that captured the lifestyle of a group, not just the clothes. Although they may not have realized it at the time, certain shop owners who were bold enough to believe that a store can move beyond just retail went on to have an impact on the cultural zeitgeist.
Mary Quant opened her shop, Bazaar, in 1955 with the help of her husband, and her business partner, selling clothes that directly appealed to a younger consumer. “She wasn’t professionally trained or anything,” explains fashion historian Valerie Steele, citing an anecdote in Quant’s memories of how she would naïvely purchase her fabric at retail cost. “But [she became] pretty savvy about it, then traveling and getting connections with different manufacturers, and she travelled to the U.S. and was really impressed with how you could mass-produce fashions.” Quant’s designs caught on just as the Youth Quake movement began, and she continued to have her finger on the pulse throughout the ‘60s, expanding to both accessories and makeup.
London Boutique culture, as summarized in the book Fashion Since 1900, was heavily driven by teenagers with money to spend and interests in fashion and entertainment. In addition to Quant, and the Carnaby Street boutiques owned by John Stephen, there was also the vintage-inspired shop Biba. Owned by Barbara Hulanicki, the first boutique opened in 1964, and was the aesthetic opposite to Quant’s work, drawing heavily on Art Nouveau themes. Nonetheless, Biba found it’s own market, and in 1973 the department store Big Biba opened. Lavishly decorated, the multi-story shop aimed to transport customers to another world—a Biba world—and offered them an entire product range to complete this with. Unfortunately Big Biba, although fabulous, was short lived, closing its doors just two years later.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren had a much better ability of catching on to rising sub-cultural groups in London, and fashioning youth ideology. They first opened Let It Rock in 1971, catering to the Teddy Boys. A year later they changed the name to Too Young to Live, Too Fast to Die. SEX (renamed in 1974) was the store’s third and most famous incarnation, likely due to the provocative name (which was written in large hot pink letters above the door), and merchandise (fetish gear, anyone?). Of course Westwood and McClaren are most associated with the Punk movement, fashions for which they carried in the fourth iteration of their store, titled Seditionaries. Punk fashion itself is heavily based on a DIY attitude, so a boutique that sold pre-made Punk clothing—at a retail prices higher than what one could create with what they have—seems unnecessary. Yet Seditionaries was more than just a store, it was a hub for the London Punk community, with McClaren managing The Sex Pistols, and punks like Sid Vicious hanging out at the shop. In modern times Maison Kitsuné has taken this direct merging of music and fashion to the next level, acting as both a boutique and a record label.