Friday, 16 September 2011
I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet
The boutique called I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet started in 1964 as a stall on Portobello Market. It specialized in selling replicas of Victorian military uniforms and other accessories from Victorian era. The popularity of the stall grew, and, in 1966 it evolved into a shop on 293 Portobello Road. The shop was owned by Ian Fisk, and run by John Paul and Robert Orbach.
Ian Fisk (right), the owner.
Although not the designers, Orbach and Paul spotted the gap in the market, and skillfully exploited the mid-sixties fad for second-hand Victoriana. The real breakthrough came in 1966. As Robert Orbach remembers: I’m sitting there one morning and in walked John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Cynthia Lennon. And I didn’t know whether I was hallucinating… but it was real. And Mick Jagger bought a red Grenadier guardsman drummer’s jacket, probably for about £4-5. They all came from Moss Bros and British Army Surplus. In 1966 it was only fifty or so years from Victorian times, when we had an empire. We used to buy fur coats by the bale… we had to throw quite a lot away.
Hendrix outside I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet wearing a tunic, 1967.
In 1967, I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet opened two new branches - in Fouberts Place (just off Carnaby Street) and Piccadilly Circus.
The boutique was very fashionable.This is how one reporter remembers the visit: "A girl assistant was wearing a full dress jacket of the old Hertfordshire Regiment over skin - coloured tights, another customer was strutting around in black and gold 'diplomatic gear'" (Richard Lester, Boutique London, p 70).
This appropriation of British Army uniforms was not looked well upon by older members of respectable society (especially ex-soldiers), but perhaps that is why the uniforms were so popular. As Richard Lester points out: "It was almost unimportant what the shops sold, such was their reputation for anti-establishment stunts (...) In September 1966 The Times reported from the Guildhall that a 'Muswell Hill youth' had been conditionally discharged after being stopped wearing a Scots Guards tunic. 'I think it looked fashionable and smart' - the unnamed defendant commented (Richard Lester, Boutique London, p 68-70).
An article about I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, circa 1967.
Tie from I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet (Photo courtesy of Peter Feely)
Some ads for I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet from 1967.
After the success of I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet, Victorian uniforms started being sold in many other shops in London.
The red tunic from I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet had become one of the most evocative male outfits of the 1960's London.
The Invisibles - a comic from the 1990's set in 1960's Britain. An example of how red tunic entered pop culture as a symbol of 1960's.
In 2002 , indie band The Libertines (who were obviously very steeped in 1960's pop culture) wore red tunics during gigs and in few videos. What followed was an unexpected 'comeback' of tunics into fashion. Even today they are easily available in Camden Stables Market. It is interesting how many of young indie enthusiasts who purchase and wear the tunics, have heard of I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet...
The influence of I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet on 1960's male fashion was recognized by fashion history. Museum of London has on display an original sign advertising the shop as well as a Union Jack shirt.