Bowie Boys by Tommy Roberts
I am currently working with Tommy Roberts on a book about his life and career in fashion. Tommy has been assembling a selection of anecdotes and stories which will feature as occasional tasters here over the coming months.
This reminiscence stems from the period in the early 70s when Tommy operated City Lights Studio. Situated at 54 Shorts Gardens WC2 with a darkly glamorous interior design realised by Electric Colour Company’s Andrew Greaves + Jeffrey Pine, City Lights was the first fashion store in London’s Covent Garden, the neighbourhood then dominated by the capital’s fruit and veg market.
City Lights Studio, which came into being at the end of 1972, was a fashion emporium I created in tandem with Willy Daly, a colleague and friend since we had worked together at Mr Freedom.
City Lights was situated in an imposing high-ceilinged loft atop a building in Covent Garden. Our studio designed, wholesaled and retailed an extremely stylish and tasty array of men’s and women’s wear, shoes, hats, jewellery and other fashion accessories.
For this story I’m concentrating on the menswear.
Willy discovered Derek Morton, an ex-Royal College Of Art student who designed a range of men’s clothes for us which was absolutely spot-on due to Derek’s innate feeling for what was right in terms of shape, fit and cut. Later, I believe, Derek worked with Paul Smith for many years.
By late 1972 Roxy Music had made the charts and David Bowie had taken off into mega-stardom. They were customers.
Sporting our wide-lapel blouson jackets, Kandinsky print shirts and glitter fabric creepers in concert, Andy Mackay and Phil Manzanera were regular punters, as was Bryan Ferry, though to a lesser extent since Antony Price designed his stage gear. Brian Eno was hardly ever at City Lights as, at the time, he was a committed satin cat-suit and platform boots man.
David Bowie’s fire-cracker wife Angela would breeze into City Lights at least once a week and gather up a selection of dresses, tops, hats, gloves and shoes for herself and pick out a selection of suits, jackets and trousers for her husband.
She had a sharp eye for what would look good on a rock star and items that didn’t were returned the following week.
As word percolated out a new breed of clientele appeared at the loft on Saturday mornings: fanatical male followers of Roxy, Bowie and clothes. I knew they were keen; locating City Lights was no easy task since we were in a side street in a building which had done previous service as banana storeroom.
The entrance was so obscure that Francoise, a Juno-esque French lady who worked for us, would put on her cartwheel hat on a Saturday morning, stand in the middle of Shorts Gardens and, waving like a traffic policeman, direct smart lads clutching A-Zs up the stairs.
My pal Malcolm McLaren at Let It Rock in World’s End, Chelsea, became so irritated at being asked for the address of City Lights he began charging ten bob before he gave out the info.
These young fellows had good jobs as carpet-fitters, electrician’s mates and such like, which meant they didn’t turn a hair at splashing out fifty quid on clothes to wear at the next Bowie concert.
When a photograph of David Bowie wearing one of our square=shouldered, chest-hugging, tailored linen suits appeared in a newspaper, the half dozen left in stock were sold by the following Saturday. And this was repeated when David bought one of our snappy close-fitting, slash-pocketed bolero jackets. I must confess, whenever I was asked , “Has Bowie bought one of these?”, I would look up at the ceiling for a nano second and say, “Yes”.
But I don’t want ayone to get the wrong impression. Selling to these guys was no walkover. The fit had to be just right. Purchasing a pair of pale peach-coloured pleated trousers was a serious business. Detailed alterations to the length and waist had to be undertaken, pleats had to hang right, then a final contemplation in front of the fitting room mirror before money was handed over.
To us in the loft in Covent Garden they were always known as the Bowie Boys, producing a buzz in the studio on a Saturday when they came round to see if any fresh gear had been put on the racks.
Mister Freedom, Dover, Kent, 13-2-11.
Thanks to Lloyd Johnson for the photograph of the City Lights Studio label.