Interview with Robert Orbach
Robert Orbach worked for John Stephen in Carnaby Street and was a Director in the pioneering shop 'I was Lord Kitchener's Valet' on Portobello Road and in Soho, selling iconic vintage military jackets to Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix. He took over the chain of Kleptomania shops from Charlie Simpson and Tom Salter, and has been a manager in the music business and a retailing and franchising entrepreneur in London and Los Angeles.
Below is a transcript of an interview recorded with Robert Orbach in February 2006.
Early memories of Mod fashion and Soho
In the late 1950s I was buying clothes in Shaftesbury Avenue. There was a place called Austin's which used to import American Ivy League styles and button down seersucker shirts. Cecil Gee used to get Italian suede shoes. Vince was the originator of the mod look. North West London Jewish mods started going to Vince to buy white trousers and black sweaters, the left bank Paris look, and matelot shirts. They also had these madras jackets, madras cotton from India… John Stephen was working there at first and really just went round the corner and opened his own version of Vince's. And John Stephen came up with hipsters, of course the mods liked that.
Rock and Roll and Carnaby Street both fed off each other: working class design, British fashion, Rock and Roll, the Beatles, Carnaby Street. You had all these rebels without causes, and all of a sudden at one moment in time everything came together. Just when everything was right the gods smiled. In Bhuddism it's called synchronicity, when it all comes together.
When you look back it was quite an innocent time… a lot of kids coming from the grey fifties and all of a sudden, men could be fashionable.
I was Lord Kitchener's Valet in the Portobello Road
Every time I made money I would go into the pop business and then loose that and go back to what I knew. Everybody moved between, you can't separate the music and fashion business. I met John Paul in about 1966 when I was dressing the pop band Jackson and Smith. I'd heard about this second hand shop that sold strange things at the top end of the Portobello Road, the part where the real soul is. It was a fleamarket, but on Saturdays it changed. Lord Kitchener's sold racks of tunics, there were boas, those old fox stoles, second hand fur coats, pith helmets, Victorian dresses, bits of Victorian furniture, general junk, some good and some bad. Some people liked wearing secondhand clothes but at first it wasn't that busy. Then, over a period of time, clothes started to take over from the furniture. Eric Clapton was the first one to buy a military jacket early in 1966 when Cream's first album came out.
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.
So Mick Jagger bought this tunic and wore it on Ready Steady Go when the Stones closed the show by performing Paint it Black. The next morning there was a line of about 100 people wanting to buy this tunic… and we sold everything in the shop by lunchtime.
I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet in Carnaby Street
After convincing John Paul to make the move to Carnaby Street we found that Warren Gold of Lord John had a free corner shop in Wardour Street, so we rented that. You couldn't get to the famous rock venue the Marquee without passing the shop, so there was good passing trade. We painted all the windows black so people were curious. By then we were selling Union Jack shirts and target T shirts. We started buying plastic jewellery, cheap rings made in Birmingham. Little shirtmakers made the Union Jack shirts, we had seamstresses all over the place. It started like that - it was fun, it was simple.
The name 'Lord Kitchener's Valet' was thought up by Ian Fisk just because we sold Victoriana. It conjured up images of Edwardian smoking jackets, top hats and canes and Birdcage Walk on Sunday - pure nostalgia.
All of a sudden more people were in there than in the rest of Carnaby Street. With incense burning, it was great, like paradise, you didn't know who was going to walk through the door.
But in 1967 the bubble burst… because then it became more profitable to be a landlord than a retailer.
Kleptomania and the King's Road
In about 1967 we took over Kleptomania on the King's Road, so we were now operating in both streets. Carnaby Street was really run by working class people. The upper-middle class Cambridge crowd, were all in the King's Road, and they didn't like us working class heroes. For a while the King's Road did better than Carnaby Street. There were rope barriers down the centre of the shop to direct people towards the cashier. The till was going all day long.
The kaftan story is rather interesting. Kaftans started off in 1967 when the Beatles had been to India. I used to go to Derry and Toms department store to buy Indian bedspreads, and had an old Jewish tailor make them all up [into kaftans]… it was the first time we got into manufacturing.