When word got out that Paul Gorman has written a tribute to Tommy Roberts, groover and shaker on the 70s fashion scene (and beyond), we couldn’t wait to flag it up on our blog. Paul’s new book, Mr Freedom – British Design Hero (Adelita), with a foreword by Sir Paul Smith, has just been published. Naturally, we see Paul – also author of cult tome, The Look: Adventures in Rock and Pop Fashion – as a kindred spirit: after all, the joyful style of Mr Freedom’s ultra-pop clobber (more of which later) plays a key role in our book 70s Style & Design, specifically in the chapter From Pop to Postmodernism.
For the uninitiated, Tommy Roberts is a towering figure of British fashion and design – a truly original retailer and entrepreneur. In the 60s, he pioneered the vintage clothing trade, selling antique threads to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Who at his Carnaby Street shop Kleptomania. But it was with London fashion label Mr Freedom’s fun, rainbow-hued, pop art-inspired clothes – all cartoon and fruit-machine motifs, all satin and flash – that he made the biggest splash. Also referencing Art Deco and 50s kitsch, Mr Freedom ushered in a new playful eclecticism in fashion which infected design, too, throughout the 70s – especially as, in the wake of the 60s pop movement, creatives of all colours rebelled against modernism throughout the decade.
Mr Freedom, incidentally, was named after William Klein’s anti-American movie Mr Freedom of 1969 – though the shops, accoutred with such gleefully gimmicky props as a giant Statue of Liberty sculpture and cakes in the shape of blue jeans in its restaurant – revelled in pop Americana.
The two Mr Freedom shops in Chelsea and Kensington, open from 1969 to 1972, were the trendiest of their day; celebs such as Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Amanda Lear and Paloma Picasso (who bought a T-shirt for dad Pablo) flocked there too. Over the years, the indefatigable, Falstaffian-looking Tommy experimented constantly with different styles: in the mid-70s, he opened City Lights Studio in Covent Garden, a proto-goth boutique painted moodily dark colours. It was a hit with pop stars like Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, the latter buying the suit he sported on the back cover of his Pin Ups album there.
Of course, super-stylish icons Bowie and Ferry also loom large in 70s Style & Design. Tommy also managed Ian Dury for a while, and hung out with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (whose early 70s King’s Road shop Let It Rock occupied the same premises as one of the Mr Freedom shops). Later, ever-restless Roberts championed High Tech and Studio Alchymia-inspired furniture and homeware at his 80s emporium Practical Styling.
He then moved on to sell a mix of 20th-century art and furniture in the 90s and Noughties at London stores TomTom and Two Columbia Road. Today, the latter, run by Tommy’s son Keith, is a mecca for fans of design, in particular mid-century-modern furniture. Appropriately, the launch party for Paul’s (inevitably) lusciously illustrated tome will be held there. Paul is also the author of the book Reasons to be Cheerful: The Life and Work of Barney Bubbles, about legendary graphic designer Bubbles, some of whose brilliant record cover artwork also features in 70s Style & Design…