LONDON — Soho, that entertaining London neighborhood bordered by Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road and Leicester Square, is rapidly changing its reputation from scarlet to chic.
Streets once lined with peep shows and strip joints are increasingly inhabited by intriguing clothing boutiques, specialty shops and fashionable bistros patronized by sophisticated Londoners, including film makers and theater people who work in the district, on Wardour Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, respectively.
But Soho's gentrification has not detracted from the area's cosmopolitan charm or international flavor. Since the Huguenots arrived in the 17th Century, Soho has been the beachhead for waves of French, Greek, Italian, Russian, Chinese and other immigrant groups settling in London after fleeing religious persecution or repressive political regimes in their native lands.
The excitement of the area's intercultural makeup attracted artists and intellectuals (including Wagner, Hayden, Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Hazlitt and Karl Marx) who took up residence in Soho. The district has repeatedly come into fashion, then faded out. But throughout that faddish past, Soho's streets have resounded with many languages.
There have always been fine restaurants with foreign cuisines to please any palate, as well as theaters, nightclubs and other evening entertainment. Peep shows are not entirely out of the picture, but the seediest of them--with some prompting from the government--seem to have drifted away.
Soho swung into the fashion limelight during the 1960s with the popularity of Carnaby Street. Shoppers from around the world came to the land of the rockers to pick up modish togs. Carnaby Street still has lots of shops, but they're filled with cheap punk frills and touristy T-shirts.
Soho fashion is dispersed throughout the area, in storefronts where the rent is still cheap enough for relatively unknown designers to show their innovative and very wearable clothes.
Fine Linen Suits
Peter Hoggard, at 8 Rupert Court off Rupert Street, is an example. The shop belongs to design collaborators Peter Leathers and Michelle Hoggard, who work in fine linen to create stunning women's outfits with innovative shapes and lines.
One women's suit (about $200), for example, fits a jacket with split peplum over a round-shaped, knee-length bubble skirt. The print on the jacket is unusual, too. It's designer Heather Joiner's updated, somewhat campy version of the Bayeux Tapestry in which legions of medieval soldiers are anachronistically outfitted with cassette recorders. There is also a collection of campy jewelry.
Site, at 84 Berwick St., outfits men and women with clothes under its own label, plus lines by Stephen Jones, James Logerfo and other young designers. Site's heavy cotton men's trench coat, with multiple belts in the back, is an attention-getter at $180.
The shop also carries models from Vivienne Westwood's World's End collection and wonderfully sexy knit and silk bubble dresses (about $250) by Sarah Keogh. There are also many appealing pieces of synthetic jewelry and accessories.
Beau Monde, 43 Lexington St., shows smashing cotton knits designed by York & Pearson under the Something Cool label. Black and tan are this season's colors, and the slinky shapes include empire dresses with revealing necklines (about $180). Cover up with Sappho & Artifice's charming gaming jacket (about $150) with its appliqued playing cards.
Academy Soho, at 15 Newburgh St., features Helen Storey's swimsuits ($70) adorned with drawings of Greek athletes, and Karen Boyd's delightful peasant styles with corseted waists and polka-dot prints.
The traditional work clothes (overalls, waiters' jackets, bibs and braces) sold at P. Denny, 39 Old Compton St., have taken on a certain chic. This shop is a Soho mainstay; prices are reasonable.
For people who prefer to design and make their own clothes, Soho has two fine suppliers of materials. The Fabric Studio has an excellent, if variable, stock of discounted remnants from designer collections and bolts used by top designers. You'll find anything from pin-stripes to suedes, bold florals to delicate dotted Swiss.
The Cloth Shop, 49 Brewer St., has clothes in trendy patterns and colors. Materials aren't sold at discount, but they are very up to date. The Yarn Store, 8 Ganton St., is the shop for knitters. The selection of yarns, including Irish woolens, French chenille and thick strands in trendy colors, is superb. The shop's exclusive patterns are designed by one of the owners who also teaches at the Royal College of Art.
Soho has distinctive gift shops. For beautiful pottery, visit the Craftsmen Potters Assn. shop at the William Blake House on Marshall Street, where handcrafted stoneware and slipware, along with books on ceramics and tools, are sold at reasonable prices. Included are vases (from about $55), platters (from about $70) and mugs (about $12).