Photography by Otto Masters
Styling by Eve Bailey
Portobello Road Market in the heart of London’s Notting Hill was once a hunting ground for the fashionably minded, who mined the then-eclectic and often-tatty stalls for vintage finds and new designer buys every Friday and Saturday. With rising rents and dwindling takings, the mile-long strip of multicoloured Victorian terraces running between Notting Hill Gate and Ladbroke Grove has been somewhat diluted – but in its heyday 50 years ago the market was a competitive and scrappy place of promise where creativity had free, ferocious reign.
Pepe Jeans began life as a Portobello fashion landmark. Initially a denim customisation and trading stall founded by the Shah brothers, Pepe Jeans sought to reinvigorate denim, bringing embellished, detail-rich designs with extra zips, graphic patches and embroidery to London’s well-dressed. The birth of Pepe Jeans came at a time when denim became more personal and less uniform and shortly after opening its fourth stall in Portobello, the brand expanded into its first brick-and-mortar store on the King’s Road and went international soon after.
Invented in the 19th century as durable wear for workers, jeans soon found broader popularity for their reinforced stitching, inbuilt belt loops and the copper rivets fixed at the corners of the pockets to prevent ripping. By the 1920s the garment had shed its utilitarian associations and became a signifier of style, a movement ushered in by American giants like Levi Strauss, Blue Bell (later Wrangler) and Lee. Since then, the garment has continued to reinvent itself, worn by 20th-century groups as distinct as Hollywood icons in Western cinema, anti-war protestors and punks, and second-wave feminists as a way to demonstrate gender equity. The beatniks wore flares for their looseness and sense of slouchy liberation, while in the 1990s low risers were favoured in the era of raunch culture. More recently, the skinny jean became an online hallmark of the uptight millennial.
After arriving across the Atlantic in 1984, Pepe Jeans barrelled its way into public consciousness in a series of campaigns. In 1993, all-American model Bridget Hall posed for one of Pepe’s most recognisable campaigns draped in a Union Jack and donning a glimmering tiara; that same year, Canadian actor Jason Priestley (90210, the original!) starred in a Pepe Jeans campaign set in an diner, in a nod to James Dean and 1950s masculinity. This was an American culture youthquake, via Westbourne Grove.
Today, celebrating its 50th year, the brand operates in 60 countries and acts as a “global reference for denim infused with British heritage, driven by an eclectic style and an edgy attitude”, says Paola Maestro, chief product officer. From market stall to 300 stores worldwide, Pepe Jeans’ unapologetic commitment to both the individual and their world has seen the brand planted firmly at the fashion forefront for five decades of ever-changing style. ◉