End of an era as Stratford retailer announces Sheep Street business to close
WHEN Charles French Menswear closes at the end of next month, it will also be the end of an era for a family-run business which has served a colourful cast of customers.
From budding actors and business entrepreneurs to stars of stage and screen, including Ben Kingsley, Alan Bates, Sean Bean, Edward Woodward, Grace Jones and, fittingly, Captain Peacock from Are You being Served have all been through the doors of the Sheep Street store in Stratford.
Owner John Ricketts, who has manned the shop with his wife Sandra and son, Ian, is retiring after 37 years. He and his family have faithfully maintained the tradition and personal service of the gentleman’s outfitters and made some famous friends over the counter at the same time.
One such friendship even led to John and Sandra enjoying a ten-day free stay at a luxury villa, once owned by David Bowie, in Mustique.
The villa was then owner by one of John’s regular customers – and one of the richest people in Britain – the publisher Felix Dennis who was buying a new waistcoat.
“Mr Dennis owned homes in America, London and Mustique and I thought the waistcoat would look good in Mustique where he had bought a villa off his friend David Bowie,” said John. “Mr Dennis spun round on his heel and said ‘you can go as my guest to Mustique.’
“He gave me a telephone number for his assistant in London and told me to call. I left it for a couple of weeks and then tried the number. The assistant said ‘we’ve been waiting to hear from you’.
“Sandra and I went as guests of Felix Dennis but we paid for our flight tickets to Barbados. We were greeted by his staff with golf buggies at the Mustique airport and spent ten days at the villa, which had an infinity pool overlooking Mustique bay.”
John also became good friends with actor Sir Ben Kingsley who at the time lived near Stratford.
“I got to know him really well in the late ‘80s and found him a lovely man,” John said. “He needed a suit for the Cannes Film Festival.”
John fitted him out with a £300 suit, carrying our alterations over a beer at Sir Ben’s home.
“The next time I saw him he said film industry friends loved the suit and guessed it cost £8,000,” recalled John.
Shopping for men’s clothes at Charles French has been a special occasion for decades. Charles French – the founder of the business – wanted it to be like a mini Harrods with a tailor on site and spacious fitting rooms.
John bought the business in May 1984, aged 36, after working for Burtons and then Hepworths. The family have clocked up a lengthy record of service between them: John 37 years, Sandra 30 years and Ian 23 years.
The shop once included 30 black and white signed photographs of actors dotted around the walls, but these have recently been sold at auction.
However, John still remembers fondly his famous clients – from Sean Bean and Frank Thornton, who played Captain Peacock in Are Your Being Served to Alan Bates and Frances de la Tour when they were performing in Antony and Cleopatra.
“Edward Woodward bought a suit here accompanied by his wife, Michele Dotrice,” said John. “I did like him in the television series, The Equaliser. Grace Jones was another customer and she bought some brightly coloured pyjamas and I thought she was charming, nothing like she appeared on The Russell Harty Show.”
The changing face of retail, shopping online and the closure of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre during the pandemic – many theatregoers were also customers at Charles French – has now signalled the end the shop.
“It will be sad to close the door for the last time,” John said. “I’ve done my bit and I realised when we shut during lockdown that at the age of 74, going on 75, I might not have much retirement time left.
“When the landlords said the freehold lease was up for sale I thought the time was right to call it a day. My wife and I are retiring and our son is going to do engineering.”
He added: “We would like to thank all our many loyal customers and wish them good health for the future.”