Monday, 12 January 2015

Horst: Photographer of Style at the V&A Museum, London

Carmen Dell’Orefice, age 16, and photographer Horst P. Horst, who are both being photographed by Leonard McCombe for Life Magazine, 1947, via

Long before I started paying attention to the names of fashion photographers, I knew the work of Horst. For me, his playful, colourful shots epitomise the charm and desirability of a 1940s or a 1950s Vogue, whether Muriel Maxwell putting on her lipstick, or the model balancing the beach ball on her toes, to form the ‘O’ of the title.

The recent V&A exhibition, Horst: Photographer of Style, brings the pages of a vintage Vogue to life. Rather than isolating Horst’s photographs in a typical gallery 'white cube', this exhibition celebrates their context. It balances his artistic endeavours, such as his experiments with surrealism in the 1930s, alongside his client work: the reality of life for most creatives today. And, of course, the two do meet. Horst’s surrealist-influenced images were loved by Paris Vogue, for example, but were requested to be simplified to suit the tastes of American Vogue.

The exhibition focuses on the substance, as much of the style as Horst’s photography. There’s a display of fashion ensembles, drawn from the V&A’s collections, that accompanies his photographs from the 1930s (the very stuff of A Time To Be Born). The models are credited too, where possible, reinforcing the impression of this favourites models who he - and Vogue - worked with again and again - these include the Powers Girls Helen Bennett and Muriel Maxwell, as well as Lud and Lisa Fonssagrives and a very young Carmen Dell’Orefice.

Mainbocher Corset (pink satin corset by Detolle), Paris, 1939. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate, via V&A

You also get an idea of the process behind each shoot, still part of the process today (albeit in slightly more sophisticated forms) whether set design or retouching. It is fascinating to see Horst’s sketch establishing the famous Mainbocher corset photograph - an image that has seemingly has seemingly transcended its context as a fashion photograph. The reality of life on a fashion magazine is highlighted in a film based on outtakes from the 1946 film, ‘Fashion means Business’, where Dorian Leigh is styled by Muriel Maxwell (now in her fashion editor role) and Priscilla Peck for a shot by Horst for Vogue. His photographs are then selected by Jessica Daves and Alexander Liberman, and laid out as part of the feature before, ultimately, making it into the pages of the magazine.

The exhibition was not all about fashion, however. Photographs from his travels in the middle east and studies from nature demonstrate his same careful attention to dark and light. Then there’s the wall populated with his glamorous portraits of the stars of stage and screen.

Vogue, 1 June 1940, via Vogue

After these controlled images, the explosion of colour as his work gets into the 1940s comes as even more of a hit to the senses. In a room dedicated to his 90 plus covers taken for Vogue, a huge glass cases displays every single one of the cover, dating from 1935 to 1963, as well as showing huge prints, developed from the surviving original transparencies at Conde Nast. Their scale gives an idea of the impressive size of the press in the 1940s and 50s. These images may be the most familiar to me, but still appeared every bit as desirable. Whether Jean Patchett in pink or Bale Paley looking cool in a black and powder blue combination, they made me want to go shopping - what a pity the clothes are no longer in the shops these 60 plus years later!

I was talking to a friend whose colleagues had taken a group of photography students to see this exhibition, as well of the display celebrating the work of Guy Bourdin, currently on at Somerset House. Comparing Horst’s work to Bourdin’s slick, sexy 1970s style, the students generally preferred Horst’s work, mainly because it was kinder to the women. Looking at the images, I realised how true this was. Horst built a rapport with his models and the result was an image that was warm and playful, but no less glamorous for it. These are the kind of woman you would like to be, regardless of time and trend. Does the fact that the students thought this too indicate this kinder sort of fashion photography will hold sway in the years to come too? I like to hope so.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Friday, 2 January 2015

50 books in 2014: How Did I Do?

Happy 2015!

I love making lists and planning and looking forward so, hardly surprisingly, I'm also a big lover of making new year resolutions. But, while I'm great at looking forward, I'm not so good at looking back and celebrating (i.e. remembering) what I've achieved (i.e. done) over the course of a year.

Although it wasn't my biggest achievement of 2014, I'm very pleased I completed my resolution to read 50 books over the year. You can see the full list of books I read here. I would have liked to have written some thoughts about each one, but it didn't really work out that way - hey ho. What the whole exercise really taught me was the importance of habit. Over the summer, when I was working from home, I got into the routine of reading for an hour between finishing my work and making food for the evening - just look how many books I got through in June and June! Then my schedule changed and I simply fell out of the habit of reading books until I got my act together again at the end of October.

Looking back over the list, what really struck me was how many of my favourites were memoirs: A Testament of Youth, Love, Nina, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys and Love Lessons. A another highlight, Her Brilliant Career, was also based on biography. Perhaps then it's hardly surprising that the novel I enjoyed most this year, Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood, is fictionalised biography.

But the fiction wasn't entirely a wash-out. I'm really pleased I picked up Of Human Bondage as well as reading my first Dorothy Whipple and Angela Thirkell books, both of which I'm looking forward to coming back to. 2015 started with a great day for my reading too, as I was able to get through all of Alice Hoffman's marvellous Seventh Heaven in an afternoon. That's the first book on my 2015 list. I've also upped my numbers and am aiming to read 51 books this year - these new year resolutions are all about improving, right?

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Friday, 21 November 2014

Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Paul Huot (French, active 1790s to 1820s), Female Mannequin, c. 1816
Wood, metal, horsehair, wax, silk, cotton and painted papier-mâché head, c. 163 x 65 cm, © bpk - Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte / Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel

I've written many times about mannequins on this blog and the mannequins I've always been referring to have been real-life women working as fashion models, rather than inanimate objects. But the fact that I need to spell out that distinction goes a little way towards illustrating the complexity of the word 'mannequin'. I looked at that in relation to fashion models here, but the current exhibition at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish redefines it entirely again. The exhibition is devoted to the latter definition of mannequin: the inanimate object, that has been used by artists for centuries. The exhibition shows how they were first used to stand in for human models for reasons of both practicality and propriety, but by the 20th century, they become subjects to be explored and manipulated in their own right.

Unknown maker (British, mid-18th century), Fashion doll with costume and accessories, 1755–60

Wood, gesso, paint, glass, human hair, knitted cotton, satin, silk, gilt braid, wire, silk gauze, linen, cotton, and silk satin, H.60 x W.42 x D.43 cm, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

But even these mannequins were more than simply an artist's prop: they became a vast, commercialised industry. There were mannequins figures available for all sizes of wallets, going from basic figures up to the most deluxe padded 'Parisian stuffed lay figures'. It was Paris - also then the centre of the fashion business - that was undoubtedly the centre for these mannequin figure makers too. There's a fascinating crossover between the disciplines, as a mannequin maker would create models for dressmakers and shops as well as for artists - despite their different audiences, these were all model figures, intended to support clothing.  And although the focus of this exhibit is 'art' - demonstrated largely through fine examples drawn from the Fitzwilliam's own collection - this crossover means there's plenty of fashion in the display too, as illustrated by the a print showing a display mannequin used in a shop on Paris' Rue Saint-Honore in 1777, and the inclusion of a "pandora". Also known as "colporteurs" (peddlers) or "couriers", these were intricately painted wooden life-size figures created to be toured around Europe and show-off France's latest luxury fashions - why didn't the real-life mannequins take on one of these names instead, I wonder?

In fact, a very specific vocabulary developed around mannequins in art criticism. For most artists, their use of mannequins were intended to go unnoticed in the finished painting - these objects were the 'silent partners' of the exhibition title. If a composition looked too stiff, betrayed the fact it had been posed by a model, not a human, critics would say that it "stank of mannequin". The noun became a verb to reflect this criticism: "mannequiné", or "mannequinised".

The artist with his two "models". Wilhelm Trübner (1851–1917), Studio Interior, 1888

Oil on canvas, 104 x 88 cm, Museen der Stadt Nürnberg, Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlung
Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg, photo: Jürgen Musolf

By the 1880, mannequin-making was at its peak, contributing almost 25 million francs to the French economy a year. As well as being the dutiful silent partners for mannequins, these figures were seen in dioramas, wax-work displays, shop windows and as dolls. These were expensive and luxury items. One of the most popular dolls was the "Parisienne", a figure shaped like a mature woman, complete with a desirable wardrobe and accessories. She fell from favour to be replaced by the more familiar - but at that time, no less expensive - "Bébé". At the same time, painters began to become more playful with their mannequins, playing up the tensions between the object and their real-life models.

The scale and the sophistication of the mannequin industry had implications on the fashion industry too. Stockman - still one of the 'the' names for mannequins - created a range of mannequins, each in a slightly different size. Producing a standardised range of figures helped pave the way for ready-made clothing.

Jean-Eugène-Auguste Atget (1857–1927), Coiffeur, Palais Royal, 1926–7
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

What hadn't really occurred to me before visiting Silent Partners - and probably my only criticism of the exhibition - is how, in the 1920s and the 1930s, public interest in both mannequins-the-objects and mannequins-the-women were concurrently at a peak. Mannequins-the-objects populated department store displays at the same time as being exploited by Surrealists for their ability to conjure up a sense of the uncanny.The artist Hans Richter described them as the "embodiment of urban modernity". At the same time, mannequins the women were regularly engaged in fashion parades in these same department stores: sometimes walking two, three times daily. Like their object counterparts they were dressed in the latest fashions, and like their object counterparts, they did not speak (think of the couturier Paul Poiret's commandment "do not talk to the models, they do not exist"). They were every bit a symbol of urban modernity.

Erwin Blumenfeld, American Vogue, 1 November 1945, via

The interchange between the two was carried over to fashion photography too, especially through the work of the Surrealist. Man Ray was employed by Vogue and other magazines to photograph clothes on Siégel mannequins, while a picture in the exhibition by Umbo, titled "Träumende", or "The Dreamers", is reminiscent of a fashion photograph by Erwin Blumenfeld. Fashion still continues to be inspired by this theme, as the installations created by Tim Walker and placed around the museum demonstrate. (The uncanny nature of the mannequin can also still shock, as I remembered as I walked around the final corner of the exhibition to be confronted by some Chapman Brothers creations.)

Silent Partners was a riveting show, which drew together so many different threads of art and cultural history. And, although Silent Partners was definitely an 'art' exhibition, compared to the last 'fashion' exhibition I went to - the disappointing Women, Fashion, Power at London's Design Museum - it definitely taught me something new about fashion history as well. How disappointing that so many fashion exhibitions aren't allowed to step up to equal such challenging, but ultimately satisfying, standards.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Early 1940s fashions in Love Lessons by Joan Wyndham

Joan Wyndham, via

Last year I wrote about the early 1940s fashions depicted in Dawn Powell’s novel A Time to Be Born. Powell cleverly uses descriptions of clothes – descriptions of clothes so accurate they could be lifted straight from the pages of a period Vogue – to shape her characters. I was thinking about early 1940s fashion again as I was reading Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons.

#3311009 / gettyimages.comFemale ambulance drivers pictured waiting for an emergency call on a pile of sandbags outside a Chelsea garage. 23 September 1939.

Though both books are slyly funny and extremely smart, they are also very different. Wyndham’s book is based on the diaries she kept as a teenager, kicking around the bohemian corners of Chelsea, London. It chronicles those teenage obsessions of boys (of course!), food (trips to Lyon’s Corner House or the pastry shop figure heavily) and clothes in such glorious detail that until the bombs start falling and conscriptions papers turn up you actually could forget you are reading a book set in the war at all.

12 October 1939
“Yesterday was my seventeenth birthday. I got Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and a beautiful pale-grey coat with a hood, which I think makes me look very appealing! Also a scrummy cream cake with seventeen candles from Deschuyter’s pastry shop on the corner.”

Art students decorating the shop hoardings on the shattered shop fronts of Oxford Street, 1940. 
Photograph by George Rodger, via

Shopping for clothes isn’t described in the same way as shopping for cakes is but Joan describes getting a new “very smart” plum corduroy coat from Harrods (happily noting: “Luckily, my bedroom hasn’t been destroyed by the bomb so I could try it on"). She came from a wealthy background and, reading the passage below describing her getting ready for a party, it sounds like she also used a private dressmaker as well as, at 17, being well practised in make-up application:

Saturday, 4 November 1939
“I washed my hair, and kept it done up in pipe cleaners all day, so it looked really nice and curly when I brushed it out. I also tried a new parting, sort of slanting across from the left and held back on one side with Kirbigrips. I think it looks sexier than my snood.

“I took a lot of trouble over my make-up, putting on Max Factor pancake with a sponge and two layers of the new cyclamen lipstick I’d got in Woolworth’s – I also wore my best black dress (what am I talking about, my only black dress!) for the second time. It’s the one Miss Mannery made for me with the V neck and ruched shoulders. I really looked pretty hot stuff, if I say so myself!”

#3142251 / A student at Chelsea Art School, c. 1940.

Joan’s style subtly changes through the course of her diary. She enrols in art school, noting carefully the “flat feet … dirndls and brightly checked blouses” of the older students. She also meets Prudey, an older artist, who Joan admires enormously. On 6 April 1941, Joan describes how:

“Her toilet is simple in the extreme – she wears no underclothes, summer or winter, except for a thin pair of flowery cotton pants. Over that go her violet jersey and scarlet dungarees, red socks with black shoes, and a blue sheepskin coat with a scarlet lining. All the reds are just slightly out of tune with each other.

“Today her hair was brushed straight across and fastened by a slide … She covered her raddled boy’s face with Ardena powder, painted her lips scarlet, and said, ‘I wish I knew how to make up!’ Prudey is thirty but you’d never think it. I don’t know why I love her so much.”

Harrods News, 9 October 1939, via

At the start of the diary, Joan admits she’s nervous about going out wearing trousers; by the end of 1940 she receives pair of green trousers for Christmas (along with cold cream and stockings). But it’s hard to believe the women she sees around her don’t influence her choice of clothes. Those scarlet dungarees of Prudey are mentioned admiringly in a few diary entries. It’s also apparent that Joan is mixing in very bohemian circles and what these women are wearing can’t be seen to represent the rest of London, let alone the rest of Britain. On a visit to Tunbridge Wells, Joan realises “what didn’t look right were my feet on Lalla’s neat gravel path, the scuffed leather sandals and the red I had put on my toenails so as to look good when sitting for Leonard.” I also love the thought of her art school friend Susan, dressed in “emerald green corduroys and a cerise blouse”, wearing shells around her neck, declaring: “Hell, I’m so sick of being arty! I think I’m going to marry a stockbroker.”

British Vogue, 17 May 1939, via

Perhaps one of the most striking things about the clothes in Love Lessons are their colours. From Susan’s emerald green corduroys and cerise blouse to Prudey’s scarlet dungarees and many other items including that delicious sounding “blue sheepskin coat with a scarlet lining”, it’s a vivid reminder not to see the 1940s simply as the colours of its black and white photographs.

Outside a Soho nightclub, 1942. Photograph by Bill Brandt, via

There’s one character in Love Lessons who definitely stands apart in terms of her style, and that’s Squirrel. Squirrel is Joan’s rival for the attentions of her beloved, handsome Rupert. According to Joan, she “looks like a Vogue cover with black hair tied back in a snood. She is very small and fragile, with a beautiful short nose like a Pekinese, and eyes like small black cherries.” In fact, Squirrel sounds like she could have come straight out of the pages of A Time to Be Born, dressed in her fur coats with “long red nails, and her brown wrists clinking with barbaric silver bracelets.” No wonder Joan simply states “I hated her on sight.”

Squirrel is a glimpse into another, more glamorous side of 1940s style. Joan writes:
“She and her sister Bosie live in a typical glamour-girls apartment with stockings and suspender-belts drying everywhere and the radio playing jazz. When we arrived Bossie was sitting at her dressing-table putting oil on her eyelids. She is v. glamorous and native, and was wearing plaid trousers and a transparent white shirt through which her breasts stuck out like spears.”

Recruitment poster by Laura Knight, c.1940. via

A no-less formidable rival eventually replaces Squirrel, but Joan’s diary entries only go up to the beginning of 1941 meaning that (in Love Lessons at least) we don’t get to read about what happens about her relationship with Rupert. We also don’t know how Joan copes with the hardest of the war years: not least the difficulties she’d face in obtaining cake, clothes (Utility clothing didn't start being introduced until the end of 1941) and even men! But Joan does go off and join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Here, clothes become a leveller, albeit perhaps not always a welcome one:

9 April 1941
“Modesty is thrown to the winds are we are drilled by male PTOs in our ‘blackouts’ i.e. black service knickers and no stockings. All of us – long thin housemaids, huge fat cooks and outraged debuntants – hop up and down in our underwear. We are a macabre sight, everything that can shake or wobble does, and everything that can come loose, comes loose.”

Wyndham’s experiences in the WAAF have their own devoted book Love is Blue and I really can’t wait for it to arrive to find out what Joan did – or what Joan wore – next.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Punk Debunked: Museums, Publishing and Punk

Anarchy in the UK, French vinyl single. Via

The accusations of plagiarism surrounding VivienneWestwood’s new memoir are sure to strike cold fear into the heart of anyone who has been involved in publishing. Much of this story smacks of a tricky but eagerly awaited book being rushed through to hit that all important Christmas market: no time to confirm sources, no time for a proper proof read, no time to fact check.

And Vivienne Westwood probably doesn’t care about this controversy in the slightest. Despite her being co-opted as one of our British national treasures, Westwood is a punk, and – as the mouthpiece of punk Malcolm Mclaren once said – “stealing things is a glorious occupation, especially in the art world.” Punk wasn’t based on acknowledging your sources, or paying dutiful respect to those who went before you. It’s a cut and paste movement; creativity born from chaos. As the Sex Pistols snarled in “Anarchy in the UK”, they “wanna destroy”: what punk celebrates is the antithesis of the aims of a biographer.

Dates, facts, provenance: these are all things punk doesn’t care about. It’s hardly surprising that punk has created problems for museums, as well as publishing houses, as exemplified by the problems surrounding the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection of ‘punk’ clothing. Take the view of record producer, John Porter, who was quoted in the Guardian on the Met controversy: “if the clothes were real, you’d feel cheated.” His argument emphasises that punk has always been more about attitude than authenticity.

Bondage suit, 1976. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Collection of the V&A Museum. 

For a relatively recent movement, punk retains its mythology. It’s still mysterious and, perhaps as a result, it’s still cool. The Manchester Free Trade Hall Sex Pistols gig, for instance, is regularly reported as one of the most legendary gigs of all time, but in reality, probably only had an audience of 50 people at most. Not aiding any search for punk ‘truths’ are Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (now veraciously represented by his widow Young Kim) – at the heart of any critical discussion of punk – who tussle over their relative contributions to punk’s formative years. When the Westwood exhibition opened at the V&A in 2004, McLaren staked his claim on the earliest, punk pieces in the show. He had a point: these pieces were born out of the creative collaboration between the two of them. But it continues. Despite the spokesman saying in that 2004 article that “Vivienne has always tried to make clear the exact nature of her collaboration with Malcolm and she is extremely happy for him to be credited where appropriate,” I noticed that the punk pieces in the Women, Fashion, Power show, currently at London’s Design Museum, were credited only to Westwood (possibly because she also loaned pieces for the show?). And, just as McLaren laid claim to the clothes, Westwood is now asserting her contribution to the music, stating in her new autography that the phrase “Anarchy in the UK” was her idea (leading John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, to dub her a “silly cow”).

We expect our museums and our books to bust myths and establish truths, but punk doesn’t seem to want to play ball. Punk’s legacy is about more than the look – it’s that all important attitude too. Meaning that while anyone can stick safety pins into their ripped T-shirt, without the corresponding punk spirit, it becomes another empty fashion statement – as seemingly demonstrated by the disappointing reviews of last year's Punk exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For those who want to play by the rules, Punk is undeniably frustrating. There is no definite biography, no comprehensive collection. But, grudgingly, I have to admit there’s something quite enjoyable, inspiring even, about all the chaos that still surrounds it. Do we need to make order out of everything to be able to fully appreciate it? The final words go to McLaren: “England deceives itself. It is a nation of liars.”

Friday, 24 October 2014

Oscar de la Renta: The Fashion Maker

“If my life were to end now … I would have no regrets. I’ve lived every day to the fullest and I’ve had a marvellous time. I’ve tried to be nice to people I care about and ignore the ones I don’t. I enjoy what I’ve done.”

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

Understandably, the death of the designer Oscar de la Renta early this week resulted in a huge number of tributes. One - frustratingly I can't remember which - used the quote taken from the book The Fashion Makers, which described what de la Renta said on his 40th birthday.

It sent me back to the book to see if the way he was talked about in the late 1970s was any different to the way he was discussed his week. And – pleasingly – the answer is no. The profile reveals the same charming Oscar, who enjoys the company of “people with a tremendous commitment to life” and making beautiful clothes for women in the spotlight (although while contemporary articles mention the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker and Amal Clooney, The Fashion Makers goes for Nancy Kissinger, Pat Buckley, Lee Radziwill and Babe Paley). The verdict of the author, Bernadine Morris, that “fashion has been good to him, and he’s made his mark on it, turning out clothes that are usually outrageously feminine and flattering,” could have been taken from 2014 as easily as 1978.

Spread in The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

When I wrote about this book before, I commented on the mix of old meets new designers in the book. Looking at the other names from the book that are still known and operating today, de la Renta seems to stand apart again, distinct from the preppy empires of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren or the soft, strong, body aware fashions of Diane von Furstenberg and Donna Karan.

“Being well dressed hasn’t must to do with having good clothes,” he states in the piece. “It’s a question of good balance and good common sense, a knowledge of who you are and what you are. There are many kinds of taste. The rules that apply to one person do not hold true for another.”

As much as talking about how to decide what to wear, in that simple piece of advice Oscar de la Renta summarises the design philosophy that maintained the desirability of his clothes for over forty years: know yourself and stay true to your style.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Talking vintage fashion with Nicky Albrechtsen

One of my first jobs after going freelance was project managing the Thames & Hudson book, Vintage Fashion Complete. It's a huge book, over 400 pages, over 90,000 words, over 1000 pictures. The book is based on the amazing collection of Nicky Albrechtsen.

In the sea of vintage fashion books that now exist, Nicky brings a stylist's eye to the subject. She explores vintage fashion through its prints and patterns - from animal print to polka dots - and through its individual elements, be that a jumper, a swimsuit or a wedding dress, making it more of a gorgeous book to inspire than simply another fashion history of the twentieth century.

When she's not writing books for Thames & Hudson (she's also written on scarves, handkerchiefs and spectacles for them), Nicky owns Vintage Labels, a vintage clothing resource studio in London. She was kind enough to answer some questions for me about her love of vintage and her incredible collection.


The lovely Nicky Albrechtsen 

How did you start collecting vintage?
Vintage clothing has really always been apart of my life although I never gave it such a grandiose title. I grew up during the sixties in fairly impoverished circumstances, albeit in the very attractive and bohemian lower part of Hampstead, known as Belsize Park and Primrose Hill. Jumble sales were the primary source for clothing and household bits and pieces and nothing was ever new. We would queue for ages on a Saturday morning outside church halls and scout huts, but what we found was amazing and I had the most fantastic dressing-up box. I still have the old wicker chest that I kept everything in, it's one of those large old theatrical hampers that belonged to my father who was a dancer, but sadly none of the wonderful clothes that were in it. As a cash strapped art student most of what I wore came from the local Hampshire jumble sales and once I joined the BBC costume department as an assistant designer "old clothes" took on the new title of "period costume" whether the era of the particular story was set in, be it the early 1800s or the 1950s.

How big (roughly) is your collection now?
I'm too scared to count the individual garments but it fills a studio that is 18, 000 square feet and everything is hung on two tiers of scaffolding! (Not counting the boxes and drawers…)

How did you grow it into a business rather than purely a passion?
After having trained and worked as a fashion textile designer, I changed track and joined the BBC. My changing career taught me to appreciate the value of old clothes from all aspects. I had always sold vintage pieces that I picked up from the fantastic jumbles sales around Hampshire where I was at art school. It supplemented my student grant and it proved there was a demand for lovely old clothes. When the BBC made all the design services redundant I began to freelance as a designer and stylist and over the years ended up with quite a large, eclectic stock of garments that were too good to sell. I knew their value to both the fashion/ textile trade and other costume designers and stylists so I looked for premises in a good location.

What is your favourite piece from your collection?
It's impossible to pick one – I have so many pieces that I love for different reasons; I have some beautiful jersey pieces from the seventies by Bill Gibb and Yuki. The clever cutting and resulting drapery is exquisite making them timeless without being boring classics. Among the scarf collection I have several of the famous Ascher Squares by different artists that I love not only for the artwork but for the uplift their acquisition gave me. I went out buying very early one Saturday morning at the time I was writing the book Scarves. I was feeling utterly depressed and exhausted from family/ work pressures and the additional commitment of trying to write a book. I picked up two of the most famous squares by Philippe Julian and the yellow rose design by Cecil Beaton for Ascher for pennies! How could I not continue the book on scarves?! Julian's illustrative designs are so intricate and Beaton’s rose is so evocative of the early fifties.

Have you any piece you really regretted letting slip through your fingers?
When I first opened up the studio on a commercial basis Topshop's online department approached me to supply them with really special vintage garments. Nothing like the cheap, easily found vintage that was sold in store at the time and can be found in many vintage shops and concessions today. The buyers wanted to create an online vintage selection, very high end, expensive and unusual. From my constant sourcing, I used to sell them the garments that I felt I could part with: one maxi dress was a real museum peace by Jean Varon. The floral print was so bold and distinctive set within a black and white checkerboard border, rather like an empty crossword. Around the neck someone had filled in an address and phone number on the white squares: it conjured up pictures of bohemian sixties parties and a very stoned gentleman leaving his contact details on a ladies dress. I managed to remove the ballpoint message and Topshop loved it: but that dress would have quadrupled in value even now. 

Now that vintage is your business, do you still wear as many vintage pieces?
Yes of course! But I really miss my art school days when my best friend and I used to plan our Saturdays around the local jumble sales of Winchester. We used to drive around in her old green Renault 4 called Horace and return with the car overloaded with naval whites, fifties ball gowns, thirties silk night dresses – just an incredible selection. My staple student summer wardrobe included white canvas brogues and long white cotton drill sailor shorts.

What is a ‘typical’ day/week in your business?
In all honesty no day is really typical! I am constantly sourcing new stock, which is getting harder as British stock is starting to run out. I may have an appointment with a high street design team looking for inspiration for two seasons ahead or I may be prepping for a photo shoot or helping a costume designer select garments for a television series. I rarely know what the following week will bring!

Have you noticed any difference in the types of vintage being most sought after in the last couple of years?
There is an increasing demand for inexpensive "recent" vintage that is cleverly styled by the vintage shops. While many knock it for not really being "vintage" it has an important place in the cycle of fashion; street trends often trigger fashions that are adopted by the more commercial and mainstream markets.

Now that vintage is fashionable, do you think it’s in danger of becoming over-priced/over saturated?
Original pieces cannot saturate the market as there simply aren't enough of them. But many are abusing the term vintage and applying it to any second hand clothes. These are saturating eBay, market stalls and cheaper venues. The rarer, original pieces are being bought and resold through "curated" vintage outlets so much that the price is just escalating. A dealer will search auctions or ebay for desirable garments that are then bought and resold by selective vintage shops and so on: the price of a garment just increases as it passes through so many hands.

What piece of advice would you pass to someone just starting to experiment with vintage?
To do just that; experiment until you find the shapes and styles that suit you. Vintage holds its price so garments can always be resold if you make a mistake. Think eclectically, not in terms of era – treat each garment as a thing of beauty in its own right and then you will successfully blend it into your wardrobe.

And what advice do you wish someone had told you when you started collecting vintage?
Well I suppose I have always looked at vintage professionally rather just for wearability. So I will buy a ripped mouldy dress if it has a commercial print. I don't think there is much anyone could have told me except that it was going to start running out more quickly than anyone ever imagined.


Thanks Nicky for those wonderful insights. But how depressing is the thought of vintage running out? Stockpile now, everyone (I seem to have been obeying that policy for quite a few years now...)

You can order a copy of Vintage Fashion Complete here. Nicky is also taking part in an event at London's Fashion & Textile Museum on 6 November, discussing how vintage fashion influences contemporary style. Find out more and how to get your tickets here

Follow my blog with Bloglovin
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...