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

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1 comment:

  1. Great piece, someone I used to know bought vintage clothes by the kilo at auction, might've been in Holland(?), quite a lucky dip!


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