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A Vintage Affairby Isabel Wolff
September is at least a good time for a new start, I reflected as I left the house early this morning. I've always felt a greater sense of renewal at the beginning of September than I ever have in January. Perhaps, I thought as I crossed Tranquil Vale, it's because September so often feels fresh and clear after the dankness of August. Or perhaps, I wondered as I passed Blackheath Books, its windows emblazoned with Back to School promotions, it's simply the association with the new academic year.
As I walked up the hill towards the Heath, the freshly painted fascia of Village Vintage came into view and I allowed myself a brief burst of optimism. I unlocked the door, picked the mail up off the mat, and began preparing the shop for its official launch.
I worked nonstop until four, selecting the clothes from the stockroom upstairs and putting them out on the racks. As I draped a 1920s tea dress over my arm I ran my hand over its heavy silk satin, then fingered its intricate beading and its perfect hand stitching. This, I told myself, is what I love about vintage clothes. I love their beautiful fabric and their fine finish. I love knowing that so much skill and artistry have gone into their making.
I glanced at my watch. Only two hours to go until the party. I remembered that I'd forgotten to chill the champagne. As I dashed into the little kitchen and ripped open the cases I wondered how many people would come. I'd invited a hundred, so I'd need at least seventy glasses at the ready. I stacked the bottles in the fridge, turned it up to Frost, then made myself a quick cup of tea. Sipping my Earl Grey, I looked around the shop, allowing myself to savour for a moment the transition from pipe dream to reality.
The interior of Village Vintage looked modern and light. I'd had the wooden floors stripped and limed, the walls painted a
dove grey and hung with large silver-framed mirrors; there were glossy potted plants on chrome stands, a spangling of downlights on the white- painted ceiling, and next to the fitting room, a large cream- upholstered bergère sofa. Through the windows, Blackheath stretched into the far distance, the sky a giddying vault of blue patched with towering white clouds. Beyond the church, two yellow kites danced in the breeze while on the horizon the glass towers of Canary Wharf glinted and flashed in the late-afternoon sunlight.
I suddenly realised that the journalist who was supposed to be interviewing me was over an hour late. I didn't even know which paper he was from. All I could remember from yesterday's brief phone conversation with him was that his name was Dan and that he'd said he'd be here at three-thirty. My irritation turned to panic. What if he didn't come at all? I needed the publicity. My insides lurched at the thought of my huge loan. As I tied the price tag on an embroidered evening bag, I remembered trying to convince the bank that its cash would be safe.
"So you were at Sotheby's?" the lending manager had said as she went through my business plan in a small office, every square inch of which, including the ceiling and even the back of the door, seemed to be covered in thick, grey baize.
"I worked in the textiles department," I'd explained, "evaluating vintage clothes and conducting auctions."
"So you must know a lot about it."
She scribbled something on the form, the nib of her pen squeaking across the glossy paper. "But it's not as though you've ever worked in retail, is it?"
"No," I said, my heart sinking. "That's true. But I've found attractive, accessible premises in a pleasant, busy area where there are no other vintage dress shops." I handed her the real estate agent's brochure for Montpelier Vale.
"It's a nice site," she said as she studied it. My spirits rose. "And being on the corner gives it good visibility." I imagined the windows aglow with glorious dresses. "But the lease is expensive." The woman put the brochure down on the grey tabletop and looked at me grimly. "What makes you think you'll be able to generate enough sales to cover your overhead, let alone make a profit?"
"Because . . ." I suppressed a frustrated sigh. "I know that the demand is there. Vintage has now become so fashionable that it's almost mainstream. These days you can even buy vintage clothing in High Street stores like Miss Selfridge and Topshop."
There was silence while she scribbled again. "I know you can." She looked up again, but this time she was smiling. "I got the most wonderful Biba fake fur in Jigsaw the other day-mint condition and original buttons." She pushed the form towards me, then passed me her pen. "Could you sign at the bottom there, please?" . . .
Now I arranged the evening gowns on the formal-wear rack and put out the bags, belts, and shoes. I positioned the gloves in their basket, the costume jewellery in its velvet trays, then, on a corner shelf, high up, I carefully placed the hat that Emma had given me for my thirtieth birthday.
I stepped back and gazed at the extraordinary sculpture of bronze straw, its crown seeming to sweep upwards into infinity.
"I miss you, Em," I murmured. "Wherever you are now . . ." I faltered as I felt the familiar piercing sensation, as though there was a skewer in my heart.
I heard a sharp rapping sound behind me. On the other side of the glass door stood a man of about my age, maybe a little younger. He was tall and well built with large grey eyes and a mop of dark blond curls. He reminded me of someone famous, but I couldn't think who.
"Dan Robinson," he said with a broad smile as I let him in. "Sorry to be a bit late." I resisted the urge to tell him that he was very late. He took a notebook out of his battered-looking bag. "My previous interview ran overtime, then I got caught in traffic, but this should only take twenty minutes or so." He shoved his hand into the pocket of his crumpled linen jacket and produced a pencil. "I just need to get down the basic facts about the business and a bit of your background." He glanced at the hydra of silk scarves spilling over the counter and the half-dressed mannequin. "But you're obviously busy, so if you haven't got time, I'd quite-"
"Oh, I've got time," I interrupted. "Really-as long as you don't mind me working while we chat." I slipped a sea-green chiffon cocktail dress onto its velvet hanger. "Which paper did you say you were from?" Out of the corner of my eye I registered the fact that his mauve striped shirt didn't go with the sage of his chinos.
"It's a new twice-weekly free paper called the Black & Green-the Blackheath and Greenwich Express. It's only been going a couple of months, so we're building our circulation."
"I'm grateful for any coverage," I said as I put the dress at the front of the day-wear rack.
"The piece should run on Friday." Dan glanced round the shop. "The interior's nice and bright. You wouldn't think it was old stuff that was being sold here-I mean, vintage," he corrected himself.
"Thank you," I said wryly, though I was grateful for his observation.
As I quickly scissored the cellophane off some white agapanthus, Dan peered out the window. "It's a great location."
I nodded. "I love being able to look out over the Heath. Plus the shop's very visible from the road, so I hope to get passing trade as well as dedicated vintage buyers."
"That's how I found you," said Dan as I put the flowers into a tall glass vase. "I was walking past yesterday, and your sign said"-he reached into the pocket of his trousers and took out a pencil sharpener-"that you were about to open, and I thought it would make a good feature for Friday's paper." As he sat on the sofa I noticed that he was wearing mismatched socks-one green and one brown. "Not that fashion's really my thing."
"Isn't it?" I said politely as he gave the pencil a few vigorous turns. "Don't you use a tape recorder?" I couldn't help asking.
He inspected the newly pointed tip, then blew on it. "I prefer speed writing. Okay now." He pocketed the sharpener. "Let's start. So . . ." He bounced the pencil against his lower lip. "What should I ask you first?" I tried not to show my dismay at his lack of preparation. "I know," he said. "Are you local?"
"Yes." I folded a pale blue cashmere cardigan. "I grew up in Eliot Hill, closer to Greenwich, but for the past five years I've been living in the centre of Blackheath, near the station." I thought of my snug railwayman's cottage with its tiny front garden.
"Station," Dan repeated slowly. "Next question . . ." This interview was going to take ages-it was the last thing I needed. "Do you have a fashion background?" he asked. "Won't the readers want to know that?"
"Er . . . possibly." I told him about my fashion-history degree from Saint Martin's and my career at Sotheby's.
"So how long were you at Sotheby's?"
"Twelve years." I folded an Yves Saint Laurent silk scarf and laid it in a tray. "In fact I'd recently been made head of the costumes and textiles department. But then . . . I decided to leave."
Dan looked up. "Even though you'd just been promoted?"
"Yes . . ." My heart ached. I'd said too much. "I'd been there almost from the day I'd graduated, you see, and I needed . . ." I glanced out the window, struggling to quell the surge of emotion breaking over me. "I felt I needed . . ."
"A career break?" he suggested.
"A . . . change. So I went on a sort of sabbatical in early March." I draped a string of Chanel paste pearls round the neck of a silver mannequin. "Sotheby's said they'd keep my job open until June, but in mid-May I saw that the lease here had come up, so I decided to take the plunge and sell vintage myself. I'd been toying with the idea for some time," I added.
"Some . . . time," Dan repeated quietly. This was hardly "speed writing." I stole a glance at his odd squiggles and abbreviations. "Next question . . ." He chewed the end of his pencil. The man was useless. "I know: Where do you find your stock?" He looked at me. "Or is that a trade secret?"
"Not really." I fastened the hooks on a café au lait-coloured silk blouse by Georges Rech. "I bought quite a bit from some of the smaller auction houses outside London, as well as from specialist dealers and private individuals who I already knew through Sotheby's. I also got things at vintage fairs, on eBay, and I made two or three trips to France."
"You can find lovely vintage garments in provincial markets there-like these embroidered nightdresses." I held one up. "I bought them in Avignon. They weren't too expensive because French women are less keen on vintage than we are in this country."
"Vintage clothing's become rather desirable here, hasn't it?"
"Very desirable." I quickly fanned some 1950s copies of Vogue onto the glass table by the sofa. "Women want individuality, not mass production, and that's what vintage clothing gives them. Wearing vintage suggests originality and flair. I mean, a woman can buy an evening dress on High Street for two hundred pounds," I went on, warming to the interview now, "and the next day it's worth almost nothing. But for the same money she could have bought something made of gorgeous fabric, that no one else would have been wearing and that will, if she doesn't wreck it, actually increase in value. Like this." I pulled out a Hardy Amies petrol-blue silk taffeta dinner gown, from 1957, admiring its elegant halter neck, slim bodice, and gored skirt.
"It's lovely," said Dan. He cocked his head. "You'd think it was new."
"Everything I sell is in perfect condition."
"Condition . . ." he muttered as he scribbled again.
"Every garment is washed or dry-cleaned," I went on as I returned the dress to the rack. "I have a wonderful seamstress who does the big repairs and alterations. The smaller ones I can do here myself-I have a little den in the back with a sewing machine."
"And what do these things sell for?"
"They range from fifteen pounds for a hand-rolled silk scarf, to seventy-five for a cotton day dress, to two or three hundred pounds for an evening dress. A couture piece can cost up to fifteen hundred pounds." I pulled out a Pierre Balmain gold faille evening gown from the early 1960s, embroidered with bugle beads and silver sequins, and lifted its protective cover. "This is an important dress, made by a major designer at the height of his career. Or there's this." I took out a pair of silk velvet palazzo pants in a psychedelic pattern of sherbety pinks and greens. "This outfit's by Emilio Pucci. It'll almost certainly be bought as an investment piece rather than to wear, because Pucci, like Ossie Clark, Biba, and Jean Muir, is very collectable."
"Marilyn Monroe loved Pucci," Dan said. "She was buried in her favourite green silk Pucci dress." I nodded, surprised and not liking to admit that I hadn't known that. "Those are fun." He glanced at the wall behind me. Hanging on it, like paintings, were four strapless, ballerina-length evening dresses-one lemon yellow, one candy pink, one turquoise, and one lime-each with a satin bodice beneath which foamed a mass of net petticoats, sparkling with crystals.
"I've hung those there because I love them. They're fifties prom dresses, but I call them cupcake dresses," I added with a smile, "because they're so glamorous and frothy. Just looking at them makes me feel happy." Or as happy as I can be now, I thought bleakly.
Dan stood up. "And what's that you're putting out there?"
"This is a Vivienne Westwood bustle skirt." I held it up for him. "And this"-I pulled out a terra-cotta silk kaftan-"is by Thea Porter, and this little suede shift is by Mary Quant."
"What about this?" Dan had pulled out an oyster-pink satin evening dress with a cowl neckline, fine pleating at the sides, and a sweeping fishtail hem. "It's wonderful-it's like something Katharine Hepburn would have worn, or Greta Garbo-or Veronica Lake," he added thoughtfully, "in The Glass Key."
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