Some like it retro | Vintage shopping in London


London’s celebrated street style may be suffering from the omnipresence of fast fashion, but it’s still the world capital of vintage. Rachel Cohen goes in search of fashion treasure

Frock Me!

Frock Me!

I want to be a 1920s flapper, spilling onto the streets in a beaded gown after a long night of hot Jazz. I want to be a 1960s mod, strolling down King’s Road in a Mary Quant mini skirt. Hell, I’m not picky: I’ll happily be a 1970s punk, oozing attitude from every inch of my five-foot frame to back up the zips and ripped fishnets. The past is a romantic notion, easily summarised by the subcultures that were born out of the movements of the moment. Whether it was anarchy, feminism or peace, the message of a generation ultimately trickled down what they wore. Now tell me, who will look back on the style of this decade and reminisce about the good days of ole?

She makes no impact, no statement, comfortably numb to the generations that came before her

Walking down the streets of London, you may be lucky enough to spot a risk-taker or two, but the overwhelming majority of passersby will be clad in a uniform of fast-fashion choices. It is hitting now, isn’t it? Everyone looks dishearteningly similar. You’re waiting for a bus, and the girl next to you could have been the same anonymous figure standing on any given corner, but there she is, ankle boots, skinny jeans, oversized coat and all. She makes no impact, no statement, comfortably numb to the generations that came before her.

With little to fight for beyond the occasional Facebook campaign, the masses look to those dubbed by the media as style stars. After trolling dozens of internet faux idols and orchestrated street-style sites, it is no wonder the palette du jour is bland. Nevertheless, against the tidal wave of those who are fine just looking, well, fine, there exists a community that champions not just ensembles of another time, but the history they carry. These defenders of retro styles are the antithesis of the hordes marching on Oxford Street. Passionate and unique, those behind the vintage trade impeccably illustrate why we could all benefit from a look into the past.


Frock Me!

Off the tourist-ridden streets of Covent Garden, a forest green shop front allows for a glimpse into the two story vintage trove that is Blackout II. For nearly 30 years, Ros Torz has played first-hand witness to the transformative power of vintage clothing. “My favorite thing is when a girl comes off the street in a big, bulky coat, just looking drab, and she leaves my shop looking like a lady.” As if on cue, a young blonde woman, angular and at least two heads taller than me, walks in and starts browsing through the dresses. She’s wearing jeans and an enormous parka with her Converse, and carrying a backpack: the perfect candidate for Torz to prove herself. Within seconds the shop-owner has whipped out a red 1930s day dress from a rack that rivals Mary Poppins’s bag for contents. A tilted hat and white gloves are added and I kid you not, this girl is a new person. “The finish, fabric, style, lining – it all makes for clothes that fit and look better,” Torz explains of the difference in wearing vintage. Her first time customer, striking poses and making no effort to hide her delight, leaves with the complete look.

Ironically, the same high street stores that dress the masses will come to Spencer for inspiration, before reconstructing and reproducing her one-offs

Clare Spencer is a sartorial jack-of-all-trades. The academic of clothing, costume and textile is also a dealer, and film educator at University College London. Although I met Spencer at the Classic Car Boot Sale, the vast majority of her dealings happen behind closed doors; her clients range from designer labels to film productions to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Working in the “rag trade” since she was just 14 years old, Spencer’s understanding of dress – along with the studies that supplement her writing on the theoretics and semiotics of clothing, costume and textile – means her clients receive not just goods, but expertise on the subject. Ironically, the same high street stores that dress the masses will come to Spencer for inspiration, before reconstructing and reproducing her one-offs on a commercial scale.


It isn’t a secret that designers and their teams, from all echelons, buy up vintage clothing to source for ideas. However, that doesn’t mean it is common knowledge – unless, of course, you frequent vintage markets and fairs where you are likely to rub shoulders with, or jam your elbows into, members of the fashion crowd. Brought to Chelsea over a decade ago by Matthew Adams, Frock Me! has become one of London’s most celebrated vintage fairs. As I followed Elena Ochagavia, the fair’s coordinator, through the maze of stalls in the ornate town hall, the buzz of excitement in the air had me fighting back the desire to say, “screw professionalism” and start hungrily grabbing at the nearest Yves Saint Laurent dress. Apparently I had already missed the morning madness: hardcore devotees invariably arrive before doors open, to have the best selection. Ochagavia pointed out that each stall reflected the individuality of its stallholder, specialising in a particular era or theme. This, she believes, “makes shopping more human.” It’s hard to disagree as I stumble upon a stall presenting ballet and circus costumes from the first half of the 20th century right after browsing a booth devoted to 1950s apparel.

these vendors deal in a finite trade, that can’t be sold on the levels of H&M or Topshop

With this one monthly fair drawing over 100 vendors, it isn’t difficult to imagine that there are hundreds more devotees throughout the country. While these vendors deal in a finite trade, that can’t be sold on the levels of H&M or Topshop, growth to that degree isn’t the point. As Clare Spencer points out, fashion is a business, and the amount of 1970s products for sale at the fairs is a direct response to catwalk trends. Still, you don’t typically go into fashion for the wealth, it’s a labor of love, and those advocating the clothing of yesteryear want more than an ill-fitting top. “People appreciate good design. Something that was amazing when it was first made in the 1930s is still appreciated now. Things now are so throw away,” says Ochagavia. In there lies the blatant truth behind the support of vintage: a desire for quality that persists and for style that transcends trends. C