London Shopping: Vintage Shopping

London Fashion
High street trends and funky street styles…
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Racks to Riches
The truth behind vintage shopping in London…
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Shop Like a Pro
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Shopping Areas
The best posh shops and bargain shops…
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– Ashley Brown rifles through stacks and piles for the best find – the truth behind vintage shopping in London…

Vintage Clothes at Portobello Market, London. Photo Credit: Spixey. C.C.LicenseFlipping through a series of LP bins at a shop obviously ignorant of its jazz and rock goldmine (probably acquired from an equally ignorant estate or garage sale), I cautiously glanced over at the man gunning down the row opposite me. I anticipated the moment at which we met in the middle of the row, equal parts dread and firm resolve. I knew there existed a small but distinct window in which, if I yielded, I would be overrun by said man, but if I defiantly held my ground he would be forced to divert and step around me, thereby possibly ceding first look at one of the bins to me.

These extremely important nuances are lost on the casual shopper, who would be more inclined to politely move aside, but in him I could easily recognise the trademarks: fingernails embedded with the dirt of a million old LPs, a nose immune to the musty assaults of piles of discarded clothing, and an arsenal of trying-on shortcuts – throwing the pants around the neck, measuring shoes sole to sole – these subtle indices reinforce the old adage, because in the world of vintage shoppers, it truly takes one to know one. Unlike with other addictions, vintage shopping is a solitary sport, as any junky worth a pair of antique Zodiac boots will tell you – shopping companions are for high street, and will only slow you down. An entire obsessive subculture surrounds vintage and antique shopping, and although there’s no initiation, membership is implicit, and vintage shoppers tend to view one another with more wariness than camaraderie.

The Vintage Find

The appeal of vintage over high street is distinct but somewhat difficult to articulate, but it can be explained partially in the fact that, unlike the mass-manufactured, brand-new spoils of high-street fashion, which peddle more of an image than simply a garment, vintage finds are weathered and mired in history. With high street chain fashion and even couture fashion houses, although a piece is generally new and trendy, it also almost assuredly has thousands of duplicates, and, particularly with the most popular chains, you’re guaranteed to see an exact replica on the street. With vintage pieces, however, a look can be cobbled together with several that, although not necessarily unique, are self-contained enigmas – vintage pieces offer a past that prompts curiosity about their origins and previous owners, about all the hands they travelled through that were oblivious to their value, a value now redeemed by you.

It’s a strangely gratifying feeling to find something dog-eared and bedraggled, weighted with accumulative layers of time, relegated to a bargain bin long ago by someone to whom it was worthless. It’s a value universal in the world of vintage, used and derelict objects. I once found a copy of a Throbbing Gristle LP in the dregs of a Salvation Army charity shop, and was amazed by the fact that it had apparently remained so long undiscovered – but then, this recalls another adage as worn as the array of cowboy boots gracing the shelves of East End shop Beyond Retro – one man’s treasure is another man’s junk.

The Bin Banger

Vintage shopping is hardly a trade reserved for reclusive crate-diggers, though – fashion is by nature cyclical, and elements of retro looks are always reworked and re-enter fashion, if only subtly at first. This season, stores like H&M and Topshop have both commandeered and contemporised the exotic bohemian look found on spring runway shows, a fad reminiscent of seventies hippie chic, peppered with a modern dash of multiculturalism. Many high fashion magazine stylists turn to vintage shops in order to accessorise and complement the couture fashion spreads contained in the pages of their glossy monthlies. Magazines such as Elle and Nylon incorporate vintage pieces with pieces by fashion behemoths – Burberry and Stella McCartney – to give outfits a more individualised appeal. And that, in essence, is what vintage shopping is about – it provides the opportunity to create a style that isn’t a mere facsimile of a high street mannequin, and one which requires imagination and adventure rather than simply a zone one tube pass and plenty of cash.

The component of the appeal of vintage shopping that is probably most puzzling to outsiders is the act itself, which is often less shopping as it is sorting through piles of what are quite often just dirty, old objects – but this search is unhampered by dry spells that can endure for weeks or months. It’s equally unhampered by the magnitude of the putative “junk” to sort through – the hope of the ultimate find that may be in the next shelf or in the next box is sufficient motivation to spend hours pillaging charity shops and suburban garage sales. The Swans LP I found at a charity shop was the last record in the last box I flipped through in a room filled with LP boxes, and it was entirely worth the hour or so necessary to look at them all.

These sorts of finds, though, are rare in metropolises, because they’re generally dependent on the ignorance of the seller as to the value of the item, or, as difficult as it is to imagine with gems like that Throbbing Gristle record, a long line of ignorance through which the item has passed. And since London generally seems to attract more experienced, savvy shoppers, the possibility of a genuine chance find is even more remote. But although central London contains a number of vintage, antique and record shops whose extravagant prices and extremely rare wares make them more like museums than stores, some relative bargains can still be found.

Where to Dig

This painfully hip store with three branches around London proffers retro clothes at prices rarely below twenty UKP. According to a store clerk, the stock is imported from a mother company in Canada and pre-priced, which makes it automatically suspect, and shoe prices are criminal – but the rare, moderately priced find makes a stop here worthwhile.

Beyond Retro
An excellent emporium with a veritable warehouse of vintage clothing in all manner of styles, this gem of a store, located a few blocks off of Brick Lane among industrial, derelict-looking buildings, is a haven for weathered vintage shoppers and fashion-industry types alike. Prices are some of the best bargains you’ll find in central London – rarely more than ten UKP for shirts, blouses and heels, fifteen UKP for dresses, and thirty for jackets and boots. Some household wares and furniture are offered, too, along with myriad accessories, bags and sunglasses. The shoe range is well maintained and appealingly arranged according to colour, and the sweaters and shirts are laid out likewise. Although the store bills itself as “American Retro in London”, the pieces are obviously culled from Canadian and American rag houses. The slightly Misleading advertising notwithstanding, Beyond Retro is the best of its kind in central London, achieving the rare coupling of a lack of pretension with a keen eye for style.

Salvation Army Store
This sparse but well-kept store is tucked around the corner from the high street mecca of Oxford Circus, but is hardly the sort of dirt-cheap Salvation Army free-for-all so common in the suburbs. Clearly catering to high street types willing to wander ever slightly off-path (two-thirds of a block, to be precise) to do some rummaging through this store’s less than ample racks. Items are generally moderately priced, following the Rokit model of slapping a thirty UKP price on anything looking vaguely out of the movie Repo Man.

Portobello Road Market
Although the rest of the market runs through the weekend, the best day to go for vintage shopping is Friday. The wide array of decades and styles represented in the stalls underneath the canopy, several blocks past the antiques and foods, attracts both casual shoppers and designers in need of inspiration, and, accordingly, some stallholders cater to the latest runway trends. Prices are generally low, but since stallholders know their stuff, rarer finds can top fifty pounds.

– Ashley Brown