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Vintage Clothing in London

Edina van der Wyck

Photo: Edina van der Wyck

"London's a great place for vintage clothes," Tracy Tolkien tells me. "English people have such an eccentric, eclectic style." It's a damp London morning, and we're surrounded by gently worn Guccis and still sprightly Schiaparellis in her vintage clothing store, Steinberg & Tolkien (193 King's Rd.; 44-207/376-3660). I'm on day one of my vintage shopping jaunt in London, and Tolkien's pleasantly musty boutique on King's Road, a street known for cutting-edge fashion ever since Mary Quant opened here 44 years ago, is the first stop on my crowded itinerary.

Though it's been more than a decade since I sat at a computer terminal inputting classified ads while dressed in a beaded 1920's dress and an opera coat (sure, laugh, but the rest of the staff was wearing power shoulders and platform boots), I haven't lost my fascination with antique clothes — even if I wear them a bit more judiciously these days, integrating a velvet coat or hand-knit ski sweater into an otherwise contemporary wardrobe. After all, who could resist the one-of-a-kind designs, French seams, hand-beading, and almost fetishistic attention to detail that make vintage fashion so special?Certainly not today's top designers, who freely plunder (okay, "borrow") from the first half of the last century in their quest to give us something new to wear.

In any case, spending a four-day weekend in London is the perfect way to indulge a love of fine old clothes. Dealers here are able to draw upon a seemingly bottomless supply of vintage treasures, leading one to speculate that England isn't just a nation of shopkeepers; it's a nation of attics.

TOLKIEN CERTAINLY APPRECIATES the English way of collecting; her British accent, however, is acquired. She's actually from St. Louis—her brother, in fact, still scouts the States for finds. (Could this account for the Neiman Marcus label in the pre—Stella McCartney Chloé suit hanging downstairs?) Her two-story vintage shop draws an international clientele (there are more downstairs signs in Japanese), and there's something for every taste, from a 30-year-old, floppy-collared maxi-dress by mod icon Ossie Clark to Tolkien's pride and joy, a 1912 eau de nile velvet ensemble by the renowned Venetian designer Mario Fortuny (priced at $9,600). "I had the Fortuny in my house on a dummy," Tolkien confides, "but it looked so fantastic I wanted to share it with my customers."

Just down the street at Antiquarius (131—141 King's Rd.), a multi-dealer center that occupies a former snooker hall, Margaret Williamson of Chelsea Lace (unit Q7/8; 44-378/659-783) shows me an exquisite mermaid-shaped crepe-and-velvet dress with beaded triangles, unfortunately in size "tiny." At Fothergill & Crowley (unit L10; 44-207/351-0011), Fina Fothergill follows my gaze to a stunning gold lamé twenties evening jacket—the sort of thing Gloria Swanson might have worn in Queen Kelly—and says, "That would suit you, Madame." She's right.

If the morning belongs to King's Road, the afternoon is reserved for Alfies Antique Market (13—25 Church St.), a 200-odd-dealer consortium in an old department store close to the Marylebone rail station that draws plenty of serious buyers. My first stop there is Tin Tin Collectibles (unit G38—42; 44-207/258-1305), whose owner, Peter Pinnington, has an eye for ferreting out unusual designs. His customers range from museum curators and private collectors who would never dream of wearing this stuff to glamour girls like Sadie Frost and Kate Moss, who can't wait to get it on their backs.

Today, Pinnington has a coat-and-dress ensemble in pink-and-gold cloqué trimmed with Lesage embroidery from Christian Dior's autumn/winter '65 season (the couture label is gloriously intact). It once belonged to Mrs. Chrysler—"like the car and the building," he says with a wink. Behind a showcase laden with metal-mesh purses hangs a circa-1900 gold-and-brown-plaid caped overcoat called an ulster that could have been lifted from Sherlock Holmes's closet. "We don't do many men's things, but being so near Baker Street, how could I resist?" Pinnington jokes.

Upstairs, in adjacent booths, Sarah Lewis (unit SO40; 44-207/723-6105) and June Victor (unit SO41—43; 44-207/723-6105) offer everything from twenties kimonos to Mama Cass muumuus, all priced to sell. "Sarah, show her the Mary Quant!" Victor sings out, and Lewis produces what may just be the world's first T-shirt dress—a minuscule black cotton knit number priced at a mere $45.

Just across the street, the Gallery of Antique Costumes & Textiles (2 Church St.; 44-207/723-9981) is far from the pleasant hodgepodge at Alfie's. Here, fear-inducing textiles (do you really want to be the first person to rip a pillow made from 16th-century Ottoman prayer covers?) are for sale along with a collection of antique accessories, including a pair of fuchsia silk stockings so bold, you realize why Mr. Porter thought a glimpse of them would prove so shocking.

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