Continuing from yesterday, here’s Part 2 of my interview with the founder of WilliamVintage, William Banks-Blaney.
Read on to learn about the treasures you can find in the middle of bales of hay, who’s in charge of bleaching the store floors and what you should keep in mind when shopping for vintage pieces…
8. Where’s the strangest or most far reaching place you’ve discovered pieces?
I go around the world. My whole point with dresses is they travel. So the thing I would say to anybody is always go in the thrift store you walk past. Always go in the consignment store. Always keep an eye on your local auction house which sells furniture because every now and again they get a coat. The most amazing one I had was actually through friends, which happens occasionally. It was the mother of a great friend of mine who had been quite the thing in the 60’s. And is still quite the thing actually, she’s a fabulous woman. She lives in the US alot of the time but she kept a base. So I met her in Devon which is down in the beard of England. She was emptying this little barn, it was just a place where the family could lay their head. It was like a playhouse, a den. She said, “I think I have some pieces you might be interested in.” Most of the house had been emptied.
There was this wall of 1960’s linoleum wardrobes and everything was in chaos. She opened up the doors, and you know, this is a 4 hour train journey from London. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s tractors and sheep and bales of hay. There’s nothing. In front of me were 17 pieces of the Courreges haute couture collection from 1967 and 1968 in perfect, unworn condition which she had had made when she lived in San Francisco when she was best friends and neighbors to Audrey Hepburn. She used to go for her fittings with Romy Schneider and Audrey on a jet and have fittings with Gabrielle Chanel and Andre Courreges. That was the most amazing experience – getting on the train and passing sheep and hay and farmers and arriving at this tired little barn. Opening up the doors to this little wardrobe and they were just perfect. Just extraordinary. That was probably the most amazing moment, the best reveal I’ve ever seen.
9. When cultivating and shopping for a vintage collection as part of your wardrobe, what are some key elements to keep in mind?
Okay, I think firstly don’t be a label snob. You should always go buy the cut, the construction, how good it makes you look and how comfortable you feel in it. Remember with vintage lots of pieces of amazing clothing have lost their labels. They’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 years old. Just go by what you love. From a price perspective, if something isn’t labeled, it shouldn’t really be very much money. Generally speaking, apart from a few exceptions. So be wary of paying quite alot of money for something if somebody is saying to you, “this is without a doubt Christian Dior.” Ask why, ask how, see if they have photographs of this piece being worn in L’Officiel. Understand what you’re buying and make sure you’re not being fleeced.
Be aware of buying something that is almost perfect. It’s a mistake I made in the early days where you find that spectacular 20’s flapper dress that’s covered in beads and there’s 3 square inches of beads missing. You will spend more money and more time trying to fix it than you paid for the dress. In the same way I buy for WilliamVintage, really just focus on things that are perfect. Try and avoid the thing that has the stain or has a patch of really intense wear. All the times you think, “I’m sure I can fix that”, normally you never have the time or the understanding of what you’re taking on board.
10. What influences your purchasing – is it completely based on instinct?
It’s completely based on instinct. But it’s a combination of things. When I buy, I buy something I like. It can be something that makes me smile because it’s ridiculous but I know it’s incredibly editorial. It can be something I think will make a woman look fantastic on a red carpet. By and large, the pieces of clothing I think are just really chic and really wearable whether you’re 22 or 72. Of course, now that a few years have passed, when I’m hunting I’ll inevitably see pieces and I will think, “oh my god, Tilda will love that”. I’ll have certain clients in my head and I’ll know immediately. Rachel [Zoe] is a great example. I can be hunting and I’ll think, “she’ll go nuts for this” whether it’s 70’s YSL or just a great thing. It’s also that thing of we all change tastes and feelings and I’ll just have a moment of loving tea colored dresses. They’ll be in my head for a little while and I’ll focus on those and then I’ll move on to the next thing.
11. What’s an average day like for you and how big is your team?
Our team is very small. Our team is me, Elspeth, who is now director of the company who works full time and is really the yin to my yang. She looks after our database, our appointment diary, our accounts, our paper trails. Everything that’s basically not visual I’m not allowed anywhere near. That’s her domain. She’s really kind of our chief exec; she runs the company. Then we outsource. We have 3 seamstresses who work with us at different grades. From one woman who is haute couture trained and working our way down. We’ll always change a hem, throw in a dart and work on pieces. Obviously with our more specialized pieces, there might be the need for, on a very good piece of haute couture that’s in fantastic condition, the stitching and the seams might have weakened. It’s her job to really secure that in the museum conservational style.
We work with an incredible dry cleaning company who most famously cleaned Audrey Hepburn’s collection of Givenchy haute couture from the 50’s and 60’s. They really know what they’re doing and they’re amazing because this guy is like Michael Caine. He’s like, [imitates accent] “aww right, aww right Will. How’re you doin, how’s things goin?” He’s a proper old school Londoner and he’s obsessed with vintage. He has this huge company and it’s like an airplane hanger. But he personally adores vintage so he does all of our pieces personally.
So our team is small, it’s me, Elspeth and our team of seamstresses in house. And I still bleach the floors.
12. Since you’ve pretty much cornered the market on dressing for the BAFTAs, are we going to be seeing any WilliamVintage on American red carpets soon?
I hope so. I’d be delighted to have a dress or two featured at the Oscars. Though obviously it’s that much more complicated with an ocean between us. We’re working with alot more stylists in the US and we’re working with alot more actresses who are partly based in the UK some of their time. We’re in conversations at the minute. It’s the plan to have a little bit of a WilliamVintage moment this year.
13. How do you see British style as differing from American style? Do you see a difference?
I think it’s become a lot more unified these days. I think there was a huge difference in the 50’s, the 60’s and the 70’s because it was so polarized. Each city was so different culturally. Britain in the 60’s was about Mary Quant, the Beatles, the mini dress. Same with France with Andre Courreges and Pierre Cardin. The 70’s were America’s to me really with Halston, Fendi, all of the great new generations of luxury sportswear from America really sealed the deal for me for that look.
But now, I think largely because of the internet. You can live anywhere in the world and have a Stella McCartney dress delivered in 36 hours. It’s about liking the piece. Whether you’re in Delhi or you’re in Connecticut, you can access similar clothing. The world has become a smaller place. It’s much less rare now to have a friend that lives in London or New York and equally to have a store that opens branches that much closer to you or sells online.
If there’s any difference, there’s a little bit more of a focus on tailoring in British clothing generally, particularly in sportswear just because culturally we have it from the Savile Row days. Whether you’re looking at the high end and looking at what Sarah Burton’s doing at McQueen, Stella McCartney even in her simple shift dresses; there is much more of a reliance on how something is constructed, how something is engineered. So I often think the sportswear of America is a little bit easier to wear, a little bit more forgiving. Lets not forget, it’s suited for hotter climates by and large. There’s a very big difference just in terms of protecting yourself from the weather you have to focus on. We’re much more jackets, separates, layers, tailoring, a reinforced shoulder, a more defined waist. That European look might have diffused but that’s where I notice it. If I’m walking down local High Street in the UK, to this day, I still think you can say “yep, that’s quite a strong, sharply tailored jacket” whether it’s for a man or a woman. I don’t see as much of that in the US.
14. What’s next for you? Are there any plans to open other stores?
I think we will eventually have a US store. We’re currently working on a much longer term plan over the next 5 years and a US presence is definitely part of that. We’re in a very lucky position in that the company is growing irrespective of the recession. Month on month and year on year, we’re just skyrocketing. We’ve been approached about doing books and we’ve been approached about doing a TV series. We’re working with an increasing amount of stylists and magazines. We’re also working with alot of fashion houses now. We’re working with alot of creative directors of brands increasingly who are looking for inspiration. So, yes to US presence and we’re currently in conversations about books and TV shows.
15. How would you describe London to someone (like me) who’s never been? Where’s the best place to people watch and really soak in the city?
Oh, I have so many! I think the extraordinary thing about London is it’s so multi cultural but it’s heart is actually very small. Yes, it’s a huge city and it has a degree of sprawl. But Zone 1 London (if you look at a map we have Zone 1 to 5) actually is walkable from the Houses of Parliament to Buckingham Palace to Shakespeare’s Theater on the banks of the Thames. It’s all very accessible. I have a few favorite spots. I love Borough Market, which is on South Bank. It’s a 19th century covered market with lots of independent dealers that come in to London to sell. There’s the meringue man, there’s old fashioned butchers, there’s cake makers and there’s the Brazilian guys that do all of the amazing pastries. There’s places to have amazing cups of coffee and sit down and watch the world go by. You can look at the Thames, you’ve got this 19th century market right beside you where you can eat something delicious for very little money. You can watch everybody – from some of the most famous chefs in the world to rather chic mummies out with their babies to young guys out and about. It’s a complete cross section of London. That’s probably my favorite spot for a real London moment where I think it’s a real combination of food, style, architecture and the Thames, which to me is what our city is entirely about.
A HUGE thank you to William for letting me “grill” him with questions and to Tim Beaumont for making it happen!