How Vintage Fashion Became The New Celebrity Must-Have

From the Duchess of Sussex to Amal Clooney, the A-list way to shop now is to buy second-hand, says Caroline Leaper


Meghan Markle wears a Courrèges haute couture black trapeze jacket, circa 1965, whilst in New York for her baby shower. Photo / Getty Images

If the Duchess of Sussex needs an outfit for a special occasion, she might ask her friends at Givenchy to whip up something nice, or challenge a young designer, like Grace Wales Bonner, to take on the career-changing commission. But these days, it seems, she would be just as likely to opt for a new outfit that’s not very new at all.

Meghan’s interest in wearing vintage peaked when she was pregnant, evident in a series of Sixties trapeze cut coats that elegantly accommodated her changing silhouette. She wore a Courrèges couture style in matelassé silk (circa 1965) for her baby shower in New York, and a satin Dior couture coat (by Marc Bohan in the Sixties) for Lena Tindall’s spring christening.

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Meghan, like several other high-profile clients, finds her fashion rarities at William Vintage, the London emporium founded by the industry’s proclaimed “king of vintage”, William Banks-Blaney, in 2010. She might have met him through her friend Amal Clooney — the human rights lawyer is a loyal client and will wear, say, a Balenciaga wool day dress from 1958 for an important presentation at the United Nations, or a glamorous 2007 Jean-Louis Scherrer cape dress for a reception at Buckingham Palace.

The red carpet is usually a showcase of straight-from-the-catwalk and new, custom-made designs — but even here, vintage is gaining ground. At the Cannes Film Festival, Rocketman actress Bryce Dallas Howard pledged to only wear second-hand pieces, while actress Elle Fanning (in a Fifties Prada prom dress) and model Bella Hadid (in a 2006 Roberto Cavalli gown previously worn by Sharon Stone, also to Cannes, in 2013) stood out as best dressed attendees. In recent weeks we’ve seen examples from Penelope Cruz, in vintage Chanel at the Met Gala, to Kendall Jenner, reviving a Nineties Jean Paul Gaultier T-shirt with ripped jeans for the street-style generation.

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They all get two kicks out of wearing it; first, they are shopping sustainably by not buying new clothes and, secondly, they’ve got something special that no one else will have. Second-hand clothing was once a tainted entity — worn by someone else, it went against our mass shopping culture obsessed with buying box-fresh things. But with an increased awareness of how much clothing we send to landfill each year, the new view is that finding top-quality vintage items is a statement of what an intelligent, conscious shopper you now are.

“This is what luxury shopping is about now,” says Marie Blanchet, the new CEO at William Vintage. “Buying vintage offers a whole experience; you don’t just buy the dress, you buy a talking point and a piece of history.”

Since her appointment in January, Blanchet has been on a mission to raise the profile of wearing vintage and to turn the insiders’ favourite boutique into a global luxury brand in its own right. Previously at e-tailer Vestiaire Collective, she scaled revenue from vintage sales from four million euros to 27 million in the last three years, riding high on fashion’s sustainability drive and the growing interest from customers in buying designer items second hand.

Blanchet has expanded the boutique’s offering to sell more designer brands and is plotting a revamped website, expansions to the US, and a collaboration selling pieces on MatchesFashion.com from July.

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“My idea is that this could become the first fashion brand that makes fashion but doesn’t make clothes,” she says. “Fashion now keeps repeating itself, there are no more trends because every trend is happening at once. Fashion is inspired by previous decades, so when you buy something vintage there is no way it can go out of style.”

High end, genuine vintage leads the way for Blanchet but, elsewhere, the second-hand fashion market is expanding for all budgets. Via social media, established west London truffle-hunters such as Mairead Lewin (@maireadlewinvintage) and Karen Clarkson (@foundandvision) are reaching broader audiences, with women contacting them on Instagram to describe what they are looking for.

In New Zealand, fashion blog Serendipity Ave announced their shift in direction, swapping fast fashion pieces for a curated range of second-hand t-shirts and denim. Boutique brand Wixii also offers a hand-selected edit of second-hand pieces alongside their new items, both in their Ponsonby store and online. On the high street, Glassons has added a vintage denim section to their Newmarket store.

Pieces for special occasions are in particularly high demand. Jennifer Mitchell-McNally, founder of the Liverpool-based Overdress Vintage, counts the blogger Susie Lau and Vogue editor Suzy Menkes as clients. Most pieces she sells are “unsigned”, meaning they bear no glitzy names, but her strength is her taste, finding items with a wow factor for prices starting at just £20. Shopping vintage can also give shoppers access to a level of craftsmanship that might have been out of budget for them before.

“We recently sold a powder pink Fifties lace prom gown to one client for a secret garden gala in Gloucestershire, and a Seventies Frank Rothschild crêpe maxi dress to another for her son’s baptism,” she explains. “The women who come to me want a unique outfit that will fit with their personal style and, most importantly, won’t be seen on anyone else. It is premium occasion wear and I have found that the occasion can be anything from a wedding or a fashion show to a night out with the girls.”

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Finding what you want is easy, the experts say. With all the new services in play, the days of panning for treasures in musty-smelling shops are over, if that was what put you off before. “It’s important that every customer is treated the same way as the biggest A-listers,” says Blanchet. “You make an appointment and give a brief of what you’re looking for, then do a fitting with our in-house couturier to try things on and tailor it to you. It’s the experience people would get at the old couture houses.

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“We have women who want to try on lots and who are looking for guidance as to what suits them, but also clients who keep a mood board and are extremely specific about what designers and eras they want to see.”

What’s popular at any given moment can be hard to define, but “The Sixties are huge,” says Blanchet of the current mood. “The modern shapes of then: there is a picture of Audrey Hepburn standing in front of Notre Dame wearing Hubert de Givenchy in 1962 and this is just a beautiful symbol [of the style people want to emulate]. The Duchess of Sussex has been wearing our pieces from the Sixties. We have a lot of Courrèges and Pierre Cardin in these iconic silhouettes.”

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The hunt for new suppliers is still a thrill for Blanchet. “Every time I unwrap a new dress I get that feeling of excitement,” she says. A recent acquisition came from a collector who kept her dresses from Lee Alexander McQueen’s final collection folded up “like nappies” under a child’s bed in her flat on a London council estate. Their value has increased tenfold in the decade since the superfan bought them.

“You shouldn’t keep clothes in plastic,” she pleads. “Fragile and heavily embroidered pieces can be kept in boxes, but others can live in white cotton garment bags. The pieces that are older, ironically, are usually saved better, because these pieces were made to last.”

To make a good future investment, Blanchet recommends “Karl Lagerfeld’s collections for Chanel, but also designers who have left houses, like Raf Simons’s final collection for Calvin Klein or Christopher Bailey at Burberry. Keep any of your Stella McCartney for Chloé, that’s going to come back soon. Anything that’s already a part of fashion history.”

7 TIPS FOR SHOPPING VINTAGE WELL

Find your era
Think about which decades and styles are most reflective of your personal style. You’ll want your vintage piece to stand out in your wardrobe, but not look like fancy dress, or costume on you.

Don’t let designer names lead your search
Hunting for a big name might not always offer the best results, as markups can be high. Fabulous pieces can be found for all budgets if you’re willing to look at “unsigned” clothes.

Buy from an expert
Make sure that your source is reputable, and is able to offer clear information on the origins of the piece, as well as its value and care instructions.

Check the condition
Look out for stains, marks, pulls, broken zips and - the worst case scenario - signs of moths. Small faults can be repaired, but you’ll find it difficult to source that missing button. Any damage should be reflected in the price.

Consider reworking things
If you do find an incredible piece in a bad way, but it’s a bargain, could it be revived somehow? A local tailor (or anyone handy with a needle and thread) might be able to save elements of a piece, like embroideries or fastenings, to be applied to something else. Jackets can become waistcoats, dress hems could be shortened.

Try things on
Women, on average, used to be smaller, meaning that sizes on older garments are different to the gradings used today. A size 10 from the Eighties could be a size 6-8 today, so try before you buy and if you’re shopping online, ask for the measurements.

Look online
A lot of great vintage retailers sell online; look at their websites and Instagram pages to get an idea of the pieces they stock and their prices before going into stores.

— The Daily Telegraph

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