There is something so enthralling about meeting a person who is an expert in their profession. And that is exactly what William Banks-Blaney is – a passionate expert – flooding with information and fabulous stories about Vintage Haute Couture. He has been hailed the ‘King of Vintage’, which is of no surprise; there is certainly something regal about this statuesque man from Westminster. His wealth of knowledge reigns back to a time be-gone, where clothes were worn to express something: femininity, freedom, power. But for him, vintage is relevant and responsible. It is history, it is the present and it will be there in the future. Maybe the timelessness of vintage is why it is the most sustainable source of clothing? William helps us explain why.
People call you the ‘King of Vintage’, but when did your journey begin and what initially made you so drawn to vintage clothing?
It started when I went vintage shopping with friend who was unfortunately going through a divorce. She had been through a lot at the time, was a little run down, usually a size 6-8, but put a little weight on. She wanted to find something special to wear for an event so I suggested going vintage shopping because, for me, vintage is about cleansing the palette, not being sheep and seeing yourself through different eyes. We went to a famous vintage store and they were so horrible to her they made her cry! I thought, fuck this! this is not what a retail experience should be and not what vintage shopping should be. So very shortly afterwards I did a pop-up for forty friends with pieces I had collected over the years, which sold out. I kept doing more pop-ups, with more items and more guests, until Vogue found out about it and did a big write-up. Soon it became apparent that this was a thing! It was kind of that straight forward, really.
What can you experience at William Vintage?
My items are all labelled ‘Discoveed by William Vintage’ because it has always been a sense of discovery. And I just really liking women! I was so bored of seeing women who were making money, successful, really intelligent and yet scared to walk into a shop on Mount street. What is that all about?! I wanted the shop to be a place where you could shop, have a scotch or an bacon and egg sandwich, have a hand held and find fashion that is about You and not trend-led. My dresses start from £250 and have no ceiling in price, because it’s not about how many items I have, or how much it is, it’s about finding that one-off knock-out piece. For me, it is important not be label snob or price snob, but to cover all price points and sizes.
Why do you think Vintage shopping is a different experience to other retail?
Vintage is about making you feel good about yourself. But in all types of retail, if you don’t leave without a smile on your face then someone hasn’t done their job properly. For me, it’s all about old-fashioned retail and vintage does this because it is unique and rare and allows a dialogue. There is always that ‘aha moment’ with vintage when customers enter hesitantly and then they put something on and suddenly it’s there and it clicks… and then you watch them fly! Get the right dress on the right women and her shoulders go back. It’s a really transformative moment. The qualities are better, the fabrics are better, the dyes are better! It ruins contemporary for you. In fact, I was recently in New York and I got to privately view the exhibition of the Anna Wintour Costume Institute, who we work really closely with. Afterwards, we went to Bergdorf and it was the worst thing you can do because you go from seeing beautiful cutting and intense rich colours to a store which is selling contemporary designers at $22,000, which is machine made, glass and not crystal. And my customers see the difference too!
Competing with fast-fashion retailers that arguably contribute to the pollution of our planet, do you feel like you are playing a positive role in promoting vintage clothing as a source of sustainable fashion?
I think the great thing with vintage is we have never led with the argument about its sustainability or its environmental low impact status, because it is already the most delicious, fantastic side dish to a great piece of clothing. I think in the 21st century you should be able to buy a piece of clothing and still have a degree of trust that it is made to ethical standards. I think vintage is the primary example of this because it was produced so long ago: it was entirely hand-worked, it has been existed and be worn 30 to 300 times (who knows!), it is highly unlikely to have strong chemical dyes, to have biodegradable issues because it is pure silk, cotton or linen; It is environmentally friendly at the start of its life and will remain environmentally friendly to whenever it no longer needs to exist.
Vintage clothing, as a token of the past, often holds a promise of a backstory. Can you tell us the most interesting story you have heard on your vintage hunting?
We have had loads. I think from an outside perspective everyone thinks that each piece has an amazing story and I actually love the fact that they don’t! I like the fact I can say I have no idea what life this dress has had. I love that sense of mystery. We are at a very interesting tipping point in terms of the vintage market where five years ago I was doing a lot of buying from women of a certain age, who are unfortunately now passing away. There was one fantastic woman who sadly died recently, a mother of a friend, and she was one of the first people I met when I stared William Vintage. Normally, I would get a lot of, ‘Oh, you have to come and talk to Mummy and see her clothes’, and I would find a wardrobe that looked like something from Dynasty! But I met this woman, who greeted me fabulously at the door with a glass of brandy in hand at 11am, who took me through her chaotic house and showed me the most amazing collection of vintage clothing. She kept showing me pictures of herself in the most amazing Courrèges dresses. One was quite racy and the Met Museum bought it for their archive collection - it was an exposed knicker dress with see-through panels over the crotch and breasts! And in these photos, I would notice the Queen of Spain or Mel Farrar. Turns out she was neighbours with Mel Farrer and Audrey Hepburn in LA. She became best friends with Hepburn and would travel to Paris together to shop couture. Suddenly this whole backstory came out about this moment in life that has gone now.
Amal Clooney, Julianne Moore and Gillian Anderson are known to be clients of yours. Why is it important for such known names to wear vintage pieces?
We work closely with Livia Firth of Eco Age (check out our interview with Livia). We were one of the first to be awarded GCC brandmark (Green Carpet Challenge) for our red-carpet dresses because, obviously, with it being vintage, it automatically qualifies as being sustainable and environmentally friendly. I strongly believe we should look nice but remain aware of these environmental issues. Seeing vintage in museums but also on our film stars of today, brings awareness to the relevance of vintage – which, in turn, adds to its environmentally beneficial status. Honestly, I think if my friend had turned to me years ago and said my wardrobe has to be eco-conscious, I would have thought of a potato sack and Birkenstocks! But it is wonderful to see how that has changed now we have Livia Firth working with Armani for Meryl Streep, or William Vintage working with Rhianna or Lana Del Ray and dressing them in a gorgeous vintage dress for covers of magazines and events. It shows you can fulfil your responsibilities to the planet and safeguard our future with very little work.
Do you think the fashion industry is changing in terms of becoming more eco-conscious?
When you start getting on the subject of sustainability, that is now being addressed by contemporary fashion houses, as well as true environmentalists and commercial vintage brands like ourselves, it becomes an osmosis. It is very difficult these days to live in the modern world and to not realise it is a responsibility, because whether you care about fashion or not, or whether you only shop vintage or only shop contemporary, it is that drip feed on of that subject matter which creates a change. It has got to be present everywhere. And we, at William Vintage, try and play our part as best we can. As consumers, it’s important to be aware of this also. Vintage is an investment. Don’t spend £2000 on something, when the next day it will £200. We had a customer spend a great deal on money on a Chanel dress and a year late was offered 3 times as much for it.
Ultimately, present day fashion will become future’s vintage. Do you think we should be looking out for any particular designers?
We always try and keep our eyes on new designers who are making clothes responsibly. I love Christopher Raeburn and the romanticism of his work: the calligraphy and map work, the use of natural fabrics and never loosing site of the fact that the fabric comes from nature. I hope from vintage, students who come into the store from LCF or Condé Nast, see that all the designers we have in store were once students, like themselves, with cash-flow problems. It’s very easy to forget that when you are talking about Chanel, Gucci or Erdem. These designers all stuck to their messages and didn’t follow the trend. They kept their signatures and that’s important to think about.
Interview by Jade McSorley
Portraits by Chris Baker