Words by Laura Allbones

Image of Bea Dewhurst-Richens

Whether you can’t get enough of the fusty smells that cling onto your vintage couture or you wouldn’t step your foot into something second-hand, vintage has had an undeniable influence on the fashion industry, from the catwalk to high street trends. Laura Allbones finds out what will happen when it’s gone.

I’ve always appreciated good vintage, even before working as a sales associate for Beyond Retro. But, it wasn’t until I started in 2014, when I began to think: ‘how much more vintage is left to source?’ We were importing around £50,000 worth of clothes every month. We were just one company, with three stores in London alone and with a delivery every Tuesday, vintage seemed to be never-ending. A day doesn’t go by when a customer breaks a zip, tears an arm or I see a button on the floor and have absolutely no idea which item it belongs to. I often put the oldest, most delicate items out of reach, in fear of sticky fingers having the unattainable urge to try on a 1940s dress.

Bea Dewhurst-Richens, archive manager at Beyond Retro lives by the saying “make do and mend.” The past four of her generations were seamstresses. Her mum gave birth to her when she was a mod. Back in the day, her dad modelled at Paris Fashion Week. Her Grandma was one of Hartnels expert cutters for Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress in 1930.

“Mass production still had the care of something being handmade. Industrial machines were heavy and only had the technology to cut five pieces at a time. America was at the forefront of fabric technology, whilst here in Britain, we still had fabric rationing until the early 50s”, says Bea. “Today you can’t tell the difference between a size 8 or 18 t-shirt. Companies like Primark are using so much fabric that you can wear any size. Maybe people don’t want to look like their Nan, but they want a good cut.” When you meet Bea, her in-depth knowledge about vintage textiles and garments is like consuming an encyclopaedia which was blonde, bubbly and to the point.

One Monday morning at Penn St, Bea boiled the kettle whilst I was left to my own devices in the archive. Everything was colour coordinated, organised to museum standards; denim blues hung next to hunter greens and nudes. Hand-embroidered 20s wedding dresses draped above the rails – again, out of reach – Georgian beaded purses and unworn, Victorian ladies’ boots lay among other treasured accessories on a wooden table. It was like entering a perfectly organised version of your grandparent’s closet. Heartbreakingly, everything was for sale. Beyond Retro don’t own any of the garments or fabrics in the archive, but the companies who they once belonged to still do, despite a lot of things being out of licensing.

“I have seen exact copies of things and it’s nice to see. I’d get frustrated when I was a punter, but when it was my duty to assist clients, I guess I matured and things changed. Looking back to when I started, I’ve realised how many collections I’ve actually helped with, from the prints, to shapes and cuts” she says. Last summer, Bea noticed there was less good vintage but admits, “If you know what you’re looking for you will find it. I’ve seen multiple Ossie Clarke dresses pop up in the space of three years.”

Over 15 people are currently employed by Beyond Retro scouring for the latest trends at the Bank & Vogue warehouse in Canada. Some with up to 30 years experience of spotting the difference between vintage and something outdated. But experience isn’t a necessity. The pickers communicate with Kevin and Scarlet, Buyers for Beyond Retro over Skype, and they’re told what to hunt for. “Anything which is trending is harder to find, but we work with what’s out there. There’s sometimes a fine line between what we say yes and no to. Westernised pickers tend to have more of an understanding as to what we want” says Scarlet. “Good vintage you find is more commercial” Kevin adds. Not everyone wore what we interpret the 60s as being. “Things we want were worn by small subcultures and a youth market.”

“It’s become more expensive already – we’ve seen it. The grade ‘vintage’ once fell into was worthless, it wasn’t money making. Now, suppliers are clued up and can spot a vintage piece worth picking. The market is so huge and everyone wants a piece of it.”

It’s impossible to predict when vintage will run out, but when we buy vintage we are recycling. “We have the internet now, so everything is shared on Pinterest and Tumblr. Everything’s logged and can be accessed easily, before this, the company had its own personal log on and no one shared it – it was our secret. But, seeing something on a screen is not the same as physically holding It” says Kevin. Fashion reflects society’s attitude, political views and social movements through an era. Throughout history, the clothes people have worn have mirrored how they were positioned in society. The way in which people dress makes a statement, even if they don’t want or intend to.

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Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!