There are few shops on Paris’ Rue Madame, near the Luxembourg Gardens, but amid the banks of honey-coloured apartment buildings one bright-blue façade pops out – that of the Charlotte Bialas boutique. It is as eye-catching as the vintage silks sold within, which date from the 1950s onwards and come from past collections by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Dries Van Noten and Hermès. On my latest visit I fell for a 1970s navy and ivory French print (€1,300) by Atelier Sache (who designed for Dior and Balenciaga) that suggests a New York skyline.
Bialas, who hails from Stockholm but settled in Paris in the early 1980s, had been collecting swathes of old silk for years before coming up with a specific plan for something to do with them. It started, she tells me, while she was visiting LA and a friend mentioned an Italian collector who had bought his vintage textiles from a Hollywood movie designer in the 1960s. Though he was initially reluctant, he eventually sold her some of his stock. That led her to wonder about what happens to the printed fabrics from fashion collections at the end of each season, and she soon began seeking out rare, vintage, one-of-a-kind or limited edition silks at antique fairs and auctions worldwide, with France, Italy and the UK proving particularly rich sources.
Visitors to Bialas’ irresistibly beautiful boutique – a naturally lit space full of richly coloured silks that hang by their points like headscarves and inevitably draw the eye (and fingers) – can select any of these myriad silks, each of which is numbered, and have her turn it into a made-to-measure dress (from €500), skirt (from €440), top (from €420) or pair of trousers (from €420) within 48 hours. Each piece is unique – preventing the potential embarrassment of turning up at a special event only to find someone else wearing the same outfit – and her designs are deliberately timeless, so that they can be worn for years. In fact, the only element of these vintage silks that is not unique is that they were all made at a time when the water used in the production process was far less polluted than it is today – which is one of the reasons that they keep the vibrancy and depth of their colours far better than their modern counterparts.