“After a hostile encounter with a frosty shop assistant in Paris, I realised that the vintage market had become polarised, with no real understanding of luxury retail or customer service,” says William Banks-Blaney, who set up bijou Marylebone space WilliamVintage in late 2010. “I wanted to offer what I felt the vintage world was missing: high-quality pieces and an unpretentious shopping experience comparable to the best modern designer boutiques.”
It was while travelling the world as an interior designer that Banks-Blaney discovered his passion – and skill – for unearthing one-off fashion finds. He still animatedly recalls such memorable gems as “an exquisite floor-length coat made of salvaged 18th-century kilims” that he came across in Turkey.
By 2009, his collection had become so vast that he decided to host a private pop-up sale, held in a small conference room in Chelsea for 40 guests. His fourth sale, only a few months later, filled a whole town house and catered to 400 shoppers. Each sale was a total sellout.
Today his boutique attracts many celebrated style aficionados, including Tilda Swinton, Rachel Zoe and Michael Kors. Pristine pieces are grouped by colour, with couture gems such as a pleated 1956 Sybil Connolly gown nestled among more modestly priced ready-to-wear – a demure lemon-yellow 1975 Halston dress in unexpected ultrasuede, perhaps, or an elegant 1968 Ossie Clark purple Mystic Daisy dress. The chromatic layout not only dazzles customers, but also stresses that the focus here is on finding just the right piece, rather than the rarest or most valuable. Indeed prices, from £250 up to several thousand, are all on request.
“It’s not about catering to collectors, it’s about providing fantastic clothes to incorporate into a modern wardrobe,” says Banks-Blaney. “My customers don’t only wear vintage – they also shop at Alexander McQueen and Gucci.”
As a result, the shop appeals as much to haute-couture queens as to followers of fashion history. Items that would steal the show at some boutiques – a 1920s Chanel flapper dress or a 1950s Balenciaga skirt suit with matching cape – are here just two examples of an exceptional collection. And all bases are covered, from working wardrobe classics such as a 1965 Gino Charles silk two-piece to weekend delights like a 1960s Courrèges minidress.
Yet despite a firm following and stellar reputation, WilliamVintage’s intimate feel remains. The store operates on an appointment-only basis – “not to be stuffy, but because we want to maintain our same high standard of service” – and, no doubt, because of the shop’s truly tiny dimensions. Indeed, Banks-Blaney touches upon the need for larger premises, but for the moment a new online store will cater to increased demand. His mission, however, will remain unchanged: “Here people will discover that vintage design can be just as current as this season’s catwalk trends.”