Every now and then, I come across a collection of vintage clothing so vast that I don’t know where to look first. These usually belong to private individuals – daughters (and occasionally sons) of prolific shoppers, or women who have turned their wardrobes into a shrine to old-fashioned glamour. Yet some of the most fascinating collectors I have met are those who buy vintage clothing to inspire their work. Earlier this year I met Yasmin Yusuf, creative director of Miss Selfridge. I had heard that she had amassed one of the most enviable collections of vintage fashion in the UK – but nothing prepared me for the staggering archive on Marylebone Road.
Yusuf uses original vintage clothes as inspiration for her designs, reinterpreting fabrics and patterns for contemporary garments. As the elevator arrived at her floor, the doors pinged open to reveal a corridor of mannequins dressed in fabulous outfits from every era of 20th-century fashion. We meet in a room surrounded by rails of clothing: on my right, a selection of vintage dresses, and to my left, the design samples they have inspired. I spy a beautiful pleated organza gown – very similar to the one worn by Lauren Hutton to the Oscars in 1975.
“I was brought up by my grandparents, so what we now call ‘vintage’ was all around me – records on the gramophone, black-and-white movies,” Yusuf explains. Her innate sense of style allows her to visualise how vintage-inspired pieces can complement a modern wardrobe – such as pairing a sequin shawl with skinny jeans. “Combining vintage with contemporary is wonderful because we dress so casually all the time – it’s great to wear something like that to style it up. Vintage pieces can be so versatile.”
As we swap stories I struggle to match her spellbinding accounts of tracking down vintage clothing – Yusuf’s dedication to scouting out the most unusual pieces takes her all over the world – and I decide to just sit back and enjoy: “I was in Australia and a boutique owner showed me a huge consignment of dresses that had just arrived from an heiress in France. Every piece was accompanied by a photograph, demonstrating how to assemble the outfit.”
More recently she was invited to peruse the Warner Brothers costume archive; a two-hour appointment extended into four blissful days, examining dresses such as those designed by Cecil Beaton for My Fair Lady. One of Yusuf’s favourite places to source clothing is the Vintage Fashion Expo, which takes place five times a year in Los Angeles and San Francisco, showcasing over 50 prestigious dealers in vintage couture and fine jewellery: “LA is the best without question, because of the music and film industries. Be prepared to get up early to find the highest-quality pieces. It’s impossible to buy everything that you like – there’s too much – but you can at least see things and find inspiration.”
Our conversation ends with Yusuf giving me a tour of her vast archive, which includes books, vintage magazines and even old scrapbooks from French lace mills. Each item of clothing is catalogued and wrapped in protective packaging – the treasured items from designers including Elsa Schiaparelli and Pierre Cardin that will, when Yusuf decides, influence how our daughters choose to dress.