Treasure hunts can lead to the unlikeliest spots. I had heard about a vast private collection of vintage fashion whose unique garments attracted curious designers and fellow collectors from all over the world. I was determined to make the pilgrimage myself and so earlier this year I drove six hours from London to a remote corner of Devon to meet Mark and Cleo Butterfield, owners of one of the most remarkable private archives of vintage fashion I have ever seen. Contemporary designers have been in on the secret for a while, sending their teams to the West Country with sometimes nothing more than a mood board in the hope of finding inspiration for their new season’s collection. In addition, the Butterfields have supplied vintage costumes to many award-winning film and television productions. They also provided museum-quality garments by Ossie Clark, Norman Hartnell and cult boutique Granny Takes A Trip for a commemorative set of Royal Mail stamps in 2012.
The Butterfields hire out items from their exquisite collection (£60 for the first week, reducing by half the cost for each following week, and staying at a minimum of £10) to stylists and designers, but for the first time the general public are able to see a selection from their extraordinary knitwear archive in a new exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London. The display features 1920s Chanel jerseys and 1930s woollen swimwear, as well as conceptual garments from Comme des Garçons and Vivienne Westwood. Almost all of the items are from Mark and Cleo’s collection (although knitwear is only one part of their vast hoard of vintage fashion, which includes pieces by Courreges, Biba, Body Map, Dior, Zandra Rhodes and Pucci).
Yet the dress that impressed me most when I visited their archive in Devon was a 1930s Grecian-style gown by Fortuny – coiled into its original box, which is unbelievably rare – in bold vermilion silk with glass beading on the shoulders (pictured). This particular style of dress has a timeless appeal: Mrs Condé Nast was photographed wearing a similar design in 1917, and supermodel Natalia Vodianova wore an original Fortuny gown to the Met Ball in 2008.
When I asked Cleo if she favours a particular period in vintage fashion, she explained she is drawn to more bohemian clothing, such as early Liberty pieces. “In 1966 there was a fabulous Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, then in 1972 there was a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. We all loved that sort of thing, and I have an Ossie Clark jacket with a very unusual print that seems inspired by that kind of art.
“I’ve always made a living out of vintage, although it wasn’t my original plan – I was at LSE when Mick Jagger was there – but vintage fashion is what I really love. I adore black and white movies and used to go to screenings at the Mayfair Hotel, where the crowd probably thought I was an outrageous hippie, turning up in a 1930s chiffon dress – most likely barefoot.”
Cleo has an innate sense of what makes a garment interesting to look at, and says that she has never bought anything “because it was commercial”, only for pleasure, even if that meant that its immediate use was not obvious. “One thing I have noticed is that designers are often drawn to the style of clothing that was in fashion when they were teenagers themselves," she says, which may explain why we are seeing so much 1990s-inspired minimalism in designer collections at the moment. “But obviously it’s a big wheel that goes round and around.”