The Lowdown on Vintage London

The Lowdown on Vintage London

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As The Rough Guide to Vintage London is published May 1, one of its authors Frances Ambler explains why she finds this aspect of the city so exciting.

Eye-popping pink and blue concentric circles on polyester, my first London vintage purchase is indelibly printed on my memory. I was fourteen, in Camden Market and out to spend the tenner burning a hole in my pocket. I knew that this was the dress to make me stand out in the sea of mid-90s khaki back on the high street of my hometown.

I leave the polyester on the rail now, but London’s varied vintage scene is still an inspiring hunting ground for my retro whims, whether that’s some sparkling costume jewellery or a spectacular piece of Art Deco lighting. While each of the shops, bars and venues listed in The Rough Guide to Vintage London has its individual charms, what’s interesting is that every postcode of the city is characterized by a different definition of vintage. On Brick Lane, it might mean rummaging for a 1980s jumper or a 90s rucksack. In design-conscious Clerkenwell, it’s about the mid-twentieth-century Scandinavian pieces sold by carefully curated places such as Førest. Or head to Islington for the high-quality boutique selections available at Annie’s and Fat Faced Cat. To me, the pleasure comes from being able to pick and choose from the abundant variety spread out across the city: I have pretty 1950s dresses bought from 162 Holloway Road, an Ercol sideboard found in my local Crystal Palace Antiques, and I’ve enjoyed one too many classic Manhattans in the glamorous West End setting of Brasserie Zédel.

Although vintage has seemingly never been so fashionable, the explosion of the scene in the East End over the past ten years or so has parallels throughout the second half of the twentieth century. In the 1960s, buying Edwardian or Victorian clothes from the likes of Granny Takes a Trip on the King’s Road was as much of a counter-cultural expression as picking up a pair of brothel creepers in Dalston is today. Notting Hill may now be one of London’s most desirable neighbourhoods, but its 1970s bohemianism can still be glimpsed in the eclectic wares still widely available there. And just as the current vintage enthusiasm is tinged with a longing for a time that never really was, long-established Soho fixtures such as American Classics and Ed’s Easy Diner grew out of a nostalgic yearning for 1950s Americana. The club kids who swooped on Wayne and Gerardine Hemingway’s Camden Market stall in the 1980s, meanwhile, have been succeeded by today’s charity shop-raiding fashion bloggers.

It was a joy to revisit old favourites and discover fantastic new places while researching The Rough Guide to Vintage London, and it seemed tantalisingly possible that, with enough energy and determination, you could track down absolutely any vintage item you desired in the city. If you are devoted to a particular scene – whether the glamorous Jazz Age or 60s psychedelia – you’ll find all the clothes, homewares, music and, most importantly, like-minded souls you could wish for.

Today’s shoppers enjoy the privilege of being able to pick and mix their favourite eras and styles according to their tastes, delving into collections online as well as on the ground. It’s Londoners’ passionate and fearless seizing of these opportunities that shapes the city’s unique style, and leads to imaginative looks that are scrutinized and copied throughout the world.  For me, it’s the thrill of that choice together with the space for personal expression, that make vintage in London so exhilarating.

The Rough Guide to Vintage London is in the shops and online from May 1 2013.