Sometimes, life will throw you some quite wonderful moments. Such was the case Friday afternoon when the tremendously lovely William Banks-Blaney of William Vintage kindly allowed me to ask him many (umm…many) questions during his last afternoon in LA. To me, William has one of the coolest jobs around and I love that while his career path was always guided by a love of visual art, his journey to William Vintage was a winding road which led him in many different directions. I so admire the amazing business he’s built for himself in really just a few short years and was thrilled to learn more about the history behind some of his fantastic finds.
I’ve divided the interview up into 2 parts. His answers were so thoughtful and filled with such a wealth of information I couldn’t stand to leave anything out!
Read on to find out about the first dresses William ever purchased, how the OxFam edit came about and what delectable goodies are waiting for you when you shop at his store…
1. What brings you to Los Angeles on this trip?
I’m in LA for a few days because I’m filming for a US TV show that’s based in fashion and reality which I can’t reveal the name of yet. But, thats the primary cause. I’m also seeing some clients who are based over here and having a little bit of a chat with a few museums about some vintage haute couture pieces. And I’m seeing my new godson who’s San Francisco born and bred although he’s only 20 days old so I’m going to go and visit him.
2. Going back to your school days, did you study anything particular at school? Was fashion always a primary interest or did it evolve?
No. Not at all. I was always the fashion nerd. My degree was history of art and architecture. Then I worked as an interior designer so anything visual was the thing I really fell in love with. I always adored fashion as an expression in the same way you can understand a culture through a building or through a painting. I thought the same was acheivable through a dress, at its most precious level. But I didn’t want to go into fashion for a long time because I thought it was already covered, it was a very mercenary field. Then 3 years ago, I wanted to make a big change in my life. I wanted to start again, start fresh and I’d had years of interiors clients say, “you should do clothing, you should do vintage.” Because I would often be in Turkey hunting for rugs for an interiors project and I’d see an amazing coat and think “oh that’s perfect for Enid.” And I’d bring it back. I would often find these pieces I’d give as gifts. Or I’d say to my clients, “I found this and it cost me 300 pounds so give me 305 pounds.” It was fun.
3. What were you doing before you opened William Vintage?
I spent a long time in luxury retail working in furniture. My other great passion apart from interior design was antiques. I worked for a company that designed and built furniture at the top end of the market. Then I was poached and I worked for an antique dealer. Then I was poached back again by the design company. Then I branched out to just doing interiors. I would inevitably find when I was asked by a client to help design a dining table and chairs, they’d then ask me about the room it was going to go in and I’d end up doing the room. So I worked in interiors and I loved it, still love it. It was a combination of increasingly being more drawn towards fashion and thinking there was this gap in the market for really edited vintage. And being perfectly honest, personally I had a really rough couple of years. I had an awful relationship break up. I just wanted to do different. I just wanted to say, “you know what? It’s kind of today and going forward.” I just bit the bullet and did the first little sale.
So it’s anything visual. I’ve designed furniture. I’ve designed interiors. I’ve liased with architects. I still do maybe one or two interior design projects a year. My last one I did was a ski chalet in the French alps which was last year which was fantastic, great fun. A few years ago, I did a beautiful estate in Bedford in New York. So I try and keep my oar in because it kind of keeps your eye sharp if you’re in a different medium all the time.
4. So, when you were transitioning from interiors, how did the vintage business begin to grow and take off?
I started with a little two hour sale which was for friends. I took a tiny conference room that held about 30 people. I put some rails up with pieces I had found over the previous 2 or 3 months from everywhere; from thrift stores and consignment stores and a couple of auction houses. Things I just thought had a resonance and were to my taste. The sale sold out and the feedback I got was what I hoped which was the editing. You know, you never say I love everything at Bergdorf’s. Because you can’t, it’s impossible. You can however say, I really love Stella’s look. There is a bit more of an identification, there’s a bit more of an editor’s taste. I thought, “well there’s no reason that can’t happen in vintage. There’s no reason you can’t profile it and edit it and focus on a specific look to your own taste and see what happens with it.” So the next sale I did for a day but in the same room and those 30 original people brought 60 people with them and that sold out. I did another sale and the same happened. By the time of my 5th sale, I was hiring a 5 story house and I had over 400 people in the space of 8 hours and I suddenly realized this had become a thing.
By this point, Vogue had already called me “the vintage king” because they’d heard about it and had sent people and liked what I was trying to do. So, I took the store and I keep the store by appointment for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m present for 99% of fittings and for client appointments and I have to travel and find it so it’s more manageable in that respect. I also love the idea of there being a store which is by appointment not to be pretentious or snotty or unfriendly. Quite the opposite. When you come in, you have a whole store to yourself. There’s no woman you don’t know in the changing room next door. There’s some nice drinks and there’s always chocolates or cookies or donuts there for you to eat because I don’t believe in starving yourself for a dress. So there’s always some calorific food present. And you just have fun. I think a big point for me in any retail but particularly with William Vintage is if you’re parting with money and you’re not having the best time of your life, somebody’s not doing their job properly. We really try and maintain that so whether you’re coming in to spend 200 pounds or 20,000 pounds, you have fun, you feel you get value for money and it’s beautifully presented. That’s the evolution really from day sale to store; it’s the same approach which is very edited, very unpretentious and very straightforward.
5. Did you have a mentor who has sort of helped you figure everything out along the way at all or was it trial and error yourself?
I didn’t. I wanted to approach it buying things I liked and as somebody who doesn’t have a set definition of what vintage should be. I’m not a label snob which is why to this day we’ll have a great shift dress for 90 pounds as well as all the haute couture. I didn’t want to lose that. I didn’t want to get somebody to tutelage me because I wanted it to be stuff I like. It’s like every woman however wealthy they might be; they might have an incredible Chanel jacket with the boucle and the mink trim and the gilt buttons but alot of those women will wear that on top of an 8 pound American Apparel t-shirt. I wanted to get that sensibility in vintage. We do a 60’s shift dress for, let’s say, 100 pounds. It might not have a label but it will be the best of its kind. It will be the best 60’s shift dress you’ve seen.
6. You were recently named the Oxfam Fashion Patron for 2013. Can you explain OxFam a little bit and what your role will be as the fashion patron this coming year?
So Oxfam to start with is a global charity started in England to help fight poverty around the world. Their approach is very much going from the grass roots up so it’s about helping to build structures for communities through sewage plants, through irrigation systems, through education, through really freeing people in small communities. One of the largest sources of income for them is selling secondhand clothes. In the UK, they have 700 stores. They also have stores that do furniture, electricalware, everything you need for life people donate to OxFam. I’ve always really admired what they do as a charity and about 6 months ago, I approached them to say look, I think we have a common denominator here in what we do. Put really frankly I said, “I might be a vintage haute couture specialist but I basically sell a secondhand dress that makes a woman feel like a million dollars.” That isn’t necessarily the case when a woman is buying a secondhand dress from OxFam. There’s a way of layering that because we’re doing the exactly the same job. So that was the initial point of conversations and Oxfam, I’m pleased to say was very keen on working together and came up with the notion of being fashion patron and I’m going to be the creative director for the 2013 campaign.This week, during Online Fashion Week, Oxfam partnered with Vogue.com and I’ve done an edit everyday of OxFam stock.
The point with it being to do what we do at William Vintage, which is to edit very tightly through their hundreds of thousands of pieces of clothing. Pieces that appeal to me I feel are relevant and really wearable. But the price points are 9 pounds, 12 pounds, 24 pounds, 42 pounds; really affordable pieces. Because I want people to see that irrespective of how much money you can afford to spend on a garmet, there is no reason why you shouldn’t look at vintage. It just should be a part of your wardrobe. Whether you call it vintage or secondhand, they’re great items of clothing you can layer in with really amazing pieces. The plan with OxFam over the next 12 months is to really break down the barriers and show OxFam is this extraordinary store. My point is I don’t see why you can’t, if you’re surfing online for clothing, you might go on to Net-a-Porter and then you might want to check ASOS or Cocosa and then you should just check OxFam. It’s got more than a quarter million pieces of clothing all of which are one-offs. The side benefit from my perspective is all of the money goes to charity.
I really want to see OxFam blossom and for people to realize they can buy online at OxFam and find a fantastic 60’s cocktail dress or find the perfect maxi that’s great for music festival or a fantastic cableknit chunky sweater from the 70’s that are still so chic for under 50 bucks. We’re really driving it together so people realize vintage isn’t a rarified thing. Really importantly for me, it isn’t something to be scared of. I have a huge amount of clients who like me feel vintage isn’t about being a size 4 and knowing how to work a biker jacket and being 22 years old. It’s about wanting a really great piece of clothing. But some women find it difficult initially thinking, “well how does that work in my contemporary wardrobe?”. What I try to do is help with that by saying, “look here you go, here is a butter soft, nude colored, cashmere cardigan. It’s 25 years old. Put it with your jeans, put it with your t-shirt, put it over your shift dress for work.” It’s about how to layer vintage so you just view it as a piece of clothing without this anxiety that can develop about getting it wrong. Because it’s the way you buy any clothing.
7. How did you get your foot in the “vintage door”, so to speak? Do you remember your first important acquisition?
I remember the first two dresses I bought which were two dresses I fell completely in love with by a designer called Ferdinando Sarmi, who is long forgotten. He was the creative director at Elizabeth Arden Fashion in the 60′s. He won the Coty Award for fashion. His work is amazing; he did that combination of the billionaire hippies of the 60’s. Beautifully tailored, really beautiful. It was the period before America had fallen back in love with French couture. So the Italians in the 60’s were really governing US fashion. There were these two dresses, one of which I still have because it can’t be worn. It’s this acres and acres of jade green silk chiffon with a back train of periwinkle blue silk chiffon column dress. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, I just adore it.
The other dress I bought with it was also by Sarmi and it was this chocolate brown empire top half and then an ivory skirt. Very 60’s, covered in Paco Rabanne style paillettes. I bought these two dresses thinking, “why did I do that? They might be the first two dresses of what I’m thinking about doing.” I was at a girlfriend’s engagement party about ten days later and I’ve known her nearly my whole life. She was getting married, she was 41 and she said, “I can’t do a white dress, it’s ridiculous, I don’t know what to do.” I looked at her and said, “I think I have your wedding dress.” I’ve since found out when she came to see it, she brought a girlfriend of hers and the conversation they had had was, “well, we have to go and see Will because he’s thinking about doing this business and he thinks he has a dress that might work for my wedding.” They came and she completely loved the dress. I closed the zipper on her and it was a perfect fit. We didn’t have to change the hem or change the tailoring. I charged 20 pounds more than I paid for it so that was officially the first William Vintage dress.