Vien met recently with Amanda Rush of High Life Magazine of San Francisco. Here is an extract from their meeting.
AR: You have been called the doyenne of vintage of South East London. How does that feel?
Vien: Flattering but it is probably because of my longevity. I have been trading here for ten years and was in at the beginning of the vintage revival. I suppose after a while you enter into the collective subconscious of the area.
AR: What do you attribute your success to?
Vien: I keep an eye on trends. It is not enough to just sell vintage. I have to follow the latest high street trends and buy my vintage pieces accordingly. For example, kimonos were all the rage on the high street a while back, so I looked for vintage kimonos . It changes every year, every season so I have to be on trend while being vintage at the same time. Vintage Adidas was all the rage this year. Next year that will change again.
AR: Has the vintage market changed a lot in these ten years?
Vien: Back when I started, vintage was an expression of being anti-establishment, a kind of bohemian fashion. I had a younger audience and they were less picky. Now vintage has become more main stream but buyers are more discerning. I have had to adapt. I have become more establishment orientated. You can’t just lay out a rack of vintage dresses and expect them to sell. I have to create a setting, a mood. Everything is washed and pressed, fabric sprayed in a beautiful environment. That has meant getting into the interiors and accessories market to compliment the experience.
AR: Do you do bric a bric?
Vien: I used to a lot and still get the occasional item because there is still a demand for good solid wood pieces and hard to get items such as champagne glasses. I often see something so beautiful, a real objet d’art that I can’t resist giving it a good home. I did not cut back out of principle – the market is a little saturated. But now I juxtapose modern interiors and accessories with vintage so the past and the present combine. Many of my customers wear their vintage pieces to work, even to formal events where a degree of elegance is required. One girl even bought her wedding dress from here. They want to know it works in a conventional setting, that they can feel comfortable, different but not out of place. Having these modern interior furnishings goes a long way to reassure a customer who may be unsure of vintage. I have to meet them in their comfort zone. Mood, atmosphere and good changing rooms go a long way. But ultimately it is down to quality of the pieces and if girl looks good in them. And of course, the right price point.
AR: Do you sell designer vintage?
Vien: When I can get good designer pieces, yes, but they are increasingly hard to find at a reasonable cost so I can sell at a price that my customer base will pay. And of course in good condition. There is no point in presenting a piece by Ferragamo or Versace which has been worn to pieces. You can’t undo that.
AR: Your shop is brimming. How do you keep a sense of order?
Vien:With my assistant Julie and handyman Dave,we are forever rearranging the shop. I have been studying Indian spiritual philosophy since I was in my early twenties and am a great believer in satwa which is a kind of higher energy field. I want new customers to enter the shop and feel uplifted. And old customers to feel they are entering into a new shop each time they come in. There is a lot of effort that goes into it. You can’t rest on your laurels in this game. And the area has changed considerably since I first started.
AR: In what way?
Vien: Crystal Palace was back then a bohemian backwater with poor transport links, full of artists and designers and a wonderful ramshackle vibe. Now with extraordinary high property prices in places such as Clapham and Brixton, and the new Overground line that connects into the Tube system and into Canary Wharf, young professionals are moving into the area with more disposable income. The Triangle is full of coffee shops and restaurants and hardly an empty lot. In a way the area has become more conventional but the Bohemian buzz is still there. I am now selling Pilgrim jewelry from Denmark and Charles Farris candles who have a royal appointment. That would have been impossible to sell when I first started.
AR: Do you sell men’s vintage?
Vien: I have the occasional designer piece and I did have a range of creams for the steampunk beard for the husbands and boyfriends but that is not my thing. In terms of vintage it is really for the ladies. But them men do buy my interiors, lamps, clocks, mirrors, sofa chairs and the like.
AR: Where do you source your vintage?
Vien: There’s no single answer. It’s not as if there is a trade show where you can place your orders for the season. I have to be always on, always alert. There is no room for complacency. It may mean getting up at 1.30 in the morning to be at an auction some place miles away for an auction. Some of it comes from Europe. I have clambered over bales in a dusty warehouse in Italy. Sometime people contact me. I have to think ahead – I can’t just buy for the season. Some pieces need reworking. If the fabric is good but the style is too antiquated I will have it remodeled by my tailor. We do alterations, by the way, if the fit is wrong for a customer. The skill is using discrimination and seeing the potential in a piece. I see so many pieces that I have to make a quick decision as what to take. I reckon for every piece I select, another three hundred pieces pass through my hands. There is an awful lot of rubbish out there but there is always a diamond in the dust so you have to go through it all. It’s all about the fabric and the condition.
AR: It seems you input a lot of energy into your business. How do you switch off?
Vien: I have a place in the Indian Himalayas where I retreat to. When I am there I can totally zone out. My assistant Julie is a god send as she takes care of the sales when I am away.
AR: Do you do advertising, adwords, social media, Facebook, twitter and the rest?
Vien: Not at all. It takes far too much energy and I prefer to put that energy into the shop itself. I used to have some loyal customers who did that social media stuff for me but they moved out of the area, taking passwords with them. My best advertisement is my shop window which I change every week. I like to have a theme for the season. This autumn I will be using some branches from a lilac tree. I really enjoy the creative side of that. I want the shop window to display the mood of what lies inside. Customers just don’t breeze in. You have to seduce them into coming through the door and then grab their attention with a really interesting shop floor display. You have to fascinate the customer. It’s a bit like casting a spell on them as soon as they walk in.
AR: The eyes are a mirror to the soul and your window is a mirror to the soul of the shop.
Vien: Vintage proverb!