Virginia Bates’ London Underground

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Published June 7, 2011

 

“This is my fantasy. The whole thing is a fantasy,” says 68-year-old Virginia Bates, the proprietor and veritable Madame of London’s premier vintage store, Virginia Antiques. Marked by a crackled gold sign, its windows filled with intricate summer hats, floral umbrellas and vintage rag dolls, Bates’s treasure trove of immaculate old-world garments and accessories is tucked away on tree-lined street in Notting Hill. And when patrons enter through its rusted, decorative metal doors, they’re transported back in time to Bates’s opulent world.

“Upstairs is dark and decadent,” explains Bates, gesturing to a 1920s sequined bolero that hangs next to a crystal chandelier. “Downstairs is more of a boudoir. But mind the third step, you might hit your head!” she warns before descending into the basement. At the bottom of the creaking stairs lies an at once intimate and elaborate cavern filled with delicate lace-trimmed dressing gowns from the 1930s. The back wall is covered by a mosaic of parasols and upon a small antique table rests a pair of blue satin ’30s slippers. “Can’t you just see her? Wearing them? With a glass of champagne in her hand?” asks an excited Bates, waltzing around the impossibly small shoes.   Dramatic? Perhaps. But what else would one expect from a self-admitted eccentric who sleeps on 19th-century sheets, dresses her pet turtle, Daniel, in outlandish headgear, and played The Temptress in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange?  The former-actress-turned-vintage-queen opened her famed shop in May of 1971, when her acting career was experiencing a lull. Since, it has served as a source of inspiration for the likes of John Galliano, Donatella Versace, Alberta Ferretti and Donna Karan, just to name a few. “I was only going to rent it for two weeks because I had a lot of stuff to get rid of… mirrors, dressers, Victorian baths, all kinds of bits and pieces. I mean, I’m like a magpie. Then I always had the petticoats and ’40s crepe dresses and the odd amazing Victorian pieces,” she explains while sitting inside a French armoire from the 1880s.

 

However, an unexpected visitor in the early ’90s would transform her motley array of clothes and homeware into the institution it is today. “Helena Christensen came in one day and bought a slip dress. Then Susie Bick bought a little chiffon all-in-one cami and knickers from the ’30s. And she just walked out wearing it, which was outrageous in those days!” Naomi Campbell saw her peers donning Virginia’s merchandise during London Fashion Week, and soon enough, she popped in for a shopping spree, the purchases from which she wore backstage at a Galliano show in Paris. “Then Galliano turned up and I thought, Okay. I’m onto a winner here. So I got rid of the furniture and this is what I’ve been doing ever since.”    Despite the fact that Bates has a store full of 1920s mesh purses, fur boas, beaded flapper dresses and feathered hats at her disposal, she insists that the secret to wearing vintage well is to mix it up. “You can not wear top-to-toe vintage, because you’ll look ridiculous,” she announces, straightening her ’30s black satin slip. “For example, you could wear a vintage hat with a sharp modern suit. And a high, dangerous “fuck off” pair of shoes. Never wear vintage shoes. They’re too clunky.”   Next up for Ms. Bates is a book about her collection of clothes. “It will show all the pieces that have never been seen. The secrets,” she says grinning. But while Bates is looking towards the future, she sometimes longs for the excitement of her past, the days when she was discovering fashion. “I think fashion now is absolutely incredible. But it’s not as exciting as it was in my day because there’s too much. In the ’60s and ’70s, my little gang of people and I were unique. We’d go to junk shops and find little treasures and wear them with a funny pair of shoes. But it was a lot easier then to be different then. Now, you just look across the road and everyone looks great but there isn’t anybody that stands out.” Bates always did, and always will, stand out, whether she’s wearing some printed Biba with a pair of purple shoes from her youth or, her current favorite item, a sophisticated embroidered-velvet 1920s theater coat. So it goes without saying that her shop does the same. “I just want people to know that the pieces I sell in my shop are precious,” she adds. “I just want people to know that they’re magical.”