Picture the scene: I'm outside a tube station I've never been to before. The air is chilly; a chap is handing out leaflets, squinting into the wind. Under a nearby bridge a band is playing, and people are coming and going in the usual Sunday manner - with coffee, plants, and colour and chatter. And in the middle of this, I'm about to have an adventure: I'm going to be the first to test drive a new vintage shopping experience in London.
Fake Productions (@fakeproductionco on Instagram) are piloting the Gwen & Wear experience, which is a curated, guided exploration of the vintage stores of Shoreditch, Brick Lane and the surrounding area. Along the way we'll stop off for coffee, and afterwards - this is particularly unique and appealing - we'll have a photoshoot.
Gwendolyn, the director of Fake Productions, is warmly welcoming, and within two minutes in their company I already know this is going to be excellent. They know this part of London so well, and their vintage shopping even better - that much is evident before we even step into the first shop. A seasoned vintage shopper and enthusiast themselves, Gwendolyn's easy knowledge and handy tips for getting the most out of the day put me right at ease; a pretty big deal for a woman whose experience of vintage shopping is so far limited to a few fairs and the odd tiny boutique visit.
I've already completed a pre-experience questionnaire about my style, my preferences, my wardrobe challenges - why I wear vintage, what I like about it, how I feel about the experience of shopping for vintage clothing. The upshot of this is that Gwendolyn has already considered where I might like to go and what I might like to find - but they're not pushy or prescriptive, and encourage me to have an open mind.
We start off in the basement den of a tiny little store with Marilyn Monroe beautifully painted out front, and it's not long before I'm in the cupboard of a changing room, slipping into a silky grey number. It doesn't quite work, and turns out to have tears in the back. But I'm undeterred - vintage shopping, I'm quickly learning, isn't about the quick fix; it's about the hunt for treasure.
Gwendolyn guides me from store to store, as we dodge Sunday foot traffic and market stalls. We thoroughly explore the rails in each place we visit, hunting for gold, lusting over sequinned jackets, patchwork suede capes, glorious 1930s dresses. As we go, Gwendolyn is full of helpful information; they teach me the 'neck test', not foolproof but a decent way to check how likely a waistband is to fit, and show me which seams are best to check for allowance if something's a bit short or tight. Conversation is pretty easy when you're surrounded by amazing threads and rifling through the rails - it's like shopping with a friend, but a friend who isn't going to get impatient if you're a while in the changing room, and who's got a sixth sense for what you'd like.
My first purchase is a silver 1970s semi-sheer top, with tie neck and sleeves, from Here After - spangly and perfect for dressing up with jeans, skirts, all sorts. On a high from my first find, I impulsively pick up a pair of glasses with pink lenses and octagonal frames, which are too fun not to have. In the market stall outside I find a pink 80s dress that wouldn't have looked out of place in my mum's wardrobe 30 years ago, and it's a fiver - bargain!
Halfway through we stop off at Close Up, a library/coffee shop/cinema, for coffee and a sit down. I chat with Gwendolyn about their business, their photography, and how they envisage the vintage shopping experience working with groups. They want to keep it small enough to be personal, but it would clearly be a great experience for bloggers, avid vintage fans, perhaps the odd birthday or hen party group if that was their scene.
After our little break we hit the shops once more and I'm about to be surprised again, this time by a gorgeous rust-hued towel dress, also 70s, in Search and Destroy. I'm not convinced it's going to fit me, but I take it to the changing room anyway - and lo and behold, it's pretty much perfect. I really hadn't expected any 70s stuff to work for my body type, but I'm two for two at this point.
Our final shopping destination is an enormous store called Beyond Retro, which is far more mainstream; the collections here are vast, and vary in quality. The sale rail at the back is where we start, but it's clear there'd be a lot of sewing to do if I want to pay these prices. I do find a ridiculously cute 'bed jacket', a sheer pink tie-up affair with panels of cream brocade down the front and around the hem, and a small black silk slip. There are a dozen gold jackets I could easily have taken home had any of them fitted - but for some reason it doesn't bother me like it would in a regular store. Here, stuff not fitting doesn't feel personal at all, it's just a sort of luck of the draw scenario - which is what makes it even better when you find something that just works.
All shopped out, we head for some back streets with great graffiti art for the photoshoot. I'm totally put at ease by Gwendolyn, who is a complete pro; I even managed not to laugh with a reflector two feet from my face for better light! The pics were killer - well I think so; see for yourself!
The experience - my verdict
As you might be able to tell, I had an absolute ball. Gwendolyn was an excellent planner, guide, co-shopper, photographer, creative - and it was a really personal, not at all stuffy experience. In all honesty, I wouldn't have had the confidence to try a lot of the things I did without a seasoned vintage shopper to show me the ropes; it made all the difference and counteracted the overwhelm I sometimes feel when shopping in unfamiliar environments.
Not all vintage is cheap, and that's okay - much of what these stores stock is lovingly sourced, and has been carefully looked after. There are bigger stores with bargain basements, but you'll find yourself needing to mend things, so it's all about how much you love the piece, not how cheap it is or isn't. I feel far more confident about shopping for vintage in the future, but it's possible I'll still want Gwendolyn's excellent styling suggestions!
What I got
A few pics of some of the items - I haven't had time to photograph them all yet!