Old school cool (or how the A-list – and I – can't resist vintage dresses)
10:49 GMT, 19 March 2012
Stood by the Baftas’ red carpet last month, the name that kept coming up was ‘WilliamVintage’. Strictly’s Claudia Winkleman was in 1968 Ossie Clark slashed to the waist. TV presenter Dawn Porter wore 1958 Dior.
Brideshead’s Hayley Atwell A 1965 Lillie Diamond shift. And American star Gillian Anderson, William’s most devoted customer, was my best dressed in 1956 Sybil Connolly pale lemon chiffon.
The William in question is William Banks-Blaney, who dressed a staggering 30 women over the awards season from his small Marylebone boutique. Why is he beating Versace, Oscar de la Renta, heck, even Giorgio Armani, as the destination for the perfect, one-off gown
Classic beauties: From left, Emilia Fox wears Christian Dior, 1957, Gillian Anderson wears Sybil Connolly, 1956, and Anna Friel in Jean Desses, 1958
‘It’s because these dresses are simply more beautiful,’ says William. ‘It’s not even because they are vintage. They are made better, the cut and stitching, the beading and detail are exquisite, all done by hand.’
When we meet, William is tall and dashing, surrounded by clothes grouped by colour, with several pieces worthy of the V&A — an original black satin Dior New Look dress and lots of Mainbocher, Wallis Simpson’s favourite.
He has a historian’s take on fashion, and there is a story behind every garment. A 1965 black dress (365) has a label that reads: ‘Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby.’ Oscar was a hired hand for Derby at the time, but because he did most of the work, he insisted on his name on the label. Two years later, he bought the company.
Now 38, William’s eye for fashion design was first spotted by his jet-set female friends. He was so good at knowing what worked on them that they started asking him to help dress them.
He began, he says, by ‘going to every car-boot sale and charity shop I could find. I searched flea markets in Paris and St Tropez, all the little shops on the West Side in New York.’
Red carpet vintage: From left, Natalie Portman at the Oscars in Christian Dior, 1954, Claudia Winkleman in Ossie Clarke, 1968 and Olivia Grant in Jean Desses, 1956
Now, the creative directors of big name luxury labels come to his boutique for inspiration, because, as we know, there are no new ideas.
Remember Marc Jacobs’s white daisy dress Been there, done that, by Madame Gres, half a century ago. The new peplum skirt Seen in a black spangled Dior couture two-piece from 1962, on sale in William’s shop for a touch under 4,000. Colour blocking It’s here, too, in a 1965 ivory and electric blue gown by Lilli Diamond.
Some vintage fits are more forgiving than you might expect. While I find many of the dresses have tiny waists and super narrow arms, the Sixties shifts and Seventies fluid gowns are more roomy — many of the dresses are in a size 14, 16 and above.
I ask William who to invest in now.
The vintage king: The celebs have flocked to William Banks-Blaney's London boutique to find the perfect outfit
‘Erdem,’ he replies. ‘Not only does he do great print and colour, but look at the cut, he is just incredible. London designer Mary Katrantzou, too. Her use of embellishment fantastic, the cut is amazing: she is the next Balenciaga.’
And what would he dress me in for my black-tie awards dinner on Tuesday
I pick up a brown chiffon dress with long sleeves and high neck by Greek born, New York-based designer Stavropoulos, who hated putting lining into a dress and instead used layers of silk chiffon.
William tells me brown is too drab for black tie and, when I put it on, I see he’s right. I try a black velvet V-neck by Jacques Fath from 1960 (1,675), but it’s a tad short and a bit ageing. In the end, I try on a Dior haute couture cocktail dress, which is really a two-piece, from 1962, in perfect condition. I’m worried I might rip the bodice, given the 5,000 price tag, but I’m amazed at the way the slightly pouffy skirt miraculously hides my tummy.
William tells me knee-length is acceptable for a black-tie event, as this dress is so special.
Fits like a glove: Liz tries on some of the vintage dresses for size
There are no vintage bags and shoes in the shop, as William believes vintage should be teamed with something new.
What would he accessorise the Dior with ‘Black and not a dagger heel: these narrow heels make women believe they have fat calves. Look at the Queen, in her thick, two-inch heels. She always looks just perfect.’
And if you think you need an A-list income to shop here, think again. You could buy a chocolate and robin’s egg blue Sixties linen day dress for about 100. But the best thing about shopping here is that William will ensure whatever you buy fits like a glove.
‘The difference between looking good and looking great can often be 1cm — a hem, a waist, a little dart.’
Not just for the A-list: Liz discovered William stocks affordable Sixties and Seventies dresses
In constant attendance is Miryam, who is petite, French and straight out of central casting with her pin cushion strapped to her wrist. She is couture trained and will adjust every garment to your body. The mark of a ‘luxury’ garment is that it has ample fabric in every seam, so that it can be let out as your body changes.
So what last-minute tips would he give to the lucky person who takes my Dior couture home ‘Enjoy it, don’t wear it as though it’s precious. And if you pose for a photo, put one hand on your hip and angle your elbow at almost 180 degrees, not out, like a wing, which only makes your upper arm look even wider.’
The stars know these things. Now we can know them, too.
Visit williamvintage.com, or call 020 7487 4322