In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
Even if you haven't yet heard of William Banks-Blaney this side of the pond, you're definitely familiar with his work. Victoria Beckham, Rihanna and Tilda Swinton are all loyal customers of his tony shop, William Vintage, for its inventory of pristine, high-quality and often haute couture pieces by Courrèges, Balenciaga and Dior that span the '20s to early '90s. The sequin-covered 1981 Yves Saint Laurent gown that Amal Clooney just wore to the Berlin premiere of "Hail Caesar?" William Vintage. (You may have also caught one of Banks-Blaney's four appearances on his client and friend's now-defunct reality show, "The Rachel Zoe Project.")
Oft-referred to as the "King of Vintage," Banks-Blaney didn't come from a traditional fashion background. The art history student started his career in furniture and interior design, but discovered a talent for spotting (and buying) stellar clothing from past eras on his décor hunting trips around the world. "I'd always invariably walk past a vintage store or thrift store and find something nice, which I used to just gift to friends," he tells Fashionista over the phone (at which point, we wished we knew Banks-Blaney way back when....).
After urging from friends and a soul-crushing customer service experience in a vintage shop in Paris, he decided to dip his toe into retail, stockpiling his finds and throwing two-hour pop-up shops for about "30 friends." He brought his fourth pop-up to a larger location. "We had over 400 women come through the course of the day and I realized that it had become a business," says Banks-Blaney. It was only natural that he open his own shop just a year later in 2010 — taking over an acquaintance's storefront on a quiet street in swanky Marylebone, London. "I had been looking for a store that was a little bit tucked away that did have a feel that you either knew it was there and you were coming to it or you stumbled upon it by chance," he says.
Banks-Blaney's philosophy for running his vintage business covers everything from buying to front-of-house customer service. "If you come to the William Vintage store, you can have a glass of champagne or a cup of coffee or a glass of scotch," he says. "And there’s usually a tray of warm cookies and there's a really nice fluffy bathrobe in the changing room." William Vintage is not consignment. "We put our money into our stock," Banks-Blaney says. And he only sells dresses and gowns because he doesn't believe in wearing head-to-toe vintage. "I'd much rather see a '60s Courrèges dress be worn with a pair of Nicholas Kirkwood shoes and a [Nancy] Gonzalez clutch like a woman who's living in the 21st century."
As the head of a 10-person business, Banks-Blaney "wears various caps," one of which is full-time buyer. To find that mint condition 1965 Jean Dessès Haute Couture taffeta party dress or a velvet off-the-shoulder Mugler gown circa '87, he'll travel the world on shopping trips, attend auctions and visit museums "discreetly" selling off pieces. Through word of mouth, people also approach him for private sales, like one memorable experience when a friend convinced Banks-Blaney to check out her mother's storage closet in Palm Beach. "She opened up the front door at lunchtime with a glass of brandy in her hand and took me down into this shed at the bottom of her garden," he says. "She opened up the doors to a very cheap wardrobe surrounded by chaos and there were 17 pieces of the Courrèges Haute Couture collection from 1967, 1968 — all hanging there in completely perfect condition, like the day that they were made." His friend's mother then regaled Banks-Blaney of her fond, privileged memories of the era: being personally fit by Gabrielle Chanel and visiting the Givenchy atelier with her friend and neighbor, Audrey Hepburn.
"It was this amazing oral history behind that moment and behind that approach to fashion," he sighs. "That happens less and less [these days] because the women who were commissioning dresses or were the original owners of dresses [of the '60s and '70s], that’s the generation that we're starting to lose." Sadly, his friend's mother, who became a close friend, passed away last year.
As time moves on and sartorial tastes fluctuate, what's considered truly vintage is starting to shift, too. "Over the last year, as an example, I've been feeling quite a lot of love for that late '80s, early '90s quite hard glamour. That inception point of the Glamazons, the supermodels of the first time around, and so I've been buying quite a lot of that, which is new to us," Banks-Blaney explains. Of course, vintage is a tricky business considering that there's a finite amount of stock to be bought and sold, but as the designer inventory shrinks, there's an upside for collectors. "People often overuse the phrase, 'investing in your wardrobe,' [but] high quality vintage really, truly is exactly that," Banks-Blaney says. "Good quality vintage is going up in value by about 20 to 25 percent a year."
We of course had to pick Banks-Blaney's brain on which contemporary designers' wares will be investments 20, 30, 40 years down the road. "You really have to look for the designers where their signature is very clear," he explains. "In rather the same way that you have a favorite recording artist, you can identify that it's them by hearing one note by their voice." His top two insider investment tips: Mary Katrantzou and Simone Rocha. "Those are two designers, to me, who are delivering beautifully executed clothes that have something to them that other designers are not supplying. They have an immediate signature." You heard it here first.
While running his successful business and catering to his VIP clientele, Banks-Blaney and his team also make time for "little excursions." In addition to working with American Express as a "Style Ambassador" and collaborating with Liberty London on a capsule collection of '60s-inspired, trans-seasonal pieces, Banks-Blaney also found the time to write "Iconic Dresses: 25 Moments in Twentieth Century Fashion," which was released last December. The now-multi-hyphenate's loyal clients (and friends) Zoe, Beckham and Gillian Anderson contributed a few words to the book, while Swinton allowed the inclusion of a personal photo of herself wearing a 1918 Fortuny Delphos dress from William Vintage.
Next up: William Vintage is preparing to launch a completely overhauled website this May. The old site, which is now offline, was more of a "marketing tool," only featuring 80 to 100 dresses at a time. (Select William Vintage pieces are currently available to shop on 1st Dibs.) "We're changing the whole approach to our company internally now so every single dress gets photographed, measured, checked, copy-written and listed online at exactly the same time it goes into our store," he says. "So we'll be launching our site with over 1,000 pieces," at price points ranging from 200 to over 25,000 pounds.
He even enlisted the help of Sandra Sampaio, a former art director at the international e-commerce marketplace, Farfetch. "It's a very grown-up site with lots of bells and lots of whistles and really cutting-edge technology," he adds. "We're going to launch what I'm fairly confident in saying will be the world's best vintage clothing site."
'Iconic Dresses: 25 Moments in Twentieth Century Fashion' by William Banks-Blaney, published by Quadrille and distributed by Chronicle Books, $35, is available on Amazon.com.