Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Steinberg & Tolkien

A rare vintage: Bon voyage to fashion icon Steinberg & Tolkien
By KAREN KAY

A found farewell to the iconic London fashion emporium which inspired designers from Galliano to Gucci

Over recent weeks, the great and the good of Planet Fashion been coming in their droves to pay their respects to one of the style greats of our time.

The pavements of the nether reaches of London's Kings Road have echoed to the distinct clip-clop of Louboutin-clad feet, and the gentle padding of ballet slippers, as stylists, designers, students and aesthetes have joined the pilgrimage to Steinberg & Tolkien, the tiny, iconic boutique that gave birth to the trend for vintage when it opened its door to an unsuspecting world some 14 years ago.

It seems almost unthinkable that, at that time, it was a rare being who ventured out admitting to wearing 'secondhand' clothes, but as stylish names like Kate Moss, Helena Christensen and Winona Ryder pushed the boundaries of fashion, experimenting with vintage pieces, the quest for unique, antique style gained a momentum no-one believed possible. Suddenly, it was hip to admit your outfit had a bit of history, and Steinberg & Tolkien was at the heart of the vintage movement with its idiosyncratic take on the trend.

In a cruel twist of fate, as fashionistas from across the globe arrive for London Fashion Week to celebrate the creative genius of a city that is blessed with such a strong style heritage, and in a season where retro remains a burgeoning influence, the place where so many have unearthed vintage treasures is about to close for good.

In just a week's time, Steinberg & Tolkien will hang up the 'shut' sign on its small, black shabby-chic door for the last time, the victim of rapacious councils and landlords unapologetically exploiting commercial demand from for prime sites in London's premium shopping streets.

It is perhaps a romantic delusion to wish that this dressing-up box of a shop, which was opened mother and daughter Anne Steinberg Tracy Tolkien, could survive in 21st century Chelsea. To the untrained eye, it was a basement and ground floor crammed from floor to ceiling with clutter: no more than a stuffed second-hand shop. To aesthetes with an appreciation for craftsmanship and design details, it was Style Mecca.

"The staff there were amazingly passionate, with an encyclopeadic knowledge of the stock," says Funmi Odulate, author of 'Shopping for Vintage: the definiteive guide to vintage fashion' (Quadrille).

"Tracy, Anne and Mark were real pioneers: they didn't look at the catwalks and try and source stock to fit with trends, they just went for it with their own unique vision. Somehow, they achieved the impossible: finding vintage pieces that looked contemporary, so you didn't look like you'd walked straight out of a period drama or a 1970s sitcom. That, for me, was their special touch.

"And I'd never go there if I was in a hurry, because you would end up being in there for hours, drooling over some amazing piece from Chanel or Ossie Clark. I'd usually end up with an anonymous 1980s belt that I'd bought for a tenner, but that was equally thrilling in its own way."

So its demise is nothing short of a tragedy for the hoards of style leaders who have rummaged through the cramped rails of this two-floor Aladdin's Cave to find the kind of unique period pieces that would provide the foundation of a new look – either in their own wardrobes or the collections that would be generated as a result of sourcing an amazing sartorial treasure.

Vogue magazine's Fashion Features Director Harriet Quick believes the store has, on some level, been a victim of its own success: "It really spawned a huge interest in vintage that didn't exist before they came into being: and they have perhaps suffered as a result, because eBay and other vintage stores have opened in their wake and made sourcing truly unique clothes much more competitive.

"However, the shop has been hugely important as an influential fashion outlet, selling a really well-chosen selection of stock, from nameless hippy fur waistcoats to exquisite Christian Dior cocktail dresses and the span of prices that represented that.

"I once bought a Loewe handbag in there and a St Laurent blouse, and remember being thrilled with my purchases: once vintage was taboo, now it's all about individuality and an expression of personality.'"

Designer Sara Berman, now co-Creative Director at NPeal cashmere, recalls heading there as an 18 year-old St Martin's fashion student: "I vividly remember buying a beautiful beaded handbag soon after I first started as a fashion student, which was 'investment vintage' rather than the shabbier styles you'd unearth on the Portobello Road.

"I couldn't really afford it, but it was simply not going to get left in the shop. Likewise, a python clutch I bought soon after.

"Steinberg was filled with exquisite treasures that you couldn't help but covet. Little girls who dreamed of being princesses could go in there as grown-ups and treat it as the most fabulous dressing-up box. It wasn't just a shop; it had a rare quality that made going there a whole experience. It'll be desperately missed and, in my eyes, is very much the passing of an era."

"It's so sad that such an institution will no longer be around," agrees fellow designer Ann Louise Roswald.

"I remember going there trying to source some vintage gloves, and I found wonderfully glamorous Fifties satin ones after rummaging in the baskets there. I then got a glove-maker to replicate them in pure white, because they were a bit grubby, but sourcing the authentic style was made easy at Steinberg. I also used to adore the amazing 1920s flapper dresses with their intricate beading, which I'd swoon over."

Berman and Roswald are not alone in their love for the store, with many catwalk legends, including Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Ralph Lauren, Stella McCartney and John Galliano using it as a resource for design inspiration. In fact, almost every designer showing on the international runways this month has at some stage headed to Steinberg & Tolkien in search of that seed of inspiration to begin a new collection.


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