A new breed of second-hand fashion specialists makes high style a steal. Phong Luu browses for the best of them.
Susie Archer, founder of Arch Label Agency, the pre-owned dress agency in Lincolnshire where that Mulberry skirt and Dolce top come from, has stacks of elaborate Louboutin heels from £150 a pop (basic black costs £400 brand new) and classic tweed Chanel jackets for £500 (they nudge £2,000 fresh off the rack) - all in mint condition. "I don't take in anything that's worn - everything is pristine," says Archer, who also helps you sell your unwanted purchases if you can't be bothered to eBay. "A lot of items are still new with tags on." Style Sequel's USP is sold-out pieces: at the moment, it has a pair of Isabel Marant's trophy wedge trainers. Should you desire an original Christian Dior New Look dress, Vintage Seekers has several.
Chloé jumpsuit, £349.99 (left), Style Sequel; stylesequel.com. Mulberry skirt , £390, and Dolce & Gabbana vest, £25, Arch Label Agency;
A non-negotiable criterion in our selection was relevancy. But that doesn't mean it can't be decades old. Take a look at the black Dior dress pictured and tell us it isn't modern or wearable. "Good vintage needs to look contemporary," says Carmen Haid, founder of vintage e-tailer Atelier Mayer. "Any 'too vintage-looking' pieces or items in bad condition I don't touch." In our selected shops here, you won't find any démodé Chloé Paddingtons. What you will find are ultra-desirable, unique, quality pieces, often at a fraction of the original price.
It stocks Chanel and YSL, but it's the "cool labels that fashion editors love", as one fan puts it, that makes the schlep to Susie Archer's word-of-mouth phenomenon in Lincolnshire worth it. Immaculate-condition Marni, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Jil Sander, Céline, Proenza Schouler and Tom Ford from recent seasons can be found at basement prices. A current cross-section of its perusal-only website (customers can order by phone, 01780 764746) includes Stella McCartney belts from £30, Gucci silk scarves for £50 and a Givenchy bag for £390.
Archer calls her shop an agency, but the hushed white decor has more of the Matches boutique about it than Cash Converters: "A lot of people don't realise that it's an agency and request items in certain sizes," says Archer, who set up the business with redundancy money from her old marketing job. You can also make a tidy sum selling your unwanted designer purchases to her to sell on.
Style Sequel's modus operandi is sold-out contemporary fashion: the red Alexander McQueen dress the Duchess of Cambridge wore to the Diamond Jubilee, Isabel Marant's popular wedge trainers, and a star-print YSL dress that Kate Moss modelled in the spring/summer 2008 ad campaign have all passed through its (virtual) door.
Most of it is sourced from founder Emma Allen's contacts in London, and about 20 per cent comes from sellers overseas (Kate's McQueen dress came from a seller in Australia). Everything is sold online ("editor's pick" and "collectibles" tags serve as handy pointers), mostly via auction (its website is linked to eBay), which can be frustrating if you spot a piece you like, as you have to play the waiting game. On the plus side there's potential for snaffling a bargain: a beautiful silk draped Lanvin orange dress is currently up for auction at just over £100. The most in-demand pieces aren't cheap, however, and can sell at as-new prices.
It also does a selling service; if you've got pieces by Christopher Kane, Erdem and Mary Katrantzou, Allen reckons you're sitting on a gold mine. "There was no second-hand market for Christopher Kane two years ago. In fashion circles, he was popular, but in the public consciousness he wasn't quite there yet. Now that he's on his way to becoming a household name, people want to buy him second-hand. People aren't letting go of Mary Katrantzou's pieces yet, because she's relatively new. It may be worth more in a few years."
Céline Seventies dress, £260, Atelier Mayer; atelier-mayer.com (left). Elizabeth Taylor Nineties Falcon earrings, £395. Elizabeth Taylor Nineties Vine necklace, £595 (chunky chain). Givenchy Eighties gold-plated necklace with coloured cabochon, £295. Elizabeth Taylor Nineties Vine bracelet, £395 (right). Chanel Eighties wide logo bracelet, £995 (left), all Susan Caplan;
"A commercial, yet inspirational, mix of luxury vintage fashion," is how Carmen Haid describes her online company Atelier Mayer, named after her late grandmother, Klaudia Mayer, a haute-couture seamstress in Vienna in the Thirties. With its chic web design, slick packaging and spot-on edit, we say it's the Net-a-Porter of vintage fashion. There's often a bohemian-ish feel to her selections - maxi lengths, opulent prints and high necklines: "I glamourise the Sixties and Seventies and particularly love YSL and Lanvin from that time. I also favour Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Ungaro, Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Pucci," says the ex-fashion PR. A signature Atelier Mayer piece would be "something in impeccable condition, with beautiful craftsmanship".
Haid also works with upcoming designers such as Rafael López, who's dressed Emma Watson, on exclusive vintage-inspired capsule collections, and stocks a nice line of homewares; we've got our eye on a beautiful blue YSL tea set from the Eighties: "I could just trade in Hermès and Chanel, but that's too limiting and boring. I like to offer a wide variety of treasures to people."
Jewellery can make even the simplest outfit sing - especially if they come from Susan Caplan. Her e-boutique houses stunning old-school baubles with a modern feel. Caplan's great eye for detail comes from working in the antiques trade for 20 years (she mainly bought Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces) and growing up in a family of art collectors. "A lot of the styles and shapes are the inspiration for much of what we see on today's catwalks," explains Caplan, who stocks pieces from the Thirties through to the Nineties, starting from £8.
The most memorable item she's sourced is a Versace body piece, although labels don't particularly interest her: "I buy because I love the design, not the designer." She's curated a cheaper, fashion-led collection for Asos, which does a hot trade with younger fans, while her more luxurious selections are carried by Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Fenwick. "There is a huge demand for vintage jewellery. It isn't a transient trend - it really is here to stay."
Vintage Seekers, founded by Lucy Evans and partner Rob Keylock, specialises in collector's items for a super-discerning clientele. If you've got a couple of thousand spare to blow on a Dior New Look dress or an original YSL Le Smoking, Vintage Seeker's your kind of place. "That Dior dress is almost museum-quality standard (pictured above)," says Evans of the silk faille piece from the Forties. "Everything we have is at that level."
Evans and her team source from private collectors worldwide: "There's a lady who lives in Milan who has a huge collection of Valentino. One of her family members worked for Dior, so she has couture that was especially made for her. She also has Lanvin, Gucci and Pucci - it's incredible. Those pieces will be coming to the site soon. Another lady in Ibiza was the wife of a famous rock star and had amassed a wardrobe fill of Alaïa." Also worth a punt are the more accessible costume jewellery and soon-to-launch vintage sunglasses.
If clothes aren't your thing, Vintage Seekers also do rare books ("We got cleaned out of first-edition Bonds a fortnight ago"), posters, furniture, cars, boats, watches and wine. Something specific in mind? They'll hunt high and low to find it - for free.