Recent article on me and the shop in Living magazine by Ruth Campbell
A former high-flying banker swapped her business suits for classic vintage clothes after voluntary redundancy introduced her to the world of retro fashion. Ruth Campbell visits her stunning store
Harrogate vintage clothes retailer Catherine Smith
To describe Catherine Smith’s shop as a vintage clothes store is something of an understatement. She is renowned for hunting down rare, treasured, original pieces in stunning fabrics, and prints by designers such as Ossie Clark and Mary Quant, which gives it the feel of an art gallery.
And the delicate, authentic flapper dresses, Edwardian lace blouses, perfectly preserved Victorian boots and precious hand-stitched Twenties shoes and handbags hold all the fascination of a mesmerising museum display.
Theatrical vintage props, such as mannequins with elongated necks, art deco mirrors and original 1920s hat and shoe boxes, set the scene for what customers might be about to discover once they start to look through the rails.
As well as the rows of beautiful dresses, coats, jackets and trousers dating backwards from the Eighties, original old art deco wood and glass shop display cases are filled with beautiful, patterned silk scarves and colourful gloves. And eye-catching beaded necklaces, bracelets and bags are draped on antique brass display stands in the Harrogate store Catherine opened four years ago.
The London-born former accountant, who had a successful career in banking until she took voluntary redundancy in 2004, has always loved good quality, beautifully-made, tailored clothes and wore smart suits from places like Aquascutum and Austin Reed for work. But it was swapping her high-flying career in financial services for a job in an Oxfam shop that opened her eyes to a whole new world of stunningly different designs and fabrics, offering a flavour of life and style through the decades.
Artistic and creative, Catherine would have loved to have studied art and design on leaving school, but instead was persuaded to take the practical option of a business studies degree.
“In the early Eighties, everything seemed to be focused towards the professions,” she says.
“When I left that world, I decided I wanted to do something different, a complete change from the corporate world.” When an opportunity in retail management with Oxfam, a charity she had always supported, came up, she jumped at it. “That’s what got me into vintage,” she says.
Catherine, in her mid-40s at the time, soon realised just how special many of the beautiful old pieces that came into the shop were and she suggested opening a “vintage retro” clothes section. “It was really successful,” she says.
“We attracted a mixture of young students and fashionistas who wanted something different, dealers too.”
She had the knack of picking out and recognising what pieces would work. “I realised a lot of vintage stock was being undervalued and missed. Not everyone is familiar with an Ossie Clark or Mary Quant design,” she says.
As her passion grew, she started going to vintage fairs as a hobby and sourcing stock herself, renting space in a vintage shop in Leeds in 2007 and, a couple of years later, in a store in Harrogate. “I would scour charity shops, vintage sales and jumble sales,” she says.
Catherine, who had made her own clothes as a teenager, started to restyle clothes too. “I would restructure garments by gathering them, altering the hems or ruching. Some clothes I made from scratch using vintage fabrics.”
She decided to open her own shop in the beautiful North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate.
“Because of the conference centre and tourism and the fact it has so many independent shops, this was where I wanted to be. No one else was selling the sort of vintage clothing I wanted to sell here,”
Catherine had a clear vision: “I wanted to offer virtually perfect, high quality vintage clothes in a boutique environment, where every piece on the rail is ready to put straight on – the type of clothes that would appeal to a broader audience, maybe even those who had never considered vintage before.”
Her background in business proved invaluable.
“The figures all stacked up. My logic was that if it was viable in recession it would be viable in the longer run,” she says. The business built slowly, but steadily. “It wasn’t an overnight success, but I soon started reaping results.”
Catherine’s customers cross the ages, from teenagers to the retired. Many want unique dresses for special occasions like weddings or black tie functions. Not surprisingly, many of her outfits go on to be worn at high-profile events. “My clothes have been worn at the Queen’s garden parties and in the royal enclosure at Royal Ascot, where they have attracted a lot of attention. I have also had dresses go to celebrity events and pictured in Vogue.”
At the top end, items such as full-length Ossie Clark maxi dresses, Chanel Eighties jackets and Valentino evening gowns and silk cocktail dresses might sell for £500, up to more than £1,000. But most dresses range from £100 to £200.
There are shoes, including Dior and Gina, for all budgets. Catherine holds out a beautiful silk pink pair by Delman, pointing to the tiny hand stitches and delicate gold piping. They look just like something from The Elves and the Shoemaker’s children’s story. They cost about £200. “They’re as rare as hens’ teeth,” says Catherine.
Jewellery ranges from as little as £15 up to £500.
“Twenties flapper necklaces, such as the pink and diamante, beaded full-length one, are really rare,” says Catherine.
Vintage scarves start at £10, with high-quality collectable silks from brands such as Liberty, Hermes and Gucci reaching up to £200.
Fifties coats are particularly popular now.
“They are a beautiful shape, with a lovely swing,”
she says. If you are lucky enough to find one, it should cost around £75, but expect to pay around £500 for a Valentino.”
As Catherine’s reputation has grown, people are increasingly coming to her and she buys mostly privately now, individually inspecting and handpicking every item. For every 20 pieces she sees, she buys one or two. “I don’t buy anything unseen and I don’t buy in bulk or over the internet,” he says.
With a keen eye on the latest trends, she also follows the catwalk and style bloggers to ensure she is stocking those desirable vintage originals that are inspiring the fashion world.
Catherine is glad she made the switch from banking.
“I am far happier, working to my own pressures and able to shape and influence how the business goes forward, although vintage isn’t an easy business to run because it is so competitive and there are a lot of people buying wholesale and selling cheap, which is not the market I’m in.”
Surprisingly, she doesn’t wear a lot of vintage clothing herself. “I go for more tailored, structured clothes but with a twist, she says. Her favourite periods are the Sixties, Thirties and Forties. “I would wear a simple black dress with a vintage scarf and layer unusual, quirky necklaces with it, or wear it with an absolutely stunning vintage bangle or belt and, perhaps, a Thirties croc clutch bag.”
There are some things which come into the shop she just has to keep for herself. “I couldn’t resist a beautiful, hand-printed 1940s linen jacket. And there was a gorgeous green velvet 1930s jacket, hand-made, with a long peplum at the back.”
She still feels a pang of regret over a stunning beaded Twenties coat dress she reluctantly sold. “It didn’t fit me so wasn’t practical, but it was so exquisite I could have kept it and hung it up on my wall, just to look at for ever.”
57a Cold Bath Road
Shop phone 01423 500234
Mobile 07774 411777
Usual times are;
Wednesday to Saturday
10:00 – 17:30
If making a special visit, please contact us beforehand to confirm times