An Ode to Virginia Bates' Vintage Emporium

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Photography by The Selby

We unravel the opulent legacy of the bygone London boutique

When Virginia Bates closed the doors of her magnificent vintage emporium Virginia in 2012, the fashion world lost one of its greatest destinations. Located in London’s Notting Hill for 42 years, the store's interior and décor was as much of a visual feast as the resplendent clothes and accessories it sold. Bates’ flair for dramatic – verging on cinematic – fashions can be credited to her previous incarnation as an actress, playing roles on screen from Doctor Who to A Clockwork Orange. When she opened her shop in 1971, she described herself as 'an out-of-work actress'.

The fashion industry often made pilgrimages to rifle through her stock; among them, Danish beauty Helena Christensen who Bates claims was one of the first of many supermodels to visit. She bought a simple slip dress and, after Christensen wore the dress backstage at a London fashion show, Naomi Campbell stopped by to stock up. When Campbell was in Paris for fashion week, she inspired John Galliano to take a trip to the store and the gospel spread like wildfire. Designers like Alberta Ferretti, Donna Karan and Donatella Versace would soon follow in Galliano’s footsteps, visiting the store to purchase pieces that would later inspire their collections.

The ornate space was filled with vibrant stained glass lamps, cascading a colourful light over tall rails of marabou-feather trimmed gowns from the 1890s and sequin-sprayed flapper dresses. Not to mention the grand Victorian furniture, mirrors meshed with cabinets full of silver jewellery, dazzling clutches and diamond-adorned headpieces from the 30s and 40s. Bates was clear that she was a purveyor of antiques, not merely vintage.

Part of the magical appeal of Virginia’s was the atmosphere she created. An entire room downstairs was wholly devoted to faded tea dresses in soft shades of cream, yellow and powder puff pink; walls were lined with colorful parasols and soft swaths of fur; on shelves sat pretty petticoats and lacy camisoles. In contrast, the upper level of the store was grounded in earthy black leathers, mauves and regal purple accessories. Bates herself is also a fashion icon – her reverance for antique fashion evident in her own sartorial choices of sweeping dresses, multiple layers of necklaces and a chic blond bob.

Today, she spends her time mostly out of the spotlight with her pet turtle Daniel, but her legacy is not forgotten. When the shop shut almost two years ago, she moved all of her treasures to her London home. Her one rule above all else concerns shoes: she firmly believes that people should avoid vintage shoes, once telling Interview magazine, “You can not wear top-to-toe vintage, because you'll look ridiculous. For example, you could wear a vintage hat with a sharp modern suit. And a high, dangerous 'fuck off' pair of shoes. Never wear vintage shoes. They're too clunky."