“Vintage should make up at least 15-20% of a modern woman’s wardrobe. ” Wilma Mae Basta
Having had a lifelong love of vintage clothes beginning as a teenager hanging out on London’s Portobello Road, I never tire of finding another one-off and am forever in search of ‘the perfect dress’.
I got chatting to the owner Wilma Mae Basta, and as her knowledge of vintage clothing rolled off her tongue and my purse strings willingly loosened to the lure of timeless womenswear, I wondered what inspired her.
Where were you born?
I was born outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and grew up in a university town called Villanova. I moved to the UK 22 years ago to study English common law with the intention of returning to the US to become an entertainment lawyer. I ended up staying because I fell in love, got married and had two kids. I never pursued law and instead worked in entertainment, consumer and technology PR for more than 12 years.
When did your fascination with clothes begin?
I was fascinated with clothes since I was about 11 years old. While most of my school friends were reading teen magazines, I would often be seen on my own reading Vogue, W, or WWD, playing a game with myself where I’d take a quick look at the page and without looking at the credits guess which designer had designed the outfit. This was my idea of fun – not partying like my friends. A bit sad really. One whole wall of my room was filled years worth of subscriptions of every high fashion magazine on the market. I threw none of them away. I wanted them just in case I needed to find out about a designer and understand their style.
What were your first images you can remember of ‘style’?
My first real sense of style came from the film Auntie Mame, with Rosalind Russell. This was a woman who was so unique and individual. Whether she was rich or poor, she never kowtowed and always looked amazing. I remember knowing for the first time what it meant to wear the clothes and not allow them to wear you. Her outfits and home décor was epic! The story line was also dear to my heart. She knew how to teach important lessons without preaching. This is still my all time favourite film.
Did you grow up around a lot of stylish people?
Yes, my parents were stylish. My mother (Shakmah aka Anna Branche) was an important spiritual teacher and despite being overweight and very short, she always looked regal and carried herself as if she was a petite ballerina. The way she wore her clothes immediately commanded respect. She taught me what it is to be a true goddess – a true woman. My father (Stanley Branche Sr.) too was also incredibly stylish. He was a prominent civil rights leader in the 60’s but after the movement died down in the 70’s he somehow morphed into being involved with the Italian Mafia – go figure! So I only ever saw my father in beautifully tailored suits with all the appropriate bling. Imagine John Gotti and that pretty much summed up my father. And yes it is odd to have a black man in the mafia! One of his saying was “Class never goes out of Style”. I live by that rule today.
Tell me a bit about your style growing up; I had some pretty wild phases- did you?
In the 80’s I wanted to rebel against suburban style. Where I grew up most girls wore turtlenecks with hearts on them and wide whaler corduroy pants and jeans. They carried corduroy handbags with wooden handles. This bored me and I saw it as being part of the herd. I wanted to wear designers like Norma Kamali and Kenzo. I loved the military look at the time and would go to army surplus stores and wear berets with brushed cotton parkas and Marithe Et Francois Girbaud cargo pants. At 14, I got my first job so I could save to buy my favourite designers. I was also totally fascinated with makeup and would spend a good hour every morning applying my war paint for the day – well it was the 80’s! Electric blue mascara and heavy Lancôme foundation was de riguer. In my high school yearbook, this description given to me: “Wilma will be the only bag lady in Philadelphia with a Gucci handbag”. In addition to being fashion mad the bag lady was a good description- I literally carried almost everything with me at all times. Part of my hoarding issue I guess.
Who are your style icons and why?
Auntie Mame. The woman throws out a blistering one liner and would be both vulnerable and strong whilst looking incredibly stylish wherever she was.Cher. She has been successful in every decade since the 60’s. She was outrageous before Gaga and Madonna, she has had a string of music hits and won an Oscar. She is outspoken, individual and compassionate. She is a woman of substance.
Iman. She continues to look amazing after almost 40 years in the business. She embodies elegance and class and is married to one of my musical heroes, David Bowie.
Doris Day. I secretly wanted to be her growing up. So vanilla, so ‘perfect’.
Grace Kelly. What intrigues me about her was that there was always a hint of something more, something darker underneath that clean cut, gentrified exterior. She also comes from the Main Line of Philadelphia, which is where I grew up.
Why do you think vintage has taken off in such a big way in the last 10 years?
It is true that vintage is having a moment. I think this has been driven by the fact that high profile celebrities are often seen on the red carpet wearing vintage and shopping in vintage boutiques. Many of today’s designers and high street brands are also producing ‘vintage inspired’ collections. Hell, many of them trawl around my shop looking for inspiration! This has fed the vintage fashion boom as well. Of course it is helped by the spate of period TV dramas and films but I think it is more a celebrity-led trend. It is important however to make sure that vintage stays relevant moving forward and continue to stay part of the fashion mix. In my opinion, vintage should make up at least 15-20% of a modern woman’s wardrobe. It is the vintage, which gives the stylish woman her fashion edge and uniqueness.
Being an American, how do you find the London vintage scene different to, say, NY or LA?
I don’t spend much time in the US these days. I love NYC but LA is one of my least favourite places. I do my thing to the best of my ability and look after my customers, hoping they come back because they know us and can trust us. Having done this for over a decade, I’m good at knowing how to find some of the best pieces, whether they are couture, designer or just plain beautiful. I’m so busy doing this that there is no time to focus on what other vintage sellers are doing plus it all changes so quickly. The good thing about vintage is that it transcends trends. It is timeless. It is up to the individual how they make it work in their wardrobe and that is it’s undeniable charm and allure.
Tell me about some vintage designer names, and why you like them.
Lilli Ann. Started by Adolf Schuman in the 40’s, Lilli Ann was a brand, which was inspired by Parisian couture designs. The outfits were always made to a high quality and were aimed at the middle class American woman who couldn’t afford couture but could afford to pay for something similar. The pieces from the 40’s trade at high prices these days and are real collectibles. I have been collecting Lilli Ann for years. Not worth collection after the 60’s though.
Paganne – Dubbed ’The Poor Man’s Pucci’, this brand, started by Gene Berk, is one of my favourites. Fashion label that was formed in the late 1960s with Gene Berk as it’s head designer who had previously designed for Oleg Cassini. He designed unique and bold prints, which were printed in Italy. Designs were often in soft jersey fabrics cut into maxi and shift dresses. Paganne is of the same era as Pucci but his quirky printed garments were more affordable.
Malcolm Starr. The go-to designer for the jet set in Florida and California. Known for their super glam evening and cocktail wear, this is a highly collectible brand. Some of their resident designers were more prominent than others
Jonathan Logan . Aimed towards the younger lady, Logan was a large manufacturer, creating designs that always resembled classics cuts. They continually grew in popularity from the 50’s through to the 70’s. Logan often used original yet timeless prints that even look modern today. His celebrated, effortless dresses were designed to be worn for more than one season.
Branell. This New York fashion house designed pieces of couture quality and only sold in upscale boutiques. Branell was known for its classic American, feminine silhouettes and fine tailoring, dressing the high society of New York and American actresses. Most notably he designed the belted shirtwaist dress worn by Grace Kelly to announce her engagement to Prince Rainier in 1956.
Goldworm. A knitwear manufacturer, which was started in the early part of the 20th century but didn’t really gain prominence until one of the sons took over in the 60’s. They were an early day Missoni with vibrant punchy designs. The company no longer exists and their best pieces are collectibles. I buy them in whenever I can get my hands on them.
Emma Domb. This dressmaking brand, which started in the late 30’s by two sisters. They specialized in making party and prom dresses, which are now highly collectible today. They went out of business in the 70’s but the years to collect are the 50’s and 60s’ if you can get your hands on them.
Alfred Shaheen (right) designed and manufactured fabrics and clothing for over 40 years, his pieces are among the most prized in vintage fashion collections. His textile designs, produced by his own textile factory were inspired by Hawaii, the South Pacific and Asia. His most common designs were in the form of shift dresses, aloha shirts and swimsuits.
Werle. Daniel Werlé is widely regarded as America’s ‘first couture designer’. He designed and produced the wardrobe for Loretta Young on The Loretta Young Show, which aired between 1953-1961. His pieces were very unique and glamorous, often incorporating metallic thread and large button detail. They were sold at his boutique in Beverly Hills but today are rare to find and highly collectable pieces.
Teal Traina (& Gino Charles). Upmarket fashion label Teal Traina was known for classic and feminine designs. One of New York’s most famous fashion designer’s from that era-Geoffrey Beene- designed under the label. Beene was most known for creating effortless yet dressy women’s wear such as clingy silhouettes cut on the bias. Clients of Teal Traina included Nancy Regan and Pat Nixon. Gino Charles was a line established in 1966 by designers Teal Gino Traina and Malcolm Charles Starr and designed by Alan Phillips. The line was started to make American styles available in markets around the world and the cut of the garment was altered to fit the typical body type in each market. It is very difficult to find this brand but they are stunning. We have one Gino Charles in our collection. It is stunning.
I love how affectionately you feel about vintage clothes, it’s as though they are living. Tell me a few stories about certain pieces, your favourite stories about them and the homes they went to.
Often, our customers are so happy with their vintage buys that they come back into the shop to show us how they wear it. One proud moment was when I saw the broadcaster and columnist, Emma Freud dashing across the street and rushed into our shop to show us how her new Dellil bag was going to be featured in her new pics for her Tatler column. She even tweeted that she was so in love with her bag she wanted to marry it!
Just the other day we had another style of Dellil bag come in. This bag was one of the popular 60’s/70’s clutch bag which looks like a rolled up magazine. You can still find them around and about but it is super difficult to find the Grazia Magazine version. Well I found one. I thought the other day that it would be great if the editor of Grazia had one so I emailed her and she fell in love with it immediately and asked to buy it! She also tweeted about it to her 23K followers. Now I have had loads of requests for these bags. I doubt I will find the Grazia edition anytime soon but I am looking.
Are there any designers you hold in the same regard today?
There seem to be so many new designers every year that it is hard to keep track of them. If you held a gun to my head I would go with Jonathan Saunders and Mary Katrantzou, I love bold design and colour.
Tell me the main difference between designer clothes today and vintage designers in terms of ability to cut, the lining, detail and quality.
It is no secret that the quality of vintage clothing is almost always better than what you find today. Many of today’s high-end fashion pieces sometimes lack the attention to detail and fabric quality that you find in even mid-priced vintage garments from the 60’s and before. There was much more generous use of fabric in the 50’s. The great thing about these dresses is that if I need to alter them, there is almost always some extra fabric to make alterations to fit our clients perfectly. Today’s garments don’t allow for much extra fabric, which I am sure, keeps the manufacturer’s costs down.
Which unusual vintage pieces would you love to have more of in your shop?
Eventually, even Andy Warhol designed a paper dress with the print of his famous Campbell Soup cans. I am currently hoping to get one with Nixon written all over it.
What vintage designers or pieces are the most highly sought after now?
That really depends. My high-end collectors pieces almost never sell in the boutique. I have to sell those privately to collectors. Pieces like Bill Gibb, Thea Porter, Zandra Rhodes. These sell well but have to be sold privately. I rarely allow them onto the shop floor because they are too delicate to have people trying them on all the time. People ask for Ossie Clark, Pucci, Vivienne Westwood and McQueen. We don’t focus so much on them because there are other vintage sellers who do it well. For me, it is not that exciting. Our in store collection is all about beautiful stunning garments that have stood the test of time and can still work in a modern context. We are really good on dresses to wear to special occasions as well as work wear.
What are your most treasured vintage items, and what would your dream ‘find’ be for yourself?
I have an absolutely beautiful gown, which was made for Ava Gardner by the in-house design team at Bergdorf Goodman in 1955. The gown is beyond amazing and when we display it, it always pulls the crowds in. I have had the dress for 10 years and while I love it, I would like to sell it but recent offers have been too low. I am happy to hang on to it. I think it would be too difficult for me to pinpoint my ‘dream’ find to one designer or garment. I don’t think it is possible for me to do that. I love too many. I am a bit of a tart really.
You have such a wealth of knowledge with regards vintage clothing, what else would you like to do with that knowledge?
I’d like my own TV show! I’m working on it.
Thank you Wilma.
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