Personal Essays

Wearing my heart on my sleeve- the story continues…

A bevy of beautiful dresses. To herald Spring, Akiko Vintage, 2017.

The thrill of the hunt

Without thinking about it, I slowly started collecting. Of course I could never get rid of my accidental heirlooms, like so many people are prone to do. The concept of keeping a dress because it brings you joy, because it’s worth saving (even when it may not fit you) became the wellspring. My mother’s dresses were a missive from the past, a reference point for me. Now my collection hovers around 30 pieces in all. I don’t let it get out of hand. Like any good collections, it evolves and changes. I manage it and refine it as I go. I sold some of the treasured pieces, which I deeply regret, so now I am owning it- my collection is special and tells a story. No one will exactly be wanting to borrow it for a MoMa retrospective but I am the curator of these pieces and will love and treasure them during my lifetime, passing them on to people who appreciate them at the end of my life. Yes, I am going to be that eccentric old lady!

Another 1970s treasure in an unusual peacock feather motif in green and purple. Label: Julia Whyte Boutique.

And so it will continue, my whole life. At least 80% of my wardrobe is second hand and vintage. I love bold prints, silk scarves and long skirts and dresses. There is no comparison to modern clothing; in quality, variety and affordability. I’m simply too much of a cheapskate to pay R800 for a dress made in Bangladesh. Yet it’s so much more than that. Wearing vintage is not only totally individualistic, it’s also the most underrated way of looking amazing. In fact, as the future become more uncertain and mediocrity reigns supreme, wearing vintage will become the ultimate form of luxury.

My friend Reza and I in the garden of my bohemian flat. I am wearing this 1940s parachute silk dress hand painted with flowers I rescued from my old school’s theatre wardrobe.

Old & new, but not old hat

When I was in my late 20s, I started working at a second hand shop called Nearly New. Working there gave me a rare opportunity – to nab new pieces as they were consigned. Luckily I didn’t overdo it. I am not a shopaholic and have never been all that impressed by mere labels. My best buys were a pair of caramel leather knee high boots from the 1970s (still a firm favourite) and a long white cotton dress printed with black Art Nouveau swirls. There was a 1970s Spanish style skirt trimmed with white lace I wore to death. Then were… ta- dah! My ultimate shoes. They looked like the shoes Lady Mary wore in Downton Abbey. Super comfortable, black leather with rubber heels and three straps that buckled across the bridge of the foot. They were 1990s does 1940s, from a South African company called Zoom. I met the designer once, a fascinating guy who collects Lalique glass. I also owned another amazing pair of shoes by Zoom: 1960s style platform heels, also really comfortable, which I wore with white socks and short skirts with a slit. This kind of quality – designed AND made in the country where you bought it – simply doesn’t exist anymore and certainly never will again.

These Mui Mui shoes from the 90s are the closest I could come to my shoes, mine were much more elegant!

It was round about that time that I discovered that I have a natural ability of knowing which styles belong to which decade. I am not an obsessive collector, like with many things I do, it happens quite casually, sporadically and in the moment. But I guess looking at lots and lots of vintage pieces (even if, to my regret, I didn’t buy all of them) as well as also knowing a little about antiques and design, I am able to connect all the threads together. It also helps having been around for a while, what with collecting for 28 years, noticing styles and trends as they come and go. When I look at a piece, I take note of the fabric, the style and the cut (which all determine which decade it dates from). I can usually determine when a piece is from the late 1950s on the cusp of the 1960s or when it’s 80s does Victorian or whatever the case may be. Of course, this makes it all the more irksome to see a modern garment being passed off as vintage.

Ooh, there’s nothing like a mermaid tail to make an entrance! This happens to be the most unusual 1970s print I have ever seen. Label: Smart Set.

Another vintage shop that was important to me opened in my home town in the early 2000s. What a marvellous name it had: Old Hat and All That. It was run by a wonderful woman called Judy who looked like she had just stepped out of a Pre Raphaelite painting. She had a real knowledge and passion for vintage. From her I bought an amazing red navy and white psychedelic 1970s dress with a mermaid tail (see above); a 1970s Studio 54 style silver lamé and orange chevron skirt (which alas fell apart) and this Susie Wong style dress with a print like a garden in summer. It really is my In the Mood for Love dress, or as close as I can get! As you can see, my love for the 1970s is strong. I love bold prints, long skirts and dresses and I don’t like blending in or being beige.

This dress makes me happy. But I have to be bold to wear it as it has a long slit! No label.

Akiko akimbo

In 2015 I started my own small business selling vintage clothes. I called it Akiko Vintage after my Japanese alter ego, who loves wearing vintage kimonos and flowers in her hair. “Akiko” means ‘clear stream’ in Japanese. I was also inspired by the Alexander McQueen-styled cover for Bjork’s album Homogenic, which is one of my favourites. There is something very calm and determined about it. Since I was a teenager I have gravitated towards names that start with an A. I would sign my letters with a different alias each time, representing different aspects of my personality. The first treasures I found for Akiko Vintage were a long velvet opera coat embossed with swirls and an exceptionally beautiful iridescent velvet skirt printed in rich autumnal colours. I wish I had kept the coat but at least I still have the skirt. Here is a photo of me wearing it.

Posing on our Ercole sofa in a beautiful velvet skirt. The 1960s beaded bag was a gift from Vygies Emporium in Calitzdorp. The angora 60s style sweater is from H&M circa 1999. The painting is by the South African artist Barbara Burry.

Maybe it’s because I love a bargain so much, but I never really priced anything properly. In fact, looking back on the six years of Akiko Vintage, I never really made any money. I always knew when a piece was special but I had a bit of a complex about my abilities to actually be able to sell it. I also rather misguidedly thought I would find more. Now I know that each piece I found was one of a kind and can never be found again. Also, as the years go by, less and less can be found. Naturally that also means that the quantity and quality of vintage clothing has declined, and you will pay much more for a special piece. I closed the business in January 2021 but I’m not sad about it. Now my love for vintage can continue unsullied by the intransigencies of running a business.

Fabulous 1970s Spanish style maxi dress. Polka dots. 1970s. Those sleeves are something else! Label: Truworths.

All about the labels, honey

It is amusing and a little disheartening to look back on the designer labels I found and let go of. I have never been one for brands and it really shows as I passed up on some really special pieces. Let me show you some of them. First up is this this beautiful yellow and green Fendi silk scarf in immaculate condition.

There was also a rare and special pure silk Chanel scarf from the 1980s. I cannot find a photo of it but it was enormous and printed with a block motif of the iconic double C logo in red, black and yellow. I was so pleased with myself that I had managed to nab it from the white elephant table at a school fete in an affluent cape town neighbourhood. Yet like a fool I sold it for drum roll here…. Only R300 ($20)!

I also ‘owned’ this vintage Hermés scarf for a while. A true limited edition collector’s piece.

Hermes “Le Monde du Polo” designed by Chantal de Chrissy and only produced in 1978.

Other designers included a pair of genuine Christian Louboutins I found in a charity shop for only R200. My initial instinct, that they may be real, defied all logic, but after extensive research I proved they weren’t! They were the classic Palais Royale peep toes, made famous by Oprah. Then there was also this pristine tomato red suede Tod’s tote bag and a pair of red satin Manolo Blahnik’s.

It’s lucky, I suppose, that the Blahniks weren’t my size… Talking about red shoes, it is a passion of mine. I have streamlined my collection now but I once had had a cool pair of red and white ski boots, 1950s style heels, red leather pumps from the 90s and a unique pair of 1970s red velvet Baroque revival brogues, which I still have!

My favourite Akiko Vintage piece was this fabulous Moschino Cheap n Chic yellow shift dress. Inspired by the 1960s Mod movement, it was born in the 1980s and had random pink and orange polka dots sewn into it. It was such an amazing find. I know, you don’t have to tell me, I should never have sold it!

Fab canary yellow Mod shift dress. late 1980s. Moschino Cheap n Chic.

Locally loud and proud

From time to time I would come across vintage boutique pieces that were made in South Africa. I have become quite fascinated by these labels, especially one called Vamp from the 1960s/70s, who made really striking shirts and beautifully tailored jackets in Eton stripes and royal purple. I will never forget this amazing Flapper inspired number dress in cherry red…

Cherry red 1970s party dress. Micropleated frills. Label: Vamp

But the most crazy Vamp outfit is this one! (Which I kept)…

1970s long black taffeta skirt and matching top, festooned with rosettes. Deliciously Gothic. Label: Vamp

Talking about jackets… Retus is another vintage SA label that is actually a heritage brand as it’s still going strong. It’s quite a luxury label nowadays, with their jackets selling for around R2000 a piece. I treasure my cropped red Retus jacket with candy stripe piping, dating from late 1960s. Then there is also Delswa, known for their feminine pieces like this bevy of beautiful dresses.

I also came across a fair amount of pieces by Ruth Reed, known for their shirt dresses. They were the most active from the 1970s to the 1990s. The green one is such a stunner.

Here is another favourite of mine- a floral fantasy from the 1960s by Sally Faye. I suspect that it is also a South African vintage label. I have only ever found another dress with the same name, it was engulfed by embroidered flowers. What a dream Sally Faye!

Over-the-top floral print dress. 1960s. Label: Sally Faye

There is still so much to be discovered about vintage labels that are uniquely South African. The fabrics were actually produced here and garments created from start to finish.

But the label I will never forget were absolutely magnificent Italian chiffon dresses that go by the name Signora. I found the first beauty in a charity shop and the other one online. I have not managed to find any information on them. My guess is that they were sold in an exclusive boutique, made in South Africa from imported fabric tailored to an Italian design. Oh, the regret.

Such an astounding colour combination: peach, purple, teal green. A print like a butterfly’s wing. Label: Signora.
A dream of a dress. Sumptuous frills with Chinese watercolour pattern and a cape detail. Label: Signora Model.

Worn stories

Wearing a vintage piece always takes me back to the time I found it, often in the unlikeliest of places. A 1940s satin teal evening dress in a hidden garage in Franschhoek, a green chiffon dress with little embroidered flowers at a church fête, that hand painted dress in the wardrobe section under the stage at my old school. Once I bought a 1940s wool jacket from a random guy passing by for only R2! Alas this is no more. The internet and so many dealers competing has made the hunt tougher and taken a great deal of the magic of discovery right along with it. I am jealous of the beautiful pieces you can get in the UK and US, our history doesn’t go that far back and 1940s pieces are hard to come by here. I think the reason for this is because South Africa was struggling in the 1940s, our economic boom came much later.

Yet every time it feels as if the piece was meant for me, and was meant to be found by me. I recognise it for the treasure that it is. I never pay a lot for these pieces, that would take all the magic out of it, like ordering a book from Amazon, anyone can do it. But not anyone can wake up early and queue in the rain and find a complete surprise. It’s the luck of the draw. It feels like fate. The funniest one was at a church fete in Buenos Aires, where I found the dress pictured below. After buying it, complete with a beautiful printed wooden hanger, I got so excited winning a bottle of wine at the tombola, the members of the congregation thought I belonged to the AA meeting and I was off the wagon!

Handmade Susie Wong style dress. 1960s. Black ric-rac trim. Found in Buenos Aires, 2006

One year at the National Arts Festival, I found a fabulous 1970s floral maxi dress in orange and black with black chiffon bell sleeves. And unlike all the other dresses on that rack, it wasn’t expensive. One of my favourites, most wearable pieces is a 1980s black velvet cropped jacket with Balmain shoulders, found in an old office in the town where my partner grew up. We had to ask the wife of the guy who used to bully him at school for the key, she thought I was crazy! To me finding that jacket then and there says a lot about how you can find beauty anywhere. You just need to know what it looks like when you see it.

What a gorgeous print. I love the black background to make enrich the colours. 1970s maxi dress with black chiffon balloon sleeves. Label: Topic.

I still wear a lot of vintage. 80% of my wardrobe is second hand and vintage. In Winter I don black from head to toe show off a giant starburst Trifari rhinestone brooch. This Winter I will debut a gorgeous full skirt with diagonal stripes in red, blue and mauve and a Chinese black embroidered silk jacket. Then there’s an amazing pair of blue velvet trousers from a beloved late friend. I’m also looking forward to finding the right configuration for my favourite combination; red and bright pink. Red usually wins out, to be honest. Either all red or with white, my Summer standby. I love combining old and new pieces, such as a black-and-white striped Zara jacket with a hand painted 1960s silk scarf in black, white and yellow. My newest acquisitions this past Summer were a 1980s cropped silk jacket painted in abstract rainbow colours and this 1940s silk crepe petticoat.

A delicate transparent silk crepe petticoat. Micro pleated and printed with flowers. Handmade French lace detail
on the yoke. 1940s. No label.

People who don’t understand vintage often ask me, with a shudder, don’t you get grossed out that the previous owner of the clothes is now dead? I was really nonplussed the first time I heard this. It had never even crossed my mind. I don’t think about how a painting or a piece of jewellery changing owners many, many times before I get to see it or own it. People are far too concerned with the idea of wearing what’s new. It’s actually all about that ugly thing called status. When I think about a new piece of clothing, I think about lack of sustainability, pollution, factories and sweat shops. But when I think about vintage, I think about design, someone actually drawing a design on paper, and cloth woven on a loom, and the boutique or department store where it was sold. I think about dancing and women wearing gloves to the cinema. That object carries so many stories, which may remain a mystery. Unless you look and understand and appreciate, some of the story can be revealed or at least imagined!

My mother’s Greek cotton beach dress. 1970s. Hand embroidered.

Curated & collated

It all started with my mother’s dresses and although it has faltered many times, I still have the collecting bug and will for my whole life. Because the collection was built up slowly and organically over the past 27 years, it doesn’t only reflect my style, it’s also about the strange things that cross my path. It’s weird but when I see a piece I somehow know it must form part of the collection. I am very aware of how it all started, with the matrilineal line that reflects so much more than just my life.

A delightful baby blue chiffon children’s dress with embroidered flowers. 1950s. Handmade.

Most of my dresses have names. This would never really have happened in any kind of concrete way if it wasn’t for my friend Athina Vahla, who is a dancer and performance artist. A couple of years ago she invited me to participate in a multi layered art installation about collectors and their collections. Once I took a look at my collection with the production in mind I thought about the stories I knew about them and the stories I had made up in my imagination. A whole world of associations opened up like a telescope.

For example, this amazing slipper satin dress that belonged to my mother. The exquisite fabric, like a dappled watercolour, makes me think of one of the my favourite artists: Pierre Bonnard. So there you go, she is Bonnard’s mistress, because she has a bit of a risqué edge!

Handmade 1950s slipper satin dress with Spanish off-the-shoulder detail studded with red sequins. It was bought in Paris in the 1960s when my mother was 18 years old!

This fabulous 1950s strapless prom dress is called Elizabeth Taylor because she is a similar shade to Liz’s violet-blue eyes. She has a ruched bust that magically transforms one’s bust into sexy cleavage. The woman who made her knew what she was doing! I look forward to finding the perfect shoes to go with her. My friend Kathy wore her for a photo shoot and she looked, I kid you not, like Marilyn Monroe.

Handmade chiffon prom dress printed with tiny gold polka dots. Deep blue with a hint of violet. Circa 1950s.

An exceptional 1970s hand crocheted dress with fan sleeves from Mexico is called Frida. She is such a dream, an ideal of mine in fact, but her waist is so tiny so I cannot wear her!

Pleated pure cotton deep red dress with hand crocheted lace detail.
Made in Mexico 1970s. Label: Rosa Mexicana

This shell-pink dress printed with pink and blue flowers is called Joy because to me pink represents pure joy, like Spring blossoms. Like dancing through the garden when you were small, pretending to be a fairy.

Shell pink cotton openwork broderie-anglaise dress. Printed with pink and blue flowers. No label.

Not that I can choose but right up there among my favourites is my most rare piece… a psychedelic silk dress by Emilia Bellini, a contemporary of the iconic Emilio Pucci. Sadly, she didn’t continue onto fame as he did, despite also pioneering the silk jersey from which this dress is made. Everything about it is special, from the panels tailored to flatter the figure, to a sash with Renaissance style copper finial tips, right down to a little weight behind your neck to pull the collar straight.

Pure silk jersey dress in pink, orange black and purple. 1970s. Label: Emilia Bellini

I call her Firenze because that is where she was made, in the 1970s, during the second Renaissance, when the whole world had fallen in love with Italy. Thanks in part must go to Gina Lollobrogida, Anna Magnani, Claudia Cardinale and of course, Sophia Loren. This is the dress that I will wear when I realise my life’s dream; when I walk down Via dei Calzaiuolito in Florence for the very first time.

On my birthday wearing Bellini. Some images of other Emilia Bellini creations alongside.

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