Stelios Hawa is the driving force behind Dress Box Vintage, our in-store designer vintage department spanning jewellery, clothing and accessories. As he geared up to curate the Jewelled Curiosities exhibition, part of our April Jewellery Events series, we sat down with the vintage extraordinaire to get the inside track on finding genuine designer treasures.
WHERE DID YOUR LOVE OF VINTAGE COME FROM?I’ve always had a love for vintage clothing, and was always inspired by the selection at The Dress Box, so when the establishment came up for sale, I bought the company. The Dress Box is over 70 years old.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST GREAT FIND?A Balenciaga 1950s black silk satin coat with complementing oyster lining, in the iconic master’s cut - cut away from the neck.
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR LIBERTY?I source all Liberty’s vintage items. One minute I’m looking at a Chanel suit, the next I’m looking at a Cartier lighter for menswear, and then a handbag from the 1950s that’s just come in from Dior. It’s very varied. Everything needs a lot of attention and I believe that, whatever you sell somebody, it has to be fit for the purpose which it’s sold. You wouldn’t sell a watch that doesn’t work, a handbag with a broken strap or an item that has a lock that doesn’t lock. Although it sounds simple, there can be a lot of work behind the scenes to make a product presentable, while keeping its vintage essence. I don’t believe in over-restoring items because you take away that beautiful patina that it’s attained over the years. I believe certain scratches form part of the beauty - you don’t want something Victorian that’s polished within an inch of its life because then there’s no point in even having a Victorian item – you may as well buy a new one! Every single item goes through me, I do all the buying, I approve everything, I decide how far we’re restoring and then we’ll decide which floor it is going on, because again, although vintage is vintage, there are certain things that look better in the men’s cabinet now than they did as a women’s piece in the 1970s. There are no hard and fast
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVOURITE LIBERTY MOMENT?My favourite moments are when someone is looking for something and you’ve managed to fill the brief. Something like an alternative wedding dress, or an alternative engagement ring that’s different and not standard. It’s really satisfying to see a smile on someone’s face when you’ve found the right thing for them or you’ve altered something. In designer vintage we have our own couture alteration service, so customers are thrilled when they come in and we can alter the garment in the way they want.
WHAT SELLS BEST AT LIBERTY?I would say Chanel and 1920s items sell the best. Particularly unusual Chanel pieces like tennis rackets, skis, things that are a bit off the beaten track, plus the cropped jackets are always a staple. The cropped bouclé jacket is her of course but her real clothes are from the ‘20s, everything was elongated and droopy, finding that now is virtually impossible.
WHAT’S THE BEST PIECE YOU’VE FOUND FOR US?It was a truly magnificent late 1880s iconic Liberty cape with origins from our Liberty store on the boulevard des Capucines in Paris, which sadly closed down in 1932.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE PART OF THE JOB?It’s exciting to source pieces but it’s also a great satisfaction to see someone buying, even if they’re not a collector. When I’m on the shop floor I always like to understand why somebody’s picked something, it’s interesting to see how people get drawn to things. With ‘20s items it could be the cut, or just the sparkle.
WHAT ARE YOUR TOP TIPS FOR BUYING VINTAGE?I would say don’t do the whole outfit – that’s one of the worst mistakes people make. They look as though they’ve walked out of the V&A – I appreciate the museum and what it tells us but you don’t want to look like you’ve walked out of it. It’s important to mix, I would always have an element of modern, and there’s nothing to stop you mixing periods.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK OUT FOR WHEN YOU’RE BUYING?I look for eclectic pieces that are very much the Liberty customer. Our customers here are always looking for something that’s a little edgy and off the beaten track. It doesn’t necessarily have to be couture or a big brand, I also hunt out pieces that are evocative of an era. For example it doesn’t have to be Biba if it’s ‘70s, I will even look at things like Bus Stop which was a fairly high street brand, if I find a dress that’s iconic I would consider it because it spells out a particular mood and holds a very strong statement of what was going on at the time.
FOR A DESIGNER VINTAGE NOVICE, WHAT ARE FIVE KEY THINGS TO LOOK OUT FOR? 1. You may want to identify the collection/year
2. Can the piece be associated with any royal or celebrity person, who may have worn the same item, or something from the same collection?
3. Is it in good condition?
4. Has there been any alteration to the garment, which may have taken away from the original design? And is it reversible?
5.Has any restoration taken place? Has it been done sympathetically?
IN TERMS OF YOUR PERSONAL COLLECTION, WHAT’S YOUR MOST CHERISHED PIECE?It’s very difficult to focus on only one piece, but what comes to mind is a Louis Vuitton 1940’s fishing bag, as well as a vast collection of military clothing and accessories.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE LIBERTY FABRIC?Liberty Lantana