Frock shopping is not a loved pastime: browsing is anathema. If I need something new to wear, I work out what it is and where to find it.
The “where” is important because I am a fan of the independent boutique where the art of a good sale is not lost on the assistant, more often than not, the owner.
In the summer of 1982 aged 19, new to London and with a series of smart Autumn weddings to attend I wanted a suit, something timeless, something elegant. I trawled Oxford Street, Regent Street, Chelsea, Notting Hill, all the places an aspiring young woman might go. With a month of fruitless searching behind me, the Summer Sales arrived.
Heart in mouth, I ventured to Bond Street. Here I found nothing but rails of fancy, frilly summer stuff, not what I had in mind at all. In Beale & Inman, a furiously expensive woman’s store I was hesitant to enter, a kindly over-smoked voice asked what I was looking for. It belonged to a well coiffed blonde sales assistant, a lady of a certain age.
“I need a suit for a few weddings in the Autumn … you don’t have it here. …”
“Describe it,” she said. “I might be able to help.”
“Classic cut, nipped in waist, narrow skirt, elegant.”
“Go and have a coffee and come back in half an hour; it’s in our Autumn collection in a warehouse round the corner.”
Sipping coffee nearby, I considered whether or not I should return; a temp on temping wages could never afford anything from Beale & Inman. With trepidation I returned and dear reader, she had it. The suit, by Lanvin. It fitted like a glove; everyone in the shop said I must have it yet at £450 there was no choice but to hand it back. Feeling slightly sick, I told my Sales Lady I simply couldn’t afford it.
She steered us to the back of the shop and quietly asked for the date of the first wedding. She also asked how much I was earning each week. Then she scribbled something onto a scrap of paper and gave it to me with a wink. For the next few weeks I worked a lot of overtime and every Friday, visited Beale & Inman with my next installment.
I still have the suit; it is a thing of light and silken wool, berry red with a fine black herringbone. The fit is nothing short of crafted beauty and were the shoulders not quite so Joan Collins, I’d wear it today. I think of my kind and pragmatic Smokey Lady often and was reminded of her many moons later, in another boutique, this time a little independent place just off Carnaby Street.
I was due to attend The Races with a new boyfriend and sought something swanky. Black suede steel-heeled Charles Jourdan shoes came from Bang Bang on Goodge Street but the day before Race Day I was still bereft of a dress, one which came loaded with politics and a very particular agenda.
Devoting the afternoon to pursuit of the frock, the clock ticked towards 5pm and I began to despair. Entering a sassy looking boutique just off Carnaby Street I explained the occasion to a helpful assistant who without missing a beat passed me a just-above-the-knee, silk, pale grey shift dress, well tailored, simple, sexy.
It fitted like a glove but still I wasn’t sure. Doubt etched across my face.
“There’s something you’re not telling me?” said my assistant.
“There’s a woman going … one who I happen to know is after my man.”
“We do that one in red.”
With another many moons gone by since then, last weekend I explained to the manager in Future Vintage why a new dress was much needed. She picked out for me a black lace Diane von Furstenberg shift. Looking in the mirror that exhilarating perfect glove moment returned … oh joy.
Thank you Ladies. Thank you for your patience, your collaboration, your wisdom, your expertise and your wit all of which combine to create a message for purveyors of fine fashion everywhere, for service excellence is where the future of retail (and my happiness), must lie.
© Giovanna Forte 2014