It’s a Saturday morning and I’m on Oldham Street, in Manchester’s northern quarter. A cloudless sky manages to lighten the gloom of the late-Victorian industrial architecture.
Buildings resigned to a post-colonial functionality, home no longer to the grandiose trading companies that built the empire, now with ground floors given over to alternative retailers and upper floors to technology here-today-gone-tomorrowers.
It’s appropriate then, that Oldham Street is the hub of Manchester’s growing vintage scene. Mostly what’s for sale is not new – let’s call it pre-owned, previously cherished or just good old second-hand – unless of course it’s “own brand” vintage.
Down the road, the Arndale Centre houses 240 shops and department stores and is the High Streetshopper’s Nirvana. From Poundland to Pandora, there’s something there for everyone.
I’m in Oldham Street to find out about Vintage. I must confess that somehow it had slipped under the radar of my fashion antennae, but what doesn’t? You see, I wrongly considered that there wasn’t much of a market for second-hand clothes, bric-a-brac or semi-collectable knick knacks. And if there was, I’d figured, charity shops had it pretty well cornered.
Time to browse. My first call is Pop Boutique, which opened in 1994. It has two floors of vintage clothing, plus a large selection of vintage furniture and kitsch. There is also the obligatory cafe on the ground floor.
In addition to the sale of vintage, Pop Boutique also has its own label and, more significantly, its own wholesale business which serves as the parent company and wholesales over 300,000 kilos of vintage clothing every year. Pop Boutique now has a chain of six shops in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Gottenburg, Sweden.
According to Steve the deputy manager, the sort of people who buy vintage clothes are not necessarily the same as those who patronize Primark. “It’s much more of a fashion statement than about saving money. We get all sorts in here – students and actually all sorts,” says Steve, conspiratorially spilling the beans.
I’m intrigued to know what the difference between vintage and retro is. No one I spoke to – even Steve – seemed to know. Is it, I asked, simply new vintage…that is, new stuff manufactured to look old…or is it old stuff that was manufactured to, well…look old? I think my questioning is causing more confusion than enlightenment so I decide to do what all good researchers do – resort to Wikipedia: “Retro is a culturally outdated or aged style, trend, mode, or fashion, from the overall postmodern past, that has since that time become functionally or superficially the norm once again…It generally implies a vintage of at least 15 or 20 years.” Well that clears that up then: retro is actually vintage…retro.
Moving on along Oldham Street, I take a look in Retro Rehab. I like this shop a lot, for although I’m still a squidge confused about the retro/vintage (If indeed there is one) the window display is terrific, if a tad voyeuristic. Made up of black and white lined walls and a chequered floor on which, beside a seated mannequin in a black dress, sits an old lacquered suitcase bearing the legend: “Style is Timeless”. Time, indeed, to dig out the double denim then.
Company magazine likes it too, “A small vintage store that feels like you have walked into a really chic dressing up box, for grown ups.” This pretty much sums it up, although having never walked into a dressing up box I had to take this on advisement. However, it raises another question about the reasons for the popularity of vintage – is it about fancy dress or is it connected to fashion?
I decided to ask the punters. Jane Bibby, a mother of two and a florist from Stockport says, “It’s actually about what you want it to be about. If dressing up to fit a theme is your scene then there’s a lot in here that’ll be for you. But if you’re into vintage and want to follow trends and seasons…or even seasonal trends you can do that too.” That’s cleared things up.
But looking around Retro Rehab, I suddenly get what it’s about – entering the shop you sneak inside the girl in the window’s wardrobe. I resist the temptation to seek out the back wall and crawl between the furs into an icy world of fantasy wonderment.
And that, I conclude, must be what it’s all about: it’s whatever you want it to be. The gap between charity and vintage shops is defined by collection as opposed to selection. Charity shops sell donations whereas vintage shops select what their research suggests will appeal to their target market.
For those, Goethe once said, who understand, no explanation is necessary. And for those who don’t understand, no explanation is possible.