In Conversation With...Silk & Rope Vintage

White Line Projects had the privilege to interview vintage gurus, Silk & Rope, making a visit to their appointment-only showroom in Hackney Downs. Originally from Barcelona, husband and wife team, Enric and Estefi, started selling vintage on Brick Lane 8 years ago, before moving onto the more formal markets at Spitalfields and Portobello where they still have stalls. In conjunction, their Hackney Downs showroom with an extraordinary collection of vintage garments, provide inspiration to designers in both fashion and film. We talk about the world of vintage dealing, sustainability and the magic of old garments. 

 Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Which period does your archive cover?

I like to think that we cover everything from the Victorian era through to the 1950s. And lately, we have started to collect more from the 1960s and 1970s. Personally, we are starting to love items from this particular era. 

And we noticed that you have a lot of military and surplus garments, as well as workwear…

We like to think about these types of garments as ‘utility’ clothes because there are some military clothes which weren’t used for battle, which we are particularly interested in. 

And what is it exactly that you like about ‘utility’ clothing?

The simple designs, strong fabrics...some of the pieces that we have from the 1920s are still in almost perfect condition. Can you imagine a piece made nowadays that lasts you more than two years?

 Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

In terms of the history of your collection, when did you start acquiring pieces? Did you start off as a vintage seller and then evolve into a collector from there?

The thing with Estefi and myself is that we always loved vintage since we were young. I grew up next to a famous flea market called Els Encants in Barcelona, so I always loved antiques and vintage. And my background is advertising; so back in Barcelona, before I moved to London, I worked in a big agency. And Estefi’s background is in television. 

After a couple years working in Barcelona following our degrees, we moved to London and have been here for eight years. We started off by selling vintage in the markets back in the days when East London used to be more relaxed and cooler. We were selling on the street in Brick Lane for free, and just in one day, we made more money than the two of us working for two weeks in Barcelona. 

How did you progress to selling at Spitalfields Market?

We started to do really well selling in Brick Lane and then we realised that we could do other markets, so started doing Spitalfields market on Thursdays, which we still do today. And then we started to do Portobello on a Friday and eventually on Saturdays as well. And now, we also do Clerkenwell Vintage Fair. Twice a year, we visit the US to a heritage trade show called ‘Inspiration’; there is one in LA and NYC. We coincide this with private appointments as well. 

What kind of people attend these trade shows?

At Inspiration, it’s mostly people from the industry as well as collectors. It’s really crazy; there are things I’ve seen at Inspiration which you only ever see in books. 

So do you also have collectors buying from your showroom?

Yes, definitely. They will approach us and ask for particular items from a specific year for us to source. But collectors sometimes are difficult in the sense that their motivation is not the money. For example, someone who has collected British army stuff for the past 35 years doesn’t care about the money as he or she knows that those pieces are so special. There isn’t really a price you can set for some pieces as they are one of a kind. 

Do you have pieces like that? Do you tend to rent them out or try to sell them?

Sometimes we do. For example, we have a couple Hell’s Angels waistcoats which are pretty collectable but we don’t really want to sell them. 

 Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Do you ever get museums approaching you for pieces to include in exhibitions?

Not that I know of…. sometimes you get people in the markets who are looking for specific pieces and they don’t want to tell you who they are. This is probably for a good reason. Some traders may want to charge you more if they know that you are from somewhere like the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

Can you describe your transition from selling vintage to becoming a showroom for the industry?

It was a pretty organic shift, you see a piece you really like, you buy it. But then you think of not selling it, just renting. Designers started to ask us if we rent items. Most of the time, designers like the garment but they don’t have the budget or see the need to actually own it for themselves. So it makes more sense for them to rent say… four garments for the price of buying just one. 

And do you rent out to stylists as well?

Yes, we also rent garments out for shoots. I think that London is one of the best places in the world for this kind of thing. And we have been to many of the big cities around the world, such as LA, New York, Tokyo but I would say that London is one of the best places for a regular customer to find good vintage. For instance, if you go to Portobello on a Friday, you can find anything from Victorian pieces to 1980s Moschino and super high-end designer stuff. I don’t think people in London realise how lucky they are to have a market like Portobello. And unfortunately, because people don’t realise the importance of this market, if they are not careful, it's going to die. 

In terms of online vintage culture, such as blogs, eBay etc, how does this affect your business and how do you participate in it?

Well, we do Instagram but that’s kind of it. We haven’t been doing this for that long but when you talk to people who have been in the business for say, 25 years, they say that even 10 years ago, there used to be only one place for buying vintage, and that was Portobello. Now, there are so many other markets, such as Spitalfields and also vintage fairs, plus you have eBay and countless online stores. You know, they say that before a certain time, you had done all your business, but now its much longer hours and difficult to sell as there is so much more choice for the consumer. 

Do you talk with other people in your field?

I really like to talk with my peers but there are some vendors who take it very seriously and do not like to share their knowledge. I guess we could work together to make the business a much nicer environment, to build a community. But this is probably more of a Southern European idea.
In general, where do you mainly source your garments from?

We buy in lots of different places from mainland Europe like France and Spain. We are actually one of the only people that source in Spain. If you think places like the US, they have a very big vintage supply system as the general population have preserved a lot of garments for a long time. In the UK, rationing took hold in WWII preventing people from keeping their garments in the same condition and forcing them to recycle. In Spain, old clothes are linked with bad memories from the civil war, so it wasn’t common for people to keep clothing from the past. It’s the same case in Japan, Americana vintage is the most collectable; it's only in the past ten years that ‘boro’ clothing has become more popular. Unlike in the UK where British made or heritage wear is hugely appreciated. 

Going back to the subject of workwear, could you describe what type of things your collection covers? What would the oldest piece be?

I would say that we do a lot of utility, unbranded clothing. I guess one of the oldest pieces we have is a natural indigo smock shirt from the 1890s which is French. We also have British pieces. 

 Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

So when you collect, what type of information do you try find out about the garment? How much of this is important to the designer?

Usually after we buy something, we try to do as much research as we can so that we can date the garment, know about the fabric etc. But it's really nice when you work with designers who get really excited about the little details on the garment such as the stitching, lining etc. They might not know about the historic context of the piece but they will appreciate the technical aspects of the garment. It’s an ongoing learning and knowledge sharing process.

And do you have any sportswear?

Unfortunately, no. I have tried to find it but it's very difficult to source good quality sportswear. 

And how about lingerie?

Yes, Estefi collects lingerie mainly from the 1920s and 1930s and rents them out to designers. 

  Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

Image: Silk and Rope Instagram

How many pieces do you currently have in the showroom?

At the moment, we have around 500 pieces, which we are trying to grow to 1,000. But we are taking it step by step. We would rather have a limited collection with good pieces.

And how long have you had the rental business for?

We have just been here since last July so not that long, but before that we were based over in Hackney Wick warehouse space. Being here in Hackney Downs is a step forward for us. 

Do you also have fashion students coming to the showroom?

We have them a lot at Portobello Market but the showroom is by appointment only and mainly for the industry and collectors.  

Do you get designers visiting from outside of London, internationally?

Sure, we get a lot of people from the US. It's quite fascinating to see the process of how designers and brands get inspired by vintage to create new collections.

How do designers find out about your showroom?

Through the market stall at Spitalfields or Portobello, then also through word of mouth. Designers often change companies so will introduce new people to the showroom each time. And then just Instagram. We want to stay quite bespoke and exclusive as a business.

Have you considered producing any collections yourself?

We have a couple of projects going on at the moment. We don’t know what’s going to happen but we’re trying. It’s very early days yet. For us, we have been used to handling so many beautiful old fabrics and now if you try to source the same thing, its very difficult. But there are some really small but good manufacturers still producing in Spain near Barcelona along the coast. There are lots of companies who realise now that manufacturing in China is not sustainable so there is more activity now happening in Turkey, Portugal or Spain. And now even in the UK. Consumers are realising that it's better to say, have two good jumpers rather than twenty cheap ones. My wife’s grandmother used to say ‘we are too poor to buy cheap clothes’.