Steven Philip is, at heart, a storyteller.
Talk to the voluble vintage collector about his extensive fashion archive and you’ll be treated to a journey that spans decades, designers and a huge swathe of cultural history. Philip’s tale begins in the “wee small” city of Dundee where he grew up. There, he first encountered fashion through his grandma, who subscribed to a series of Hollywood magazines. On these pages fashion was something glamorous, luxurious and ultimately, out of reach. “Liz Taylor in Pucci, the Kennedys… I loved that love affair with something you couldn’t have.”
When he moved to London in the 1980s, Philip discovered an entirely different world of clothing: one that was dynamic, young, accessible and deeply creative. “You had geniuses that were making stuff out of nothing. People like Judy Blame, Christopher Nemeth, whose first collection was made out of postal sacks… Pam Hogg, Rachel Auburn.” It was a world defined by markets like the legendary Hyper Hyper in Kensington, which attracted everyone from Cher to Leigh Bowery. Here Philip’s love of DIY flair and “what was cool on the street” crystallised. He worked in shops, styled music videos and editorials, and began to build his own fashion collection, becoming a self-proclaimed hunter gatherer: “I’d hunt it down, gather it all together… The thrill of the chase was exciting.”
After travelling around the US and Berlin, by the 1990s Philip found himself bored with fashion’s new minimalist mood. Vowing to “bring back some colour and craziness,” he started his own stall at Portobello market. It began with “probably about 30 pieces of Vivienne Westwood and Bodymap and ’70s glam rock platforms.” One stall quickly became two, then three, with huge queues. “When I first met Kate [Moss], she bought a pair of [Vivienne Westwood] Pirate boots from me… Well that just changed everything. Suddenly everyone wanted Pirate boots. They even reissued them.”
Trailblazing a new take on vintage
Trailblazing a new take on vintage
A new taste for vintage was burgeoning and Philips found himself at the forefront. “Although it’s ultra-cool now and everyone thinks about sustainability, then I think it was more about individuality.” He did his homework too. “I was still learning about the other designers… the Saint Laurents, the Diors. But I was always fascinated by the best of British.” Alongside Westwood, he turned to labels including Bill Gibb, Ossie Clark and Jean Muir. “I’m very proud. I educated myself on it. I’d never really read a book and for the first time I’d found something I was so interested in: every detail, every word.”
This passion is palpable in the way Philip talks about clothing. Several times he describes it as a “love affair”. Every other sentence is peppered with references to his favourite “unsung heroes” of fashion, or the changes in market and production values that makes today’s fashion world distinctly different from the one where he found his feet.
When Philip outgrew the stall, he co-founded vintage boutique Rellik on Golborne Road. “It’s part of my DNA. I had a wonderful time. It was an education,” he explains. “I had so many friends in the business. One was a guy called Kim Jones, who I [first] met when he was 17. He once said about me, ‘Steven talked and I just listened.’ I thought that was wonderful because I just had so much knowledge… and he was excited by that.”
He was part of Rellik for 20 years, “buying, selling, collecting”, before finally bowing out of the frenzied retail world to focus wholeheartedly on his first love and open his own studio. “All along I was acquiring pieces. It became a hobby for me, almost like kids swapping football cards… I’d swap two of them for one of that, or sell a piece to buy another. I used to call it the jigsaw, because I was always missing the arm or the leg or something,” he laughs. “I was never happy with one piece of the ensemble. I wanted… everything that went with the whole look.” The fruits of his jigsaw building are now housed in his studio in Brighton, which holds an extraordinary array of garments and looks. Alongside the classics – Westwood, John Galliano, favoured ’80s designers – there are also specific collections. “Designers that did the best embellishments, for example.” These are prime pieces that are rented out, hired by designers, lent for editorial shoots, and very occasionally sold.
Whether finding the finishing part of a jigsaw or buying something with real history attached (he’s particularly happy with the Alexander McQueen kimono worn by Björk on the album cover of Homogenic), it all comes back to stories – and the tangible pleasure of sharing them with customers. At one point he tells me about a dress a girl tried on for her 21st birthday. “She looked like a million dollars,” he exclaims. “She bought it and I ran upstairs and got a photograph and put it in an envelope. I said ‘I’m going to give you this, and maybe you won’t understand now, but you’ll understand in time who wore that dress.’ And it was Jerry Hall.”
The Steven Philip x Lymited edit
The Steven Philip x Lymited edit
These stories have also infused the pieces he’s consigned to Lymited. “I tried to pick iconic pieces… that [embody] a moment in time,” he says. One obvious choice was a pair of Vivienne Westwood Super Elevated platform court shoes. “The story that comes with them, you can’t beat it. It’s 1993: the world is grey and minimalist. Everyone’s wearing a flat shoe.” Vivienne Westwood, however, went in the other direction, producing towering heels. “And the rest is history,” Philip chuckles. “Naomi wore them. One of the biggest supermodels who could walk in anything. She could walk in tin cans, that girl. [And she] fell… It’s iconic. It’s been shown in museums throughout the world. They’re very very rare, because the last does not exist any more, which I think is wonderful.”
Another Westwood ensemble features one of the designer’s famed Boucher corsets, which have been worn in recent years by every celebrity going from Bella Hadid to FKA Twigs to the Kardashians. This one comes complete with a “giant sash… bigger than a tablecloth, worn over the shoulder, almost like you’re going to a fashion salon back in the day, all in gold gilt,” and “the shorts worn in the show.” It’s a near complete jigsaw, minus the shoes.
Always attentive to fashion history, he’s also picked an Alexander McQueen dress – “white, with all this embroidery on the front, and beautiful hand-sewn pearls” – from the label’s Autumn/Winter 2011 collection. “Sarah Burton was McQueen’s right hand for years and years… When McQueen passed away it was obviously tragic and Sarah had to pick up the pieces,” he explains. This collection, titled The Ice Queen and Her Court, was Burton’s first outing on her own. “I thought rather than Plato’s Atlantis or something, this is a great story, it’s part of the McQueen history that’s still going today.”
Once again, we’re back to stories. That’s part of the Steven Philip experience though. People buy from him not just because he’s got a nose for design, an incredible level of knowledge, and a knack for tracking down elusive garments, but because it’s a whole experience – and a very particular way of seeing the world. He values luxury, rarity and imaginative spectacle. He’s attentive to all the potential lives and legacies held in a single garment. “If I buy pieces from people I don’t know,” he says happily, “I hang them up and think ‘right, if you could talk, what story are you going to tell me?’”