The magical world of a vintage fashion collector

By Rosalind Jana

6 minute read

Vintage and textiles collector Deborah Woolf has got fashion in her DNA.

Her grandfather was a tailor. Her mother was an “avid collector” with a love of Liberty and a second-hand habit so great that “the local junk shop guy was almost like family.” Her cousin sold vintage watches at Camden Lock in London. By her teens, Woolf got in on the action too: attending jumble sales with schoolmates where she found white kid leather Ferragamo stilettos and beautifully tailored 1930s men’s suits. Often, she sold pieces on at the Swiss Cottage flea market. Later, she started her own stall at Camden Lock, right next to burgeoning designers Wayne Hemingway and Joe Casely-Hayford. “I have a pair of trousers that [Casely-Hayford] made from World War One tent material,” she reminisces. “Me and my friend bought a pair each and we just lived in them.”

Since those early days of unearthing bargains, Woolf has amassed both an extraordinary archive and a deep appreciation for the clothes she acquires – though sometimes she finds it hard to part with them again. “I’m terrible. I’m really sentimental,” she laughs. During a career in film and TV where she directed music videos, wrote TV series and spent nearly a decade at MTV, she mainly used her personal collection to style projects. Then she began selling again at fairs and suddenly found herself supplying vintage clothes and accessories to the V&A shop to accompany two major fashion exhibitions: ‘The Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London 1947–57’ and ‘Cold War Modern: Design 1945-70.’ The pieces were such a hit that she opened her own shop

Lily James Mamma Mia Journal March Shutterstock
Top: Vintage Telephone Cord Bag, 1950s. Above: Lily James in 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again', wearing a Butterfly necklace inspired by a '70s piece sourced from Woolf's collection; photography Shutterstock

Over the years it welcomed a vast roster of people. “A real cross-mix of designers, established and new, collectors, models, stylists,” as she puts it. These include labels like Marc Jacobs and Fendi, various costume departments (her clothes feature in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, The Crown and Inglourious Basterds, among other films), as well as a lot of happy customers. Does she have any good stories about her clientele? “I have. I’m very discreet though. You have the Kate Mosses etc, but… I don’t assume that people agree for me to [mention them]. I think that’s why they came to me. Because I have been entrusted with secrets,” she explains. “I’m not just selling clothes. It’s also my fashion history, my knowledge, [understanding] what people like – so a lot of those people became friends.” She also has a knack for knowing what will suit someone. “It was about getting their confidence to try something on [and] to experiment.” 

Woolf’s shop closed just before the pandemic and, with plans to set up a studio, she’s now sorting through her extensive archive: “I’ve got what feels like miles of wardrobes, and textiles boxes, three million handbags and shoes.” She obviously has a great taste for the ’60s and ’70s – “probably from my childhood and my mum dressing me in outrageous clothes, and I love a bit of glam rock” – but which labels is she always on the lookout for? “I definitely love print. Whether that is Celia Birtwell or more obvious stuff like BIBA. Obviously the designers that use Liberty fabric.” She also adores understated British designer Jean Muir. “What I find amazing about her is that she made the same shaped piece in Indian silk and in leather. They’re both cut with the same pattern. They’re both equally brilliant… [At the shop], an older woman once came in… She was one of Jean’s seamstresses when she was very young and she was telling me what a hard taskmaster she was, which is why her topstitching is meticulous.”  

Deborah Woolf Celine March Journal
Celine, Vintage Canvas Clutch Bag, 1970s

Is that question of quality partly why people are gravitating towards vintage now, rather than buying new? Woolf thinks so. “I’ve had handbag designers come in for inspiration and they look at some incredible zip or hardware and they go, ‘we can’t get that made.’ Either the machinery to make it doesn’t exist, or the people that know how to use the machine don’t exist. Or price point. Or both.” She points out that vintage often brings with it a certain kind of inventive flair too. Often people come to her “looking for gifts, personal things, that level of detail… And just humour. I love something that makes you smile, or has got some story behind it.” 

The tales behind the clothes also form a major part of the draw. As with most serious collectors she’s tight-lipped on where she sources her fantastic pieces but she does say that “people find me through word of mouth” – meaning she’s often party to interesting life stories, which she supplements with her own “detective work.” The bags she’s consigned to Lymited exemplify this narrative process. 

Deborah Woolf Straw Bag March Journal
Vintage Straw Beach Bag, 1920s

The Celine clutch, she tells me, came from a “lady who worked for British Airways in the ‘60s and ‘70s [doing] uniform design… She travelled everywhere and shopped on her travels for accessories: handbags, shoes, scarves. And then never used them.” These boxed-up treasures, ranging from pristine Hermès scarves to vibrant Andrea Pfister heels, lay in their suitcases for years until her son contacted Woolf and asked if she was interested in the contents. “That doesn’t happen often,” she quips. 

Another handbag speaks to her interest in ingenuity, reminding Woolf of her resourceful tailor grandfather. “The telephone cord bag was a personal collection piece that I’m still mourning,” she says wryly. As with many of her pieces, it illustrates a rich social history. She sees it as a classic example of the ’30s and ‘40s ‘make do and mend’ approach: “It’s quirky, it’s beautiful, it’s novelty and the colour-way is particularly great.” 

Elsewhere, “a beautiful half moon” straw bag nods to her appreciation of good design. “It’s super modern,” she comments. “To me, that’s like architecture or furniture… it’s textural, it has a really nice lining. That whole beach pyjama era was so fantastic.” I wonder, does she have any other treasures and tales waiting to be dug up among those miles of wardrobes? “That’s what I’m doing at the moment: archiving and rediscovering and trying to work out a way to make sense of it all,” she reflects, saying that eventually she’d like to mount an exhibition. “It’s like magical fashion textile travelling. I’m very lucky.”

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