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56 St Stephen Street: ‘things that have lasted 60 years and they’re still perfect’

Wearing well

St Stephen Street, deep in the heart of Edinburgh’s Stockbridge, is the nearest our dear old lady of a city ever got to a bohemian quarter. In its heyday ‘the street’ was a virtual Mecca for seekers of second-hand style -— basements teemed with 503 cocktail dresses and discarded dinner suits and racks were heavy with grandad shirts, spilling out of street- level shops on to front steps. At that time, getting round those caverns of golden age garb was a dedicated act of shopping that took the best part of a day.

These days, booming rates in the area have forced many of the original second-hand clothes shops into other parts of the city and doing the St Stephen Street circuit doesn’t take quite so long. There are those who still make the trip though, and of the few shops of its kind that remain, llo 56 St Stephen Street alone is worth the visit.

Elaine Kowalski has run llo 56 otherwise known as Elaine’s - for nine years and is part of the street’s bricks and mortar. You can find her sitting behind the rickety table of her tiny street-level shop six days a week, issuing advice and pearls of wisdom on the giant tapestry of 20s to 70s clothes that occupy every inch of floor and wall space.

Despite the changes in the street over the past decade or so, there has been no drop in the market for well-

priced second-hand clothes - if anything it’s on the up. According to Kowalski, this trend is an indicator of people’s frustration with the quality of garments in high street stores, not just a reflection of the retro clothing fads of recent years. ‘People buy second-hand because the clothes are good,’ she insists. ‘I really believe that. In this business you see things that have lasted for 60 years and they’re still perfect. Then you look at the high street and even the up- market stores are whacking their stuff out to sweat shops in the third world.’ The ‘quality second-hand’ label has long been part of the British fashion vocabulary, but on the distant shores of our continental neighbours, stylish second-hand emporiums like Elaine’s

have never been much in evidence andl

our hip hand-me-down clothes culture has always been viewed by Italian and Parisienne sophisticates with something akin to horror.

For once though, it seems we crusty old Brits may have spurred a trend. A new shop called Oxfam recently opened in the Vatican’s Prada shopping mall and is apparently doing a roaring trade. ‘They’re selling designer clothes,’ Kowalski chuckles. ‘But they’re second-hand. A few years ago that would’ve been unheard of.’

‘Elaine’s’ is at 56 St Stephen Street, Edinburgh, open Mon-Sat 1-6pm.

The gist of seminal 70s kids TV programme Mr Ben was this: when said Mr Ben, straight city gent in suit and bowler hat, felt his life was lacking a little pzazz, he’d stroll into his friendly neighbourhood costume shop, pick a natty number off the peg, don the outfit and lo, an adventure of indescribable excitement would await him on the other side of the changing room mirror. Why there is not a trail of antique clothes shops called Mr Ben the length and breadth of the country is a mystery, but there is one in Glasgow’s biioux Virginia Galleries.

‘You can come in here and try anything on even if you don’t have any money,’ says proprietor Mary Ann King. ‘I want you to come into the shop and have fun because that starts your experience of these clothes and you think: “Maybe I could wear something like this”. That’s why I chose the name Mr Ben.’

Mr Ben opened last year when King decided to do something constructive with the burgeoning collection of antique clothing she had amassed over fifteen years. The spacious room is draped with 50s evening dresses, 70$ sportswear and military uniform-

style garments, lending the shop the atmosphere of clothes museum- meets-granny’s attic, minus cobwebs. The overall feeling is one of a passion for clothes.

‘Ever since i was a kid, if I saw clothes anywhere I was at them,’ says King. ‘I used to dress up as a kid. i like the 1860s and the 1960s. The 1960s was tremendous, so adventurous, so much fun,

Mr Ben’s: ‘adventure of indescribable excitemen

experiments in fabrics, materials. Nowadays there are pockets of people bringing interesting things out but on the whole there seems to be a lot of repetition throughout the shops.’

Her interest in clothes goes beyond fashion trainspotting to the social history revealed by the garments. She cites the influence of the military on Victorian women’s clothing, because the military were the heroes of the era. A VE Day party bringing young and old together for a celebration at Glasgow’s Plaza is also in the pipeline.

‘The psychology is really interesting too. One person who’s got the confidence and doesn’t take themself too seriously will wear something like a psychedelic catsuit but with others their clothes are only important in that they don’t want to be judged by what they’re wearing.’

King reaches over to one of the racks to reveal one of her most prized acquisitions a George Best jacket. ‘George Best was the first chap allowed into Stringfellows without a shirt and tie,’ she says. ‘lle was so chic and hip at the time that all the designers were clamouring to get him to wear their stuff so they actually brought out a George Best label. Terry- Thomas was the same - I’ve got a Terry-Thomas waistcoat.’

Would the fez-wearing shopkeeper in Mr Ben’s namesake have had such a story to tell?

Mr Ben is at the Virginia Galleries, 33

E Virginia Street, Glasgow, open

Mon—Sat 10.30am-5pm.

The List 34 Feb-9 Mul' I’NS 89