William Banks-Blaney dove into the world of vintage in 2009 after hosting an intimate pop-up shop for 40 of his closest friends. “I rented a little space and I held a 3-hour pop-up. It was really lovely and it worked—it sold out,” says the former art historian turned interior designer turned art dealer. “By the 4th pop-up, we had over 400 women [come by].”
Since then, Banks-Blaney has made quite the name for himself, from opening his flagship store, William Vintage, in London’s ultra-prime Marylebone neighbourhood in 2010 to being crowned “The Vintage King” by Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Many of his handpicked, pristine pieces also regularly grace red carpets on stars such as Bella Hadid, Amal Clooney, and Tilda Swinton. For Banks-Blaney, the red carpet is the ultimate public arena to display the allure of decades-old designs. “I love the way vintage showcases the women. It gives you such freedom, rather than following the ‘It’ colours or silhouettes of the season these days, which can really dictate the fashion bible in many ways,” he says.
And whether it will be in the public eye or not, when choosing a vintage piece, Banks-Blaney believes a woman’s wardrobe should always be an extension of her personality. “I love seeing women feeling great. Whether it’s someone walking a red carpet or getting married—whoever it may be—on first sight, I’m not looking at the visuals, but looking to see if she has a smile on her face,” he reveals. “Clothing should make you feel fantastic and think, ‘Wow, I love it!’ What’s important is the woman inside of [the dress].”
Throughout all his thrill-of-the-find travels over the years, one discovery stands out far from the rest. In Paris, Banks-Blaney discovered an immaculately embellished 1954 Balmain haute couture ball gown in a dark and gloomy 18th-century cellar. “It was entirely embroidered with thousands of crystals and beads, and was in beautiful condition. It probably had been tucked away since right after the year it was made,” he divulges. “It certainly felt like treasure hunting. I saw something sparkle and felt like Indiana Jones—but for couture,” he adds.
William Vintage may be a treasure chest of Chanel suits hand-stitched by Coco herself to Alexander McQueen masterpieces, but not every item in Banks-Blaney’s boutique is required to have a big-name label; some are items the shop owner refers to as “The Great Unknowns.” “[These pieces] have quite the following, and can be quite inexpensive. If there’s something in them that catches my eye, and if I think that they have stories left to tell, then they’re something for us,” he explains.
While the collector never likes to market anything based on its former owners, he does recall a few exceptions. Case in point: a ravishing crystal-embroidered bolero jacket by Dior from the mid-’60s. “It was previously owned by the Duchess of Windsor,” he discloses. “After I bought it, I found the most amazing photograph of her wearing it when she was throwing dice in the casino in Monte Carlo.”
As a self-professed Versace fan, Banks-Blaney wanted to celebrate Gianni Versace’s incredible legacy, and commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Italian designer’s untimely death. “I wanted to show what a strong designer he was. If you look across his collections, there are colourful patterns, his tailoring is amazing, and everything is so beautifully cut,” says Banks-Blaney.
With the help of loyal Versace collectors and a partnership with online retail giant Farfetch.com, Banks-Blaney has put together a trove of over 500 of the prolific designer’s timeless creations—the largest Versace collection ever to go on the market. “The collection has come from stylists and from devoted customers,” he shares.
The lavish Versace archive includes some of the most well-known designs from Gianni’s glory days, spanning from his 1981 pieces through to his final Fall/ Winter 1997 collection. “Everything has something about it that is uniquely him,” says Banks-Blaney. “[Gianni] had many different inspirations that I think changed most of the women from that period.”
When it comes to finding your own vintage gems, tips from the king go as follows: if you stumble upon a consignment shop, charity shop, or house sale, always have a look. The expert buyer also suggests looking beyond how garments appear on the rack. “What can look like a sack of potatoes on a hanger can be your dream dress when you put it on your body. If you love the colour, or fabric, or detailing, you’d better try it on!” he says. “The idea of buying something without even trying it on—you know your size, it looks gorgeous on the hanger, you buy it—is really a recent invention.” Happy hunting.