A historical post! This time back in 2003, 20 years ago this month, I was realising my long-held dream – to have my own vintage clothes shop. The shop, Retro Bizarre, was in St Mary’s Row, Moseley, Birmingham. I was still working as a consultant, so the shop never had to provide me with a living, and was never going to – it was too small, and although Moseley was quite a hip and happening area, it would never have had the footfall needed to make it very profitable. But it covered its costs, and goodness, did we do some crazy things! There are lots of photos on here!
Before I start, thanks to Battleaxe’s long-suffering husband, the Philosopher, who was ‘Thursday boy’ in the shop, and held his nose while our savings disappeared to have the premises refurbished. It was formerly a pet shop. ‘Got any birdcages?’ said one old bloke as he stumbled among the rails of brightly coloured clothes. Thanks too to the staff, Ruth Bagnell, Alex Hyde and Charlotte Walker, to Jackie Atkin, who led on our catwalk shows, and to Jamie Day, who did the books.
Sadly there is only one picture, and not a typical one, of the most characteristic features, the window displays of Barbies and Action men. It was a small window in a very old building, and the window displays were well known across Birmingham. But, sadly, it was the days before phone photos and social media… Barbie was always in some sort of dominant scenario, with Action men, usually naked or tied up, doing her bidding. As time went on people donated endless Barbie props to us – we had her car, her coach, her house, her ponies, her caravan… We rented the shop would you believe from the local church, and had plenty of complaints about particularly lewd displays! Great!
Where did we get the clothes? I had been collecting them for years, and by the time the shop opened, the entire attic floor of our house in Moseley was full of rails of clothes. We then had to move into a storeroom rented down in Balsall Heath. Once the shop was open, we’d have plenty of people come in to sell us clothes – some were great, some were not. There was one woman in particular who always tried to sell us rubbish and got very aggressive when we refused. One time Philosopher and I were climbing up Vesuvius in Italy, and who should we meet at the top, walking round the edge of the crater, but that same damn woman! We also often went to the homes of people who were going into residential care, or sadly, who had died. Often, those clothes were wonderful. We really loved jumble sales, and in those days you could still find plenty of good vintage clothes in charity shops.
Both Battleaxe, and the shop staff, liked buying things far more than we liked selling them! As well as women’s clothes we did shoes, bags, jewellery, men’s clothes and some bits of vintage bric-a-brac. For the bric-a-brac I used a genuine 60s Ercol ‘Giraffe’ display unit. It is one of the few bits of shop stuff we still have. It now lives in our sitting room, and is probably worth more than all the shop stock we ever had! We also had a good line in renting out vintage ball gowns.
Because, even in those far-off days, Battleaxe was ancient compared with the youth who were the main customer base, I employed some young staff to work in the shop. Our first manager was Ruth, who left after about 18 months to run the Costume Department at the Birmingham Rep theatre. Then we had Alex and Charlotte. Alex took over as manager when Ruth left.
We did all sorts of ridiculous things – Ruth and I ran special nights for transvestites. Back then, life was more innocent. Men could dress in women’s clothes and enjoy themselves without apparently worrying if they were ‘trans’ or not. Are there still old-style trannies about? You don’t see much of them… anyway, every charity shop for miles around was scoured for high heels size 9 and 10…
Best of all, though, were the two large-scale catwalk shows, both at the Custard Factory in Birmingham. The event organiser on both occasions was my chum Jackie – we had music, professional lighting… you name it. The outfits were put together and styled by Ruth. Recruiting models was interesting – we always had loads of girls, fewer boys. For the first show, Philosopher found himself down in the bar of some student pub in Moseley shouting ‘any boys here want to be a model!’ One boy actually got a modelling contract as a result of it.
We did high-end vintage fairs such as Vintage Mayfair, just off Bond Street in London. A load of us would drive down in the little shop van (I loved being White Van woman!) and kip down together in some seedy hotel in Bayswater. We would clean up compared with the London sellers because Brum prices were much cheaper!
So, what became of the shop? At first, I loved it, but the novelty, sadly, wore off. I had years at work of being an employer – and I still was! I had years at work of worrying about accounts – and I still was! Cash-flow, stock valuation, cashing up the till every day, banking – yuch. Shop seasons seemed to turn round very quickly – Christmas, January Sale, Valentines Day, spring, summer, holiday, Sale, autumn, Halloween, winter, Christmas again…..
There was a break clause in the lease after three years, so I took it, and sold the shop as a going concern to a woman who sadly, let it run into the ground. (By the way, Dawn, if you are reading this, I see you… I see in your bio you put ‘I set up Retro Bizarre’. No of course you didn’t!).
Did I miss the shop? Not really, but I was very glad I did it. If I hadn’t I would still be wanting to do it now…