A Vintage Affair: A Novelby Isabel Wolff
BONUS: This edition contains an A Vintage Affair discussion guide and an excerpt from Isabel Wolff's The Very Picture of You.
Phoebe Swift’s friends are stunned when she abruptly leaves a plum job to open her own vintage clothing shop in London—but to Phoebe/i>/i>/i>/b>
Every dress has a history. And so does every woman.
BONUS: This edition contains an A Vintage Affair discussion guide and an excerpt from Isabel Wolff's The Very Picture of You.
Phoebe Swift’s friends are stunned when she abruptly leaves a plum job to open her own vintage clothing shop in London—but to Phoebe, it’s the fulfillment of a dream, and her passion. Digging for finds in attics and wardrobes, Phoebe knows that when you buy a piece of vintage clothing, you’re not just buying fabric and thread—you’re buying a piece of someone’s past. But one particular article of clothing will soon unexpectedly change her life.
Thérèse Bell, an elderly Frenchwoman, has an impressive clothing collection. But among the array of elegant suits and couture gowns, Phoebe finds a child’s sky-blue coat—an item with which Mrs. Bell is stubbornly reluctant to part. As the two women become friends, Phoebe will learn the poignant tale of that little blue coat. And she will discover an astonishing connection between herself and Thérèse Bell—one that will help her heal the pain of her own past and allow her to love again.
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Read an Excerpt
September is at least a good time for a new start, I reflected as I left the house early this morning. I've always felt a greater sense of renewal at the beginning of September than I ever have in January. Perhaps, I thought as I crossed Tranquil Vale, it's because September so often feels fresh and clear after the dankness of August. Or perhaps, I wondered as I passed Blackheath Books, its windows emblazoned with Back to School promotions, it's simply the association with the new academic year.
As I walked up the hill towards the Heath, the freshly painted fascia of Village Vintage came into view and I allowed myself a brief burst of optimism. I unlocked the door, picked the mail up off the mat, and began preparing the shop for its official launch.
I worked nonstop until four, selecting the clothes from the stockroom upstairs and putting them out on the racks. As I draped a 1920s tea dress over my arm I ran my hand over its heavy silk satin, then fingered its intricate beading and its perfect hand stitching. This, I told myself, is what I love about vintage clothes. I love their beautiful fabric and their fine finish. I love knowing that so much skill and artistry have gone into their making.
I glanced at my watch. Only two hours to go until the party. I remembered that I'd forgotten to chill the champagne. As I dashed into the little kitchen and ripped open the cases I wondered how many people would come. I'd invited a hundred, so I'd need at least seventy glasses at the ready. I stacked the bottles in the fridge, turned it up to Frost, then made myself a quick cup of tea. Sipping my Earl Grey, I looked around the shop, allowing myself to savour for a moment the transition from pipe dream to reality.
The interior of Village Vintage looked modern and light. I'd had the wooden floors stripped and limed, the walls painted a
dove grey and hung with large silver-framed mirrors; there were glossy potted plants on chrome stands, a spangling of downlights on the white- painted ceiling, and next to the fitting room, a large cream- upholstered bergère sofa. Through the windows, Blackheath stretched into the far distance, the sky a giddying vault of blue patched with towering white clouds. Beyond the church, two yellow kites danced in the breeze while on the horizon the glass towers of Canary Wharf glinted and flashed in the late-afternoon sunlight.
I suddenly realised that the journalist who was supposed to be interviewing me was over an hour late. I didn't even know which paper he was from. All I could remember from yesterday's brief phone conversation with him was that his name was Dan and that he'd said he'd be here at three-thirty. My irritation turned to panic. What if he didn't come at all? I needed the publicity. My insides lurched at the thought of my huge loan. As I tied the price tag on an embroidered evening bag, I remembered trying to convince the bank that its cash would be safe.
"So you were at Sotheby's?" the lending manager had said as she went through my business plan in a small office, every square inch of which, including the ceiling and even the back of the door, seemed to be covered in thick, grey baize.
"I worked in the textiles department," I'd explained, "evaluating vintage clothes and conducting auctions."
"So you must know a lot about it."
She scribbled something on the form, the nib of her pen squeaking across the glossy paper. "But it's not as though you've ever worked in retail, is it?"
"No," I said, my heart sinking. "That's true. But I've found attractive, accessible premises in a pleasant, busy area where there are no other vintage dress shops." I handed her the real estate agent's brochure for Montpelier Vale.
"It's a nice site," she said as she studied it. My spirits rose. "And being on the corner gives it good visibility." I imagined the windows aglow with glorious dresses. "But the lease is expensive." The woman put the brochure down on the grey tabletop and looked at me grimly. "What makes you think you'll be able to generate enough sales to cover your overhead, let alone make a profit?"
"Because . . ." I suppressed a frustrated sigh. "I know that the demand is there. Vintage has now become so fashionable that it's almost mainstream. These days you can even buy vintage clothing in High Street stores like Miss Selfridge and Topshop."
There was silence while she scribbled again. "I know you can." She looked up again, but this time she was smiling. "I got the most wonderful Biba fake fur in Jigsaw the other day-mint condition and original buttons." She pushed the form towards me, then passed me her pen. "Could you sign at the bottom there, please?" . . .
Now I arranged the evening gowns on the formal-wear rack and put out the bags, belts, and shoes. I positioned the gloves in their basket, the costume jewellery in its velvet trays, then, on a corner shelf, high up, I carefully placed the hat that Emma had given me for my thirtieth birthday.
I stepped back and gazed at the extraordinary sculpture of bronze straw, its crown seeming to sweep upwards into infinity.
"I miss you, Em," I murmured. "Wherever you are now . . ." I faltered as I felt the familiar piercing sensation, as though there was a skewer in my heart.
I heard a sharp rapping sound behind me. On the other side of the glass door stood a man of about my age, maybe a little younger. He was tall and well built with large grey eyes and a mop of dark blond curls. He reminded me of someone famous, but I couldn't think who.
"Dan Robinson," he said with a broad smile as I let him in. "Sorry to be a bit late." I resisted the urge to tell him that he was very late. He took a notebook out of his battered-looking bag. "My previous interview ran overtime, then I got caught in traffic, but this should only take twenty minutes or so." He shoved his hand into the pocket of his crumpled linen jacket and produced a pencil. "I just need to get down the basic facts about the business and a bit of your background." He glanced at the hydra of silk scarves spilling over the counter and the half-dressed mannequin. "But you're obviously busy, so if you haven't got time, I'd quite-"
"Oh, I've got time," I interrupted. "Really-as long as you don't mind me working while we chat." I slipped a sea-green chiffon cocktail dress onto its velvet hanger. "Which paper did you say you were from?" Out of the corner of my eye I registered the fact that his mauve striped shirt didn't go with the sage of his chinos.
"It's a new twice-weekly free paper called the Black & Green-the Blackheath and Greenwich Express. It's only been going a couple of months, so we're building our circulation."
"I'm grateful for any coverage," I said as I put the dress at the front of the day-wear rack.
"The piece should run on Friday." Dan glanced round the shop. "The interior's nice and bright. You wouldn't think it was old stuff that was being sold here-I mean, vintage," he corrected himself.
"Thank you," I said wryly, though I was grateful for his observation.
As I quickly scissored the cellophane off some white agapanthus, Dan peered out the window. "It's a great location."
I nodded. "I love being able to look out over the Heath. Plus the shop's very visible from the road, so I hope to get passing trade as well as dedicated vintage buyers."
"That's how I found you," said Dan as I put the flowers into a tall glass vase. "I was walking past yesterday, and your sign said"-he reached into the pocket of his trousers and took out a pencil sharpener-"that you were about to open, and I thought it would make a good feature for Friday's paper." As he sat on the sofa I noticed that he was wearing mismatched socks-one green and one brown. "Not that fashion's really my thing."
"Isn't it?" I said politely as he gave the pencil a few vigorous turns. "Don't you use a tape recorder?" I couldn't help asking.
He inspected the newly pointed tip, then blew on it. "I prefer speed writing. Okay now." He pocketed the sharpener. "Let's start. So . . ." He bounced the pencil against his lower lip. "What should I ask you first?" I tried not to show my dismay at his lack of preparation. "I know," he said. "Are you local?"
"Yes." I folded a pale blue cashmere cardigan. "I grew up in Eliot Hill, closer to Greenwich, but for the past five years I've been living in the centre of Blackheath, near the station." I thought of my snug railwayman's cottage with its tiny front garden.
"Station," Dan repeated slowly. "Next question . . ." This interview was going to take ages-it was the last thing I needed. "Do you have a fashion background?" he asked. "Won't the readers want to know that?"
"Er . . . possibly." I told him about my fashion-history degree from Saint Martin's and my career at Sotheby's.
"So how long were you at Sotheby's?"
"Twelve years." I folded an Yves Saint Laurent silk scarf and laid it in a tray. "In fact I'd recently been made head of the costumes and textiles department. But then . . . I decided to leave."
Dan looked up. "Even though you'd just been promoted?"
"Yes . . ." My heart ached. I'd said too much. "I'd been there almost from the day I'd graduated, you see, and I needed . . ." I glanced out the window, struggling to quell the surge of emotion breaking over me. "I felt I needed . . ."
"A career break?" he suggested.
"A . . . change. So I went on a sort of sabbatical in early March." I draped a string of Chanel paste pearls round the neck of a silver mannequin. "Sotheby's said they'd keep my job open until June, but in mid-May I saw that the lease here had come up, so I decided to take the plunge and sell vintage myself. I'd been toying with the idea for some time," I added.
"Some . . . time," Dan repeated quietly. This was hardly "speed writing." I stole a glance at his odd squiggles and abbreviations. "Next question . . ." He chewed the end of his pencil. The man was useless. "I know: Where do you find your stock?" He looked at me. "Or is that a trade secret?"
"Not really." I fastened the hooks on a café au lait-coloured silk blouse by Georges Rech. "I bought quite a bit from some of the smaller auction houses outside London, as well as from specialist dealers and private individuals who I already knew through Sotheby's. I also got things at vintage fairs, on eBay, and I made two or three trips to France."
"You can find lovely vintage garments in provincial markets there-like these embroidered nightdresses." I held one up. "I bought them in Avignon. They weren't too expensive because French women are less keen on vintage than we are in this country."
"Vintage clothing's become rather desirable here, hasn't it?"
"Very desirable." I quickly fanned some 1950s copies of Vogue onto the glass table by the sofa. "Women want individuality, not mass production, and that's what vintage clothing gives them. Wearing vintage suggests originality and flair. I mean, a woman can buy an evening dress on High Street for two hundred pounds," I went on, warming to the interview now, "and the next day it's worth almost nothing. But for the same money she could have bought something made of gorgeous fabric, that no one else would have been wearing and that will, if she doesn't wreck it, actually increase in value. Like this." I pulled out a Hardy Amies petrol-blue silk taffeta dinner gown, from 1957, admiring its elegant halter neck, slim bodice, and gored skirt.
"It's lovely," said Dan. He cocked his head. "You'd think it was new."
"Everything I sell is in perfect condition."
"Condition . . ." he muttered as he scribbled again.
"Every garment is washed or dry-cleaned," I went on as I returned the dress to the rack. "I have a wonderful seamstress who does the big repairs and alterations. The smaller ones I can do here myself-I have a little den in the back with a sewing machine."
"And what do these things sell for?"
"They range from fifteen pounds for a hand-rolled silk scarf, to seventy-five for a cotton day dress, to two or three hundred pounds for an evening dress. A couture piece can cost up to fifteen hundred pounds." I pulled out a Pierre Balmain gold faille evening gown from the early 1960s, embroidered with bugle beads and silver sequins, and lifted its protective cover. "This is an important dress, made by a major designer at the height of his career. Or there's this." I took out a pair of silk velvet palazzo pants in a psychedelic pattern of sherbety pinks and greens. "This outfit's by Emilio Pucci. It'll almost certainly be bought as an investment piece rather than to wear, because Pucci, like Ossie Clark, Biba, and Jean Muir, is very collectable."
"Marilyn Monroe loved Pucci," Dan said. "She was buried in her favourite green silk Pucci dress." I nodded, surprised and not liking to admit that I hadn't known that. "Those are fun." He glanced at the wall behind me. Hanging on it, like paintings, were four strapless, ballerina-length evening dresses-one lemon yellow, one candy pink, one turquoise, and one lime-each with a satin bodice beneath which foamed a mass of net petticoats, sparkling with crystals.
"I've hung those there because I love them. They're fifties prom dresses, but I call them cupcake dresses," I added with a smile, "because they're so glamorous and frothy. Just looking at them makes me feel happy." Or as happy as I can be now, I thought bleakly.
Dan stood up. "And what's that you're putting out there?"
"This is a Vivienne Westwood bustle skirt." I held it up for him. "And this"-I pulled out a terra-cotta silk kaftan-"is by Thea Porter, and this little suede shift is by Mary Quant."
"What about this?" Dan had pulled out an oyster-pink satin evening dress with a cowl neckline, fine pleating at the sides, and a sweeping fishtail hem. "It's wonderful-it's like something Katharine Hepburn would have worn, or Greta Garbo-or Veronica Lake," he added thoughtfully, "in The Glass Key."
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Isabel Wolff was born in Warwickshire, England, and attended Cambridge University. She is the author of seven bestselling novels, which have been published in twenty-five languages. She lives in London with her family. Bantam Books will publish her next novel in 2011.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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A Vintage Affair is a beautiful combination of historical fiction and contemporary women's fiction. On the surface, it tells the story of Phoebe, auction house buyer turned vintage shop owner. In substance this career change isn't drastic; it utilizes the same skill set. It is, however, a great risk both financially and personally as Phoebe initially uses her shop to hide from her demons. In running from her own past, Phoebe ends up running headlong into the pasts of others. Clothes do hold memories, after all. She ends up very involved in the life and past of Mrs. Bell. This French survivor of WWII tells Phoebe of her experiences in her designer clothes, which Phoebe is buying from her, and of her experiences in clothes that were handmade for her during the War, specifically a blue winter coat which she refuses to sell. As Mrs. Bell relates the small betrayals that had lasting consequences in the French countryside where she grew up, Phoebe notices the correlations to her own life and the large act of betrayal she has been trying to forget she committed. A wonderful read with lush descriptions of both the clothes and the eras in both women's stories, A Vintage Affair will not disappoint. It is a story that will stay with you, just like the prom dress in your attic that you can't bare to part with. Book source: Goodreads First Reads Program
The narrator, Phoebe Swift, will capture your heart right from the get-go. Full of passion and enthusiasm, she shares her confusion, disappointments, and her regrets. There is a lot to keep you guessing and hoping. A bit of history is revealed along with stories from customers and knowledge of vintage clothes and her business, switch from Auction House buyer to A Vintage Shop. There are visits with many interesting characters that add so much intrigue in a lot of areas. There is a healthy mixture of fun, romance, and friendship that makes this book really fascinating. I loved it!
Once in a rare while, a book comes along that is so enjoyable, and so easy to read, yet has all the things important for a "good book." This is one of those rare finds. The characters are very well-developed--many of them are people I'd like to know and have in my life. The plot moves quickly--I couldn't put the book down, and read it almost cover to cover in one sitting (pulled an all-nighter on a Friday night!). I kept reading faster to see what would happen next, yet did NOT want this story to end. This was the first book I've read by Isabel Wolff, but I'll be looking for some of her other titles now. I would easily say that this was among my favorite books I've ever read--and since I'm almost 60, and a VERY AVID reader, I've read hundreds of books (if not more!) in my life! I rarely keep a book to re-read, as I usually pass them on to friends or the local library. However, I'll be holding on to "A Vintage Affair" to read again. Yes, it was THAT wonderful! I might also add that, although I'm not particularly a fan of "vintage clothing" for myself, I found the detailed descriptions of the clothes and fabrics to be most enlightening and entertaining, along with the women who purchased certain garments. My point is that this book can be enjoyed by all women--not just those who are interested in vintage clothing. Can't recommend this book highly enough!!!
I love historical fiction, and this caught my eye. I was a wee bit concerned because I had read a review that was less than flattering, but I decided to give it a chance and am I glad I did! This was great twist on "vintage" fiction...ingenious usage of the vintage fashion to tell the story-
If you like clothes and a good story that will make you laugh and cry, this books for you.
I read a little about this book just before I bought it and it was more than I thought it would be. I just felt for Phoebe and her relationship with Mrs. Bell was sweet and heartwarming. Wanted to strangle Miles and give Roxy a good old fashioned what's what. Dan was just the lovable nerdy guy that you wanted Phoebe to be with in the end. This was a quick read and really touched me. The descriptions of the clothes and towns just made everything easy to imagine and seem real. This is a book where you just could feel apart of it and not just looking in through dirty windows.
This book was wonderful. In a nutshell, it's about moving forward and not dwelling on the past. Learn your lessons, but don't let your life be consumed by past mistakes or misconceptions. The theme is tied together by the vintage clothing shop that the herione owns and runs. She loves the vintage clothing, thinks about the prior owners, and knows that she is breathing new life into old things. I loved everything about this book, and even surfed the web looking for some of the clothing designers metioned in the book. I highly recommend this book.
I really loved the main character in this book. The way that the author tied in the fashion and wove it into the story line really wrapped it all together.
Wonderful book! Once you start reading you can't stop
Vintage Affair was an excellent, enjoyable and easy read. While reading, I would visualize the clothing along with the stories of each item. I could visualize past and future happiness along with the sadness. There were several different stories within this novel and all flowed quite well. I now have more an interest into vintage items whether clothes or items after reading this book. The book is also about letting go of burdens we place upon ourselves, forgiving ourselves and others and moving on and enjoying what life has in store for us. The ending is great. It was what I suspected and visualized. Thank you.
this book took me away to another world, where very intresting things happen. not to mention the characters felt real.
I really loved this book... could not put it down...It is my first Isabel Wolff and I have already tracked down and ordered her other books. She draws you in with excellent characters and a wonderful story that has many twists and turns. I highly recommend it.
What a touching and immersive story! I couldn't put it down for wanting to know what Phoebe would find out or experience next. This is the first book by Ms. Wolff that I have read and I am definitely going to seek out her others. She really brought the characters to life and I felt their emotions as though they were my own. Enjoy!
i loved this book
Once I started reading this book I couldn't put it down. I loved how she tied the two friendships together and how there was a little bit of mystery, friendship and romance all in one. I recommend this to everyone.
I had no idea what this story was going to be about, but was intrigued about the idea of vintage clothes. The author did a good job of weaving various story lines around the vintage clothing store and kept me interested with historic facts.
I started reading this book and just could not put it down. I loved everything about it. I have already bought several for Christmas gifts. Thanks to the writer for such a great read.....need more books like this.
The prologue was what captured my attention the most. Isabel starts off as if in a time or era resembling a Jane Austen novel. She artfully sets up the playful relationship between friends with the "hide and go seek" scene of the girlhood best friends. Jump forward 20 plus years and you see the time worn layers of the adult Phoebe and her trying to pull her life "back together" after the "incident" with Emma. Definitely one to take on a long weekend or to escape with. A romantic comedy in the best sense of the genre. Isabel artfully incorporates enough of the "vintage" culture references to make you want to research the pieces of clothing in her shop to "see" for yourself if the descriptions are "true to history". And her "passion" for the history of the clothes in her shop is evident - "you're not just buying fabric and thread - you're buying a piece of history". The same could be said for Isabel's work. You feel like you are getting a glimpse into someone's true past.
I love this book, love the close relationship between Pheobe and Mrs. Bell. It kept you wanting to know what is going to happen. This book is definite a keeper. I would recommend this book to my friends.
I admit I picked this up just to make a trip easier.I fell in love with the characters with the first dress decriptions.I was hoping to get an insiders view of a world class auction house but I happily surrendered to Phoebe as she struck out on her own.The steely Therese Bell and her tragic war tale gave a dramatic story line that wound through the entire book.. The strongest pull for me was the shop and the clients that returned to share a bit of their lives with Annie and Phoebe. The Vintage Affair gives readers a chance to go back to the days of Mary Quant before the advent of Topshop. It was a pleasant stroll.
This is a wonderful book. When you read it you will 'see' it all in your mind.
Really enjoyed the multiple plots and the author's descriptive writing
In 1983 in London preadolescents Emma Kitts and Phoebe Swift meet at primary school in the Blackheath neighborhood. They become best friends. As adults they remained BFFs until Phoebe becomes engaged to the man Emma has fallen in love with. Not paying attention to Emma's needs, Phoebe is not there for her when her buddy dies. Feeling guilt and remorse, Phoebe ends her engagement and quits her job at Sotheby and goes after her dream. Phoebe loves vintage clothing so she opens up a boutique in Blackheath. Her shop is a success and she loses herself imagining the history of the garments she sells. Elderly Mrs. Bell commissions Phoebe to sell her entire wardrobe. Fascinated by what the elderly woman tells her about failing her best friend, a Jew, during the Nazi occupation of France, Phoebe begins to heal by forgiving herself for failing Emma. She even has two boyfriends; her first since dumping her fiancé. A Vintage Affair is an enjoyable British contemporary character study that focuses on history repeating it self at the individual level as Phoebe, Mrs. Bell and readers learn that betrayal, guilt, grief and self forgiveness are recurring human traits. The story line effortlessly moves back and forth in time as the theme is affirmed in each subplot. Although the key males come across as emaciated, readers will appreciate visiting Blackheath as redemption seems just around the corner of the person seeking solace. Harriet Klausner
What an enjoyable book. I love anything vintage and got some education about clothing. Such sweet and likeable characters and I could literally picture the colorful dresses and people involved in intertwining storylines. Loved it. I am anxious to read more from this author. This would make such a wonderful movie.
I loved this book and have read it so much that the spine is almost white. It was wonderful, you didn't get confused when it comes to chacters AND she gives them an amazing back story. The ending of this story makes your day and gives you warm fuzzy feeling. A very good read in my opinion :)