The Genteel
March 3, 2021

Best Kept Secrets

Booths at Portobello Antiques Market - shifting through antique and modern-day jewelry.

For my first visit to London, England, my priority was not Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or St. Paul's Cathedral. Arriving in London on a Saturday, I took the first train out of Heathrow to the famous Portobello Antiques Market.

A little movie called Notting Hill caused a resurgence in popularity of its namesake district and of Portobello Road. However, unlike the many bright-eyed tourists who flock there in hopes of finding that famous blue door (I hate to burst your bubble, but that door no longer exists), I was venturing there for a very different reason. Having a deep-rooted passion for vintage and an equal love for couture, I was intrigued as to why so many young designers swarmed to the open shops and stands on this famous two-mile street.

Judging by the throngs of people (who very well may have been seeking out that blue door) that surrounded me when I arrived to Portobello Road, I was afraid I had found myself in yet another tourist trap. However, the longer I walked, the more I became enchanted with the sights, sounds, and colours, and I began to understand why so many designers are inspired here. Portobello Road was a time capsule of London past, yet interpreted for a modern-day London.

I spent quite a bit of time at a booth that sold antique hats and fascinators. The fascinator had recently received a boost in popularity as a result of the Royal Wedding, and I was curious about its history. After spending some time playing dress-up, I began to talk to the owner of the stand.

Thanks to the Royal Wedding,
fascinators have become a staple
at the market.

The fascinator's rise to popularity began in the 18th century when women of wealth and royalty would secure feathers and jewels to the side of their heads. Some pieces were extremely large and over-the-top, but that didn't stop women from pushing the boundaries. Even during England's revolutions and depressions when the popularity of the fascinator declined, it remained a part of women's fashion. And in the last 30 years, its popularity has skyrocketed. It has become the basis of the formal uniform, worn not only by royalty but also by the common people. A few years ago, my mother attended the England Grand National, a world famous horse-racing event, and although she originally went for the horses, she stayed for the fashion. She had never seen such fascinators in her life; they were works of art and their quality evident as many were made from the purest silk, adorned with ostrich feathers and lace. Not surprisingly, fascinators of this ilk are quite costly and, being on a tight budget, I couldn't bring one of these amazing pieces home. However, the woman was so kind to point me in the direction of a booth down the road that sold a modern interpretation of the fascinator.

Intrigued, I made my way over, where I was greeted by an array of fascinators and headbands with a funkier twist. One emerald green headpiece, in particular, drew me in. The sales lady explained that not only was it a one-of-a-kind piece, but it was made out of a vintage men's tie. I loved the concept of taking something so quintessentially masculine and transforming it into a most feminine piece.

As I continued walking through the market, I learned that one of my favorite designers, Vivienne Westwood, had gotten her first taste of fashion by selling her jewelry at one of the stalls. Being a big fan of her collections and her ability to juxtapose punk and couture, I was able to see how her style could have been influenced by her time spent at Portobello. All around Portobello, modern day shoppers bought antiques and vintage piece to later wear them, and the parallels to the old and new in Westwood's collections became clear-cut. A theme I consistently noticed while shopping was designers taking classic pieces that were popular at the antique market, but spinning them into something modern. At Portobello, fashion wasn't repeating itself, but rather transforming itself.

A modern twist on a classic
Chanel suit.

When I returned home from London, I wanted to learn a little bit more about Westwood and her connection with Portobello. I learned that she had recently starred in a documentary - appropriately called Vivienne Westwood's London - where she took viewers to her favorite spots in London. It's there that she mentions that her love of vintage brings her to shop at Portobello. Who would have thought that Westwood, a woman who designs and sells couture for the likes of Gwen Stefani, would appreciate discarded garments? While many people choose to ignore used clothing, Westwood is able to see beauty in the flaws. 

I also discovered several wonderful vintage clothing stores in the area. If you are looking for timeless Chanel pieces or era-inspired clothing, then there are several wonderful boutiques to check out. One boutique I particularly loved was One of a Kind. Often visited by Sienna Miller, One of a Kind carries a carefully selected collection of higher-end vintage pieces. If you're looking for more fun and funky pieces, I would suggest hitting up Dolly Diamond's Vintage Fashion, a boutique specializing in period pieces from the 1920's to the 1970's. However, even taking the time to visit the different booths and stalls, you will definitely find timeless treasures that will have you grabbing your wallet. 

Recycled 80's footwear fit for
any modern wardrobe.

I was impressed by the many fashion stylists that owned or worked at several of these shops, who were able to take vintage clothing and make it 21st century appropriate. Many of the window displays left me intrigued and inspired. As I was walking through the stalls, I found a wonderful blouse with an intriguing pattern that echoed something familiar to Hermès. After speaking to the designer, she explained that she takes discarded blouses that she finds in thrift stores and uses the fabric to create her own shirts. The craftsmanship was absolutely incredible, and I ended up splurging on one for myself. I love how in Portobello you were in the midst of designers creating new pieces, and stylists creating new looks.  

Before I knew it, I had spent over seven hours exploring. When I finally reached the last stall of the market, I felt as though I was leaving an art gallery. I felt overwhelmed by what I had experienced. All the treasures and history that I had soaked in left me inspired. And that's when it hit me, my answer to why so many young designers flock to Portobello. It's like being in a living art gallery. Every minute, there is a new piece waiting to be discovered and interpreted.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.