Fashion was never in my genes. After growing up in the Kenyan Highlands, I spent my childhood in villages inhabited by more cows than people, dressing in stone-washed jeans and ankle-high trainers. Early forays into experimenting with fashion – such as buying tartan tights – were met with scorn by my surroundings: “I wish more than just your fashion-sense were remarkable,” a teacher once told me (no, really).
Aged 18, a so-so degree in my pocket, I moved to Paris. It was an epiphany: the elegant pared-down style of the Parisian girls shocked me into action.
But it was during a visit home that I started to fall in love with vintage fashion. My mum whipped out a super-stylish, belted, knee-length, classic trench – ‘Burberry’s’ the label still read, while the brand had long since ditched the ‘s’. What a wonderful vintage piece, it was stunning! Who wanted to buy anything new, I thought.
Back in Paris, I begun trawling the lesser-known flea markets. Every weekend was spent at Marché de Montreuil – I still treasure the butter-soft ‘Escada’ black leather capri pants I bought there for the equivalent of £1. Worn with my mum’s trench, I feel like Audrey Hepburn.
I moved to London and became a TV anchor, a fairly spectacular graduate job, yet linked to hard working conditions. My Swedish fiancé had followed me: We planned our civil wedding on the Stockholm Waterfront, outside the City Hall, where the annual Nobel-Prize party is celebrated.
But what to wear? I had saved up and trailed many a glamorous shop, but to no avail. We planned another service, our religious wedding in Bavaria, for which I nabbed a ‘Victorian’ style sample dress by Amanda Wakeley, which a tailor altered for me, so I knew I wanted something different for our Stockholm ceremony. No traditional white wedding dress and veil this time, and I just couldn’t picture myself in a skirt-suit or jumpsuit. I wracked my brain and searched high and low for weeks trying to find something that would feel uniquely ‘me’, that I would remember forever.
When walking home after another nightshift, I glimpsed a turquoise shantung sleeve gleaming amongst the crammed rails of the Westbourne Grove ‘Oxfam’ shop. In a flash, I was inside – but too late! Another woman had already seized the vintage Yves Saint Laurent silk kaftan, its collar and seams embroidered with gemstones and crystals.
Images flashed in front of my inner eye – Verushka wearing the iconic YSL laced Safari Jacket; Khadija Adam Ismail sashaying down the catwalk in hallmark YSL. I needed this dress. Who might have worn it, and where? Possibly Jane Gainsbourg during her Kings Road days, or Talitha Getty, dressing up after THAT iconic Marrakech rooftop image! I was immediately obsessed with the story it held, and it was a story I wanted to continue.
Overwrought after weeks of poor sleep, I burst into tears: “Please, give me this dress. It is for my wedding,” I begged. The other woman hesitated, then gave in. I am eternally grateful to this unknown saviour for a glorious day, all sunshine, friends, and family from all over the world, uniting in Stockholm.
I have never worn the dress again; yet sometimes I let it breathe from its dustcover, touching the grainy Caribbean-sea-coloured weave, brushing the studding’s sharp edges, remembering the intense, simple happiness of the day. Yet I feel its story can’t end there. I have no daughter, but would gladly offer it to any of my son’s brides, if they wanted it. Why shouldn’t the ‘something old’ be the wedding dress? A gown that brought happiness before will do so again. Charity shops are treasure troves and many a stunning robe can be adapted for going to the chapel. And the best part is that they each have their own story to tell; a story that is now yours to continue.
Ellen Alpsten is the author of ‘The Tsarina’s Daughter‘, out now.