Natasha meets the wonderfully witty lady behind the Vivien of Holloway empire.
It’s not every day that you get to meet the reproduction vintage pioneer behind one of your favourite reproduction clothing labels.
Vivien of Holloway is a veritable institution in the vintage world. Since 2000, the label has been serving up only the highest quality, authentic, reproduction vintage clothing to pinup and rockabilly devotees worldwide.
Inspired by the timeless style of 1940s and 50s silver screen starlets, her glamourous clothing is made in England and designed to flatter your curves.
It’s an extremely humid Friday morning in late January and Vivien Wilson, aka Vivien in Holloway, is in Auckland and I meet her at Rita Sue Clothing, a vintage inspired boutique in St Kevin’s Arcade, which has recently become a stockist of the brand.
While I’m hungover as hell and my hair is plastered to my skull with sweat, Vivien is a picture of style and elegance. Dressed in a red and white Kitty dress with a striking Hawaiian print, her strawberry blonde hair perfectly coiffed, she’s a walking, talking ambassador for her label.
We grabbed a coffee at a bustling cafe overlooking Myers Park and had a jolly good chat.
Read on for the interview!
You’ve been making clothing since you were a child and your label started in 2000. So you’re a reproduction clothing pioneer, is that right?
I am the first! I don’t think anyone else was doing it when I was 9 or 10.
I don’t think I’ll tell you how long ago that was! I didn’t start selling until I was about 14 except to my friends because, obviously I’d make something for myself and then they’d go ‘ can I have one’ and I’d go ‘OK’.
So then I’d make it. And then at the first ever rock ‘n’ roll festival in the world as far as I know, probably the second one actually, I took some clothes along to sell.
Was this in the 80s or 90s?
Very early 80s is as far as I’m going to go back.
Was that the beginnings of a scene in the UK?
No there’s always been a scene!
I went to America when I was 18. There’s pictures all over my personal Instagram…
There was no scene there…no rockabilly scene.
There were a few people there and they said to me ‘there’s nothing here.’
Why do you think this was?
Maybe because it’s so spread out and rockabilly is already a part of their culture. They dressed according to their music but they didn’t dress 50s style.
It was a bit flat to go to America and not to be able to find any rockabilly clubs. But it wasn’t a surprise as obviously I had friends from there who said there wasn’t any. And they were coming to England.
I went out there to meet an English boy who I was seeing and later married and when he picked me up from the airport he had a Chrysler and a ’59 Cadillac and we just got dressed up and went cruising all the time.
And he had a couple of young friends that had Corvettes, so there were cars and people into cars but there wasn’t really a music scene as such.
A few years after that when my friend came over from America… it slowly built from there.
How have you noticed the scene evolve?
The English scene doesn’t really change. People come and go. What’s shocking is when you remember there being a new young person to the scene and then they’re turning 30… Time just goes quickly!
Is the scene a lot bigger than it used to be?
There’s always been a big scene in England. Ever since I can remember really, if anything the clubs were bigger when I was young.
In New Zealand it seems like the opposite way around. Pinup and vintage culture seem to be booming here. despite us being a tiny country.
I think there’s a big difference between vintage culture and rockabilly clubs. It’s not the same thing.
I guess the scene’s so small here that we don’t really have enough people to have separate scenes..
That’s a good thing it’s not like that in England. I wish more people who are just interested in pinup and vintage would come to clubs, it would make them more interesting.
As it is, it’s just people I’ve been looking at for 30 years. And oh not you again! Hahaha!
As the first vintage repro label. Obviously everyone is doing vintage repro now. How does that make you feel?
It’s a bit sad that so many of them feel the need to copy my designs! They do very close copies and then say there’s nothing like it. There’s a million different styles from the 50s- why did you choose to take so much influence from mine?
How do you feel about those cheap, nasty, made -in -China knock-offs that people buy on Ali Express and Wish?
One company in China actually stole my whole website! They have now copied a lot of other designers who are now contacting me. And it’s like, well none of you cared …they didn’t have any recognition of the fact that the scene is too small and you need to look further afield.
I started designing 1940s style trousers, I had them with the turn up and buttons and now people seem to think that that’s the only style of the 1940s trouser instead of looking a bit further and going ‘ there are lots of different styles of 1940s trousers’ you don’t have to put buttons on one side and turn ups!
Do you go after then with lawyers?
When I first started, I didn’t do many designs. The stuff sold really well and I didn’t have to.It sold as quick as I could make it.
But then when people started copying my clothes, I just thought well that’s going to happen and it was just a big kick up the backside to do more designs. So really, they did me a favour.
But the difference with my brand is everything is made in England. Everything has my hand on it because literally those factories are within half an hour travel of my office and I personally check every pattern, I check every fit of every garment.
They’re fitted on one of the girls in the office who’s a size 10, and me who wears a size 18. Every garment is checked like that- so it fits every person as an average the best. It’s difficult to make something fit at all on a short person. But what we try and do is do the average of everything. So everything doesn’t fit me perfectly cos I’m tall!
But it will fit everyone on an average pretty well. Some designs- because they’re made, they might not fit a short person quite so well.
I was actually going to come to that next as I’m sure you get a lot of comments about sizing..
There’s a lot of argument about the sizing. My label has been going so long that the sizes were actually made on the large size when we started.
If you look at an official size chart, it’s not actually that far from our sizing. But also a lot of clothes that are made in China – Asian people don’t have waists like we do so a lot of the clothing doesn’t get made with waists..
Also it’s the same with vanity sizing – if they don’t put a waist on something it’ll fit everybody. But I’m not happy with that. My clothing is limited to girls with one type of figure or maybe two, but it’ll fit them brilliantly.
The thing is there’s a massive gap in the market – for the body shape I cater for. There’s not a massive gap in the market for girls who are size 10. But there is for girls of size 18.
I try and leave little bits of extra [fabric] here and there so you can do adjustments.
Have you ever considered making extended sizes (currently her laegest size is UK22 with a 38″ waist)?
It’s very difficult because we already do 8 sizes. It’s not that there isn’t enough of a market–we could either cut off the small and add another larger size, but I can’t do more than 8 sizes. As it is, every time we make a dress – we make 500 dresses – that’s going to add another 80 dresses every time we do a fabric…
You have to have a cut off somewhere. And that’s kinda where we got to.
A lot of people have asked about larger sizes in the sarongs, but it’s difficult because as you get bigger, different people have their weight in different places and so it’s hard to know where to add the extra. I totally sympathize as I can’t buy clothes on the high street I’m too big…unless I want to go to a big girl’s shop and then just all tents.
In Australia I wear a 16 and at home it would be an 18 to a 20 and most shops don’t even cater that large. And if they do, they do one so it’s gone pretty quickly.
Maybe some of the clothes that aren’t so fitted I could do to a larger size..
The idea of our clothing is to pull you into the shape you should be so if you use a stretch fabric it will just let you out…but I think this year will see us possibly doing a little leisure range so a little beach dress maybe and with me coming to Australia every January , I don’t have anything to wear on the beach.
I like the structure that comes with wearing something non stretch.What about the idea of doing a separate plus size range or even a couple of pieces?
Oh I’d really love to but it’s just not plausible if you understood how small the company was .. because everything we do sells really well so I don’t want to stop… a lot of companies bring out a new range every year. But if we stopped doing anything from our range , people would be unhappy ..
What are the hallmarks of the Vivien of Holloway brand?
Well I like to think we are actually reproduction, most labels are just retro which just means made out of funky fabrics [ or a vague nod to retro] wheras I use the same fabrics – as close to the fabrics as I can get- or we replace rayon with polyester because it washes and it hangs just like rayon but it washes brilliantly or you can chuck it on the floor and put it straight back on.
I try and use fabrics that will hang exactly the same as the original which is where I think a lot of clothing brands fall down.
So did you have any formal training in fashion?
No not really. I started [sewing] when I was about 8 or 9 I think – might have been 10. My mum loved old movies so I used to watch old movies with my mum and you know there was always that scene where you saw the women clicking down the road in those heels- stiletto heels with her seamed stockings and her tight skirt .. so I really wanted some of those shoes.
So my mum took me shopping and we looked everywhere and then she went ‘ ok I know where to go’ and she took me to a charity shop which is probably the worst thing she ever did in her life – and from that minute onwards I was hooked. I went in there and she said right- you can have two pairs of shoes and two items of clothing so I remember I bought two pencil skirts and two pairs of shoes and from then on, every single penny I got went straight to the charity shops and jumble sales.
And that’s how I learned the construction of vintage clothing, because I started altering them to fit me – first of all I just made tucks everywhere. My mum always made her own clothing but she wasn’t very good ..and she said this is what you do but then I realised you could start taking things apart and that’s where I learnt all my knowledge about how things were constructed. So that’s how my brand differs from other peoples because I’ve taken thousands of garments apart and I know how to put them together.
In early days I used to just cut a dress in half and use half of it for a pattern and keep the other half to see how the rest went back together.
I learnt an awful lot of things that people can’t teach you .. how seams were made, how darts were made , how things should hang, how a particular style should hang and where it should drape- you need to know all these things.
And through a whole life of being into vintage, that’s how I am ..
Have you got anything exciting coming up with the brand or personally?
It’s a bit late for the season but there’s a coat coming. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone we’re doing coats!
Aren’t coats quite expensive and complicated to bring out?
They will be, but they’re worth it. It’s very beautiful and already under way and they’ll be made when I get back to England and they’re very beautiful and they’re going to be very limited – I think we’re only making 20 to start with!
We just started a new range before I went away called the Pink Label Deluxe and that’s because so many people admired clothes that I was making for myself but the fabrics were too expensive for me to put them into our range for a similar price so the pink label – probably most items will be twice the price as everything else but it’ll be because the fabric is really nice quality.
I mean we use nice quality already but this will take the limits off what I can spend on fabrics which means I can buy whatever I like. And we’ve already brought out some of the pink label items which are absolutely beautiful.
What is the label most known for?
Well if you go to my live page on instagram, you’ll be able to see how I spend my life.
What are you most proud of?
My son! He’s just turning 30. He does work with me sometimes but he’s a musician- he’s in a metal band called Counting Days. They’re quite well known but there’s not an awful amount of money involved in music at the moment..
Fashionwise it’s usually my latest thing: I make clothes for me basically. If I want to wear something, then I make it. I might make something I wouldn’t wear now but everything I make is things I would have worn at some point in my life.
How has your style evolved over the years?
I very much dress for my body shape and for my age and I think the label probably reflects that but when I choose fabrics I make sure I choose fabrics that suit every personality and age so I just pick fabrics I think are beautiful and will look good in design- I might not wear them all.
I go to some very high end events a lot and even though I’m surrounded by people in designer clothes I’m always getting people stop me and tell me how amazing I look. And that’s everywhere I go really.
My friends find it really funny that some people actually chase me up the street to tell me I look amazing. Year ago they used to laugh but now they understand what it [vintage] is. It’s in the press so much that people understand what you’re doing.
I used to go to a lot of fashion parties with stylists and fashion people . I myself am not really interested in getting involved in the fashion world, I’ve never been to fashion shows, I don’t think it’s got anything to do with what we do.
But I go to fashion parties with other people and whereas people used to look at me like I was weird and ignore me, now they tend to treat you like you’re some 50s movie star or something because they get it. But before it was fashionable, it was like ugh who’s that? The fashion industry can be really catty.