Fashion: Hold that frock for Galliano

A basement shop in Holland Park is a place of pilgrimage for fashion designers, cinema divas and models.

At this time of year, fashion designers leave their ivory-towered studios to take great gulps of fresh air, and go in search of new ideas and inspiration. Just weeks after the spring/ summer `99 collections of New York, London, Paris and Milan are over, they are already history in the minds of those who created them. By the end of this month, the next egg, the one stamped autumn/winter `99/2000, must be hatched.

One research destination that has become a priority for many designers - Donna Karan, John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Ralph Lauren and Antonio Berardi to name a few - is a tiny shop tucked away in one of the most undiscovered and fashionable corners of Holland Park. You do not need to make an appointment. Nor will you be requested to handle the clothes with gloves. And best of all - unlike at the V&A or the Costume Museum in Bath - everything has a price tag.

In the three years that Virginia has been specialising in pre-Forties clothing (previously, Virginia Bates sold Victorian baths and antique plumbing equipment), the shop has become a place of pilgrimage for those in the know in the fashion world. It is the sort of shop that a designer will board Concorde to spend a few hours in. For the past couple of weeks, Virginia's has been a hive of activity, shiny limos parked outside while some of the world's most influential designers do some shopping in the name of research and development. What you see hanging on the rails in Virginia's this week might find its way on to the catwalk next spring and into the high street by next autumn.

The average gestation period for a collection can last from around three to four months. But finding the starting point for a collection always proves the most difficult part. And the research that goes into the making of a collection is thorough and all-encompassing. No stone will be left unturned, be it an exhibition, film, play or library. At this time of year, and again in April, many fashion designers become the academics of their field. Long days will be spent in libraries, galleries and the vaults of costume museums, working through the fragile pieces of fashion history.

Fashion designers like to find inspiration from old clothes. They will trawl the flea markets of New York, the markets of Greenwich and Camden and every vintage clothing store they can find to seek out a detail for a sleeve here, a patch of beading or embroidery there. Sometimes they will be inspired by the cut of a dress, or the style of a collar. Other times they will out and out copy. At Virginia's, they don't have to look very hard. It is not a case of rummaging through bargain boxes and hunting through the rails. The pieces of clothing at Virginia's hit you right between the eyes.

"It's got to be a wow piece or I won't buy it," says Virginia, a blonde- haired Bohemian who looks as though she might have been a Sixties rock star in a previous life. She has eyes and ears up and down the country on the look -out for new finds. "The days are gone when a little old lady would come in with a bin bag of treasure," says Virginia ruefully. Often, clothes are shrouded in mystery when she acquires them. "A lot of pieces were couture made for Lady So-and-So. I never get to know exactly who they belonged to because people can be secretive. But most of the clothes have had one owner." This is the reason her stock is in such good condition. "In those days women didn't wear Manolo Blahnik shoes that went straight through the hem of a chiffon dress. Women were dressed by a maid."

She knows her stuff, not in a boring museum curator way but in the way of a woman who is passionate about clothes, and who has an eye for the most wondrous dresses, coats, capes and accessories - the ones that make real life melt away into fantasy. She does not bore you with dates and historical lectures. She simply urges you to try on a piece that she knows will make you look superb.

"This is a shop of shining pieces. People's dreams," she says. "It's the mystery and the fantasy of it - a total passion. And that's why I'll never make any money." Despite the fact that the only drawback to Virginia's world of sequined fantasy is that the prices are as serious as the clothes, she is right. This is not the way to make money. A delicate, ruby-red, glitter-print tulle slip dress from the early Twenties might seem a bit steep at pounds 950, but there will never be another like it. Certainly not in that pristine condition. These clothes are priceless; indeed, when Virginia finds something she loves, she won't part with it for any price. Her private collection, much of which she wears, is packed with gems that designers - and museum curators - would like to get their hands on.

Stepping into Virginia's is like stepping into another world where credit cards and chequebooks are but sordid details. The windows seduce you with their jumble of Victorian dresses, bugle-beaded scarves, multicoloured sequined evening capes. The afternoon I visited, a customer was busy downstairs in the heart of the shop, seemingly trying on every piece that fitted her. She had flown over for the day from Germany, for the sole purpose of a spree at the shop. She spent over an hour with Jo, Virginia's assistant, who was at her beck and call. Eventually, she emerged from the basement boudoir with an armful of one-off clothes which were packed up for her flight home in return for a sum I roughly calculated to be in excess of pounds 4,000. She rang a few days later to buy a coat she'd regretted leaving behind.

"I want people to be happy," says Virginia. "I want my customers to feel special." So when Naomi Campbell's limousine pulls up outside the shop at five o'clock, it is all part of Virginia's service to stay open for a little late-night shopping. When Demi Moore paid a visit, she stayed until midnight, and left with around 30 pieces. But although Demi has designers clamouring to dress her, she knows that when she wears Virginia's clothes (and they are all tacked with Virginia's own discreet little label) she will never run into anyone else wearing the same dress. Or indeed, a dress with such attention to detail and such incredible craftsmanship. As they say, they don't make them like that any more.

This month's American Vogue cover girl, Amber Valletta, is another Virginia's fan. She apparently goes for the "really pretty things" and is known for her unique dress sense. At the party thrown in September for British imports at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, Amber wore an amazing antique Chinese coat. Such is her influence in the fashion world, Virginia was flown over for the event too and was given her own section of the department store for two weeks; she transported her stock and the atmosphere of the shop to New York, carrying a Victorian corset, a handful of ostrich feathers, some silk flowers and four 19th- century curtains in her hand luggage.

Usually, however, the fashion world comes to Virginia. On Monday, it was Gucci. Last week, John Galliano paid a visit. He has been "shopping" at Virginia's for the past two years and invites her to his shows. When he invited her to Paris last season he chauffeured her and her suitcase of treasure from the station to his studio for lunch. "He's been such an inspiration for me," she says. "In a way, he made me decide to concentrate on clothes. He made me realise I have a flair for it." Whenever new stock comes in, she will put pieces aside that she thinks Galliano might want. The same goes for Ralph Lauren or Gucci. "They buy my discretion," she says.

"The fashion world has changed as a result of this little basement in Holland Park. When I see something of mine on the catwalk, I think, yes, I was right. The haggle, the wheeler-dealering and the hunch are all paid off."

It seems crazy that nobody has thought to put Virginia on their payroll, as a researcher or consultant. But perhaps it is better that way. Even if you can't afford to buy anything there, Virginia's is one of the few places you can go and see magnificent pieces of fashion history and craft in the flesh. For her it is an addiction - she says she is looking for something that will give her a hit. But for anyone else who simply wants to go and fantasise, spot a designer on the prowl - or be tempted by a dress for the party season - there is no better place.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?