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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.