As we arrived, we checked out the other two people who were "in on it". They looked at us. We knew, and they knew. What exactly the "knowing" was all about I have no idea, but it felt good. We looked around quietly (secret shops frequently induce unnecessary self-consciousness) and left empty-handed, because the winter stock hadn't arrived, and I was after one of their coats.
A few days later I found myself discussing the discovery aspect of my shopping trip, only to find that there's nothing quite like knowing about a secret shop. It's all in the exclusivity of the merchandise, personal service, and intimate environment (attributes department stores try to emulate), the latter being what the secret fashion shop provides best.
West London is home to more Secret Shop destinations than the whole of the capital. The most established of these is The Cross, a boutique crammed with high fashion and life-style goodies. The rest in the west are situated in and around Portobello Market. In SW3 there is Voyage (that requires a membership card to gain entry), in Covent Garden is Koh Samui, a boutique whose stock has fast become a blueprint for future trends, and off Bond Street is Angela Hale, a jewellery and trinket gallery par excellence. None of them qualify as "official" secrets any more because everyone in the know has discovered them, and passed them on.
On a day-long, London-wide quest to find secret shops, I came across six that deserved the title. In the west of town is The Jacksons. It is run by twin sisters, Louise and Joey, who have thrown their design expertise into a bohemian offering which is one-part Mexican eclectic and two-parts Nohichi (for the uninitiated, that's Notting Hill Chic). Everything is for sale, from the art-work to the cow-hide carpet tiles from Mexico. It's the sort of place one would pop into to buy a pretty hair-clip, and leave with a sheepskin-covered pouffe, embroidered slippers, a fake-fur overnight bag (the current bestseller) and a matching sheepskin handbag and hat.
It opened in August and has already attracted a world-wide clientele. "We get all sorts in here," says Louise Jackson, "but what amazes me most is how far people are willing to travel to specific shops. Our mailing list covers many parts of England, and we've had customers calling in from Geneva, Monte Carlo and the Bahamas." Most hear about their store through the grapevine, so I'm surprised when the Jackson sisters say they haven't heard of my next destination, Wall, which is 10 minutes walk away.
When I get there, I understand why. Minimal isn't the word. Everything is black, grey or white. The music is probably from Tibet, and the staff pad about soundlessly. The owners, Judith and Hernan Balacazaar, opened Wall one year ago with the view to selling a futuristic lifestyle idea. Their watchwords are proportion, quality and longevity, and the clothes for both sexes have all this, but lack the essential spark that make them ultra-desirable. Everything is made from Pima cotton, alpaca or pashmina. There is a waiting list for their best-selling alpaca kimono house coat, and their trousers, tube skirts, shirts and cardigans are undoubtedly the secret ingredient to many a professional woman's (or man's) wardrobe. "We are not cheap," I am assured by Judith, "Last week we had Dustin Hoffman and his wife in." The Wall label is now available at Liberty where early reports suggest it is a hit, meaning that, for now at least, their secret is out.
But, there are other secrets that should remain so, simply for their oddness. In Maida Vale I discovered the Fashion Gallery, a tiny shop around the corner from a row of local amenities, which sells clothes and art. After ringing the doorbell I was buzzed in, (no fussy door-policy here) to be met by a cacophony of colour. Trinkets, head-pieces, hand-bags, hats and dresses in varying shades from pink to purple to moss green fight for space with neon-bright paintings. I came away thinking "so Julien MacDonald's knitwear can be wearable", while marvelling at the mental mixture of things from Stella Cadente's bright brocade jackets, Clements Ribeiro's colourful pieces, and party dresses by Elspeth Gibson. It's owned by ex-City girl Susan Muncey, who is every bit as colourful as her stock. "We get lots of local celebrities in here, and many women looking for Bar Mitzvah outfits."
Back in Soho things are a little more buzzy. Down in Shop (which is sometimes mistaken for a lap-dancing bar), Pippa Brooks, part-owner (with best friend Max Carie), party girl and singer hangs out. She's surveying the small boudoir currently packed full of New York party-girl clothes. Nowhere else (bar NYC) has their unique and fun mixture of labels which include Tocca, Milk Fed by Sophia Coppola (daughter of Francis Ford), and new cult label Silas. A spin through the rails reveals Shop is in the process of launching its own label (Shop Girl), designed by Stevie Stewart, formerly of Bodymap. There's also a Shop Girl range of trinkets co-designed with jewellers Erikson Beamon which includes name necklaces (silver pounds 49.95, gold pounds 89.95), and hair-clips. "People come here on a discovery mission," says Brooks, "especially Japanese and Australian tourists, but the core of our customers is London girls."
Around the corner from Shop is The Pineal Eye, a new and experimental boutique of mostly unwearable clothes, run by a Japanese duo who simply adore fashion. Their stock in trade is catwalk show-pieces, and the work of young designers including Jessica Ogden, (recycled quilts become jackets), Bruce (edgy, modern tailoring) and Noki, whose customised T-shirts are all the rage. They also sell mean-looking jewellery, cutting-edge magazines and the newest offering from Polaroid which takes instant pictures.
A look at the wall of photos in their polished metal store reveals designer Walter Van Beirendonck of W< is a recent customer, as are fashion stylists and models.
At the end of my exhausting day I return to the Soho alley-way outside Vexed Generation, the label many believe to be the inspiration for Prada's new sportswear line, and whose designers are as secretive as priests. It's closed. "They're doing it up luv," a stall-holder told me. I call them up, "What are you up to?" I ask. "You'll have to wait and see," comes the reply. Some secrets are better left, I suppose.
Basement, 4 Brewer Street, London W1
Shopgirl thermal vest by Damart - from pounds 29.95.
Silas Thinsulate jacket - pounds 95,
Shopgirl jewellery by Erickson Beamon - from pounds 10.
3 Berwick Street, London W1
Re-opens Saturday 21 November with launch of winter collection.
Ninja fleece - pounds 90, Vexed parka - pounds 210, Vexed bag - pounds 70.
The Fashion Gallery
8 Clarendon Terrace, London W9
Elspeth Gibson dress - pounds 250 - pounds 900, Julien MacDonald handbag - pounds 149.50, Betty Jackson sheepskin jacket, pounds 585.
1 Denbigh Road, London W11
Alpaca slippers - pounds 89, Alpaca socks - pounds 8, Kimono house coat, pounds 269, long tube skirt, pounds 139.
5 All Saints Road, London W11
Beaded flower kirby grips - from pounds 8, fake fur holdall - pounds 160, cow hide carpet (3m x 3.5m approx) - pounds 2,300, sheepskin hand-bag pounds 117.
The Pineal Eye
49 Broadwick Street, London W1
Mini-Polaroid camera with film - pounds 45, rings by Sarah Harmarnee, Scott Wilson, Sean Leane - pounds 35 - pounds 250, Shelley Fox felted wool jacket - pounds 170.
5 The Royal Arcade, Old Bond Street, London W1
Small Art Deco frames - from pounds 45, crystal hair slides - pounds 35, rose necklace - from pounds 98.
Angela Hale mail order catalogue, 0171-493 6203.
141 Portland Road, London, W11
Scented candles - pounds 38, Nicola Tassie handmade pottery - from pounds 18.50, Pashmina shawls - from pounds 187.50.
The Cross mail order catalogue (pounds 2.50) from 0171-221 8616.
115 Fulham Road, London, SW3
Hand painted silk dress - pounds 1,250, ribbon-edged cardigan - pounds 495.
65 Monmouth Street, London WC2
Lara Boeing necklace - from pounds 70, Conscious Earthwear boarding coat - pounds 198, Martin Kidman jumper, pounds 120, shoes by Rudolph Menudier, pounds 184.Reuse content