Mixing business and pleasure

It started as a hobby, now Angela Hill makes a living from her fashion-trend markers. Susannah Barron reports;
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The Independent Culture
SKINHEADS, supermodels, Carnaby Street, graffiti, disco, Italian furniture, Seventies revivals ... Angela Hill's collection of vintage books, magazines, furniture and clothing covers so many fashion trends that it makes you dizzy. Only the most confident of style watchers would attempt to make sense of the late 20th century, but this is exactly what Angela Hill has done, trawling the past five decades for their choicest visual images. So sharp is her eye, and so reliable her fashion nous, that her collection has graduated from a private hobby into a fully-fledged business.

Grandly named "Souvenirs of the Twentieth Century", Hill's reference service offers source material on fashion, architecture, photography and design from the Fifties on. Looking for the definitive reference book on swinging London? Photos of original punks? These, and more, can be found in Hill's catalogues; as we speak, she's listing her wares on the Internet too. But don't worry if there's an old issue of Vogue you can't find: tell Hill what you want, and she'll scour the country for you. "I know my customers well," she says. "I get a thrill from finding something in a shop and knowing they'll be happy."

Her customers include collectors, furniture dealers wanting information on now-trendy plastic furniture, and fashion designers seeking reference material for their next Seventies-inspired collection. In business since last Christmas, Hill already numbers such fashion names as Red or Dead, Anne Klein and Jigsaw among her clients.

Most designers come to Hill for help with their research. This season's fashion trends - a mish-mash of everything from Twenties flapper dresses to Seventies maxi coats - are proof, if any were needed, of how frequently fashion designers look to the past. It's often difficult, however, to find source material.

"The London College of Fashion has a good collection of magazines, and for 19th-century fashion books I'd go to the V&A," says fashion historian Colin McDowell. Otherwise, he confirms, it's a question of "going to lots of grotty antique shops". If a good book does turn up, it's often more lucrative for a dealer to tear the pages out and frame the pictures. So Hill's reference service is very valuable indeed.

Other clients, however, are more interested in her clothes, furniture, and knick-knacks, which they buy to sell on in their own shops. Paul Smith recently acquired one of Hill's finds - a pair of Beatles posters from the Sixties - and sold them, reputedly to one of the Oasis brothers, for a much higher price. Does this make Hill bitter? "Not at all," she insists. "If I was doing this only for the money, then I might as well be selling fruit and veg in a market."

A passionate collector, she deals in 20th-century artefacts because she loves the thrill of the chase. "It's a rush," she admits. "I love looking for things. There are days when I find almost nothing - I'll come home with just a Bay City Rollers scarf, and I get so depressed."

Hill has been collecting magazines ever since she was a teenager, sneaking Vogue into the house. "It was the first magazine I ever got excited about," she remembers. Later, after leaving university, she continued her love affair with fashion, working first at leading designer clothes store Browns, then assisting fashion stylists such as Marcus von Ackerman and Yvonne Sporre, whose work appears in glossy publications including American Elle and Italian Vogue. When she'd had enough of that, she bought herself a camera and started taking pictures. For the past five years or so, her work - "very reportage, the opposite of couture fashion photography" - has been appearing in magazines such as Interview and i-D.

Throughout her styling and photography careers, Hill was constantly collecting vintage magazines and books, and people in the fashion business began approaching her to ask where she had found them, and if she get another copy. From there, she says, "it just evolved," until, aged 32, she turned her collection into a business.

For someone who makes her living collecting, Hill's west-London flat, from which she runs her business, is surprisingly uncluttered. Similarly, you wouldn't guess from her simple black trousers and fitted shirt, that upstairs in her wardrobe hangs a riot of tacky Seventies gems in seriously lurid prints.

"Oh, I don't want to dress up as some retro nightmare," giggles Hill, who prefers contemporary designers such as Helmut Lang. It's not surprising, then, that she is very selective about what she sells. "I try to buy only what I would want for myself," she explains, "so I never have a very large stock."

It is this disciplined eye that makes her so successful. Her collection covers subjects as diverse as skinhead fashion, Italian glassware and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but what unifies this selection is her personal taste. The back copies of interiors magazine Casa Vogue, the yellow mini wellies by Mary Quant, the American how-to books on transforming your flared denim trousers with the help of applique unicorns - they're all in the collection because Hill likes them.

Notable coups include a book of Bruce Weber photographs, Bear Pond, which she picked up for pounds 30 and sold for pounds 250, and a Seventies Gucci perspex watch which was bought for pounds 20 and sold at auction for pounds 450. Other finds are not necessarily as valuable, but are sought-after by Hill's customers. At the moment, anything to do with the Seventies disco era - Studio 54, Bianca Jagger, Halston - is particularly popular. The Sixties are always in demand. Her two most frequently-requested books hail from from the Swinging Sixties. Young London - Permissive Paradise (Harrap, 1969), a collection of black and white photographs by Frank Habicht, has pictures of groovy young things hanging out, while Birds of Britain (MacMillan, 1967) by John d Green, is full of chicks, including a young Julie Christie and Jane Asher.

Such gems are not easy to find, and Hill is constantly on the look-out at car boot sales, street markets, and antique shops, particularly outside London. Sometimes things come to her unexpectedly: 140,000 pieces of clothing from the Seventies, which had been languishing in a Swedish factory, for instance. Hill got hold of them via a stall-holder at an Amsterdam flea market.

Clothing from the Sixties and Seventies is becoming increasingly valuable: a recent auction had estimates of up to pounds 400 for Mary Quant boots, and pounds 250 for a Biba dress. Is Hill worried about her collectables becoming harder to find? "It is getting more difficult to find famous label garments from the Sixties, but then you move onto some-thing else. Fashion's always moving on."

Tellingly, the only thing she can't bear to sell is not a pair of Biba sunglasses or a rainbow T-shirt, but a piece from the mid-Eighties. "I love this," she sighs, plucking a moss-green Azzedine Alaia cardigan from the depths of her wardrobe. "I'll never part with it."

! Contact Angela Hill on 0171 262 5063

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