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Obituary: Mark Steinberg

WITH THE death of Mark Steinberg, the King's Road - that enduring symbol of Swinging London - has lost one of its more colourful (some might even say outrageous) characters. Not some celebrity restaurateur or hairdresser, but in fact the American-born maitre d' of Steinberg and Tolkien, a Tardis-like emporium that is home to the most extensive collection of vintage costume and period jewellery in Britain, if not the world. And not just any old costume, but the stuff of dreams.

Hidden in the depths of his atmospherically lit Aladdin's Cave, Mark Steinberg held court - there's really no other word for it - from a high stool behind a Fifties cocktail bar. He was surrounded by the glittering and precious reminders of at least five decades of couture (ballgowns and cocktail dresses from a more glamorous age); and his day would often be punctuated by the breathless arrival of some fragrant supermodel or actress. Lured by the heady mix of legendary labels - Chanel, St Laurent, Dior, Balenciaga and Pucci perhaps - they would find themselves equally drawn by Steinberg's infamously wicked wit and the general party atmosphere. Kate Moss and Helena Christensen were regular visitors and it certainly wasn't unheard of for Paula Yates to dash in for a quick cuddle.

"Everyone adored him - he was always surrounded by beautiful women, which he loved of course," says his daughter Tracy Tolkien, who ran the business in partnership with her father. "He was so well-known and well-loved that he'd have visiting Japanese tourists coming into the shop and telling him that he was famous in Tokyo."

He was also pretty renowned in Paris, Milan and New York. Fashion designers like Tom Ford, of Gucci, or the British mavericks John Galliano and Alexander McQueen; serious couture collectors; fashion stylists and students all benefited from Steinberg's passion for his subject, a passion that inspired him to search harder for the most perfect pieces and delve deeper to glean their often fascinating provenances.

Second-hand maybe, old certainly, but Steinberg and Tolkien is no thrift shop. Among the most memorable and seductive snippets of style history that have passed through its unprepossessing doors, are a silk velvet evening bag that belonged to a member of the French Resistance and was found by Steinberg complete with cyanide capsule, the jewel-encrusted evening dress that once hung in Jackie Onassis's wardrobe, a lilac linen Nehru suit that came out of Elton John's closet and sparkly gems worn by Madonna in the 1996 film Evita.

Steinberg was a familiar figure at the international auction houses where he was infamous for his strong and particular tastes as well as his dogged determination to acquire anything that he wanted badly enough - even if it was in such a sorry state of repair that it could never be worn. Such gloriously faded relics would live out their twilight years as shimmering gossamer sculptures. In fact, for many of his fans, Steinberg's vast collection of vintage treasures was almost more museum than shop and his knowledge of the business and ability to sniff out the rarest and most covetable pieces was second to none.

It wasn't always that way. Mark Steinberg came to the world of couture costume rather late in life, when he was already in his fifties. Always artistic in temperament, he had had a career in the Hollywood film industry (his Howard Hughes/Yul Brynner/Orson Welles anecdotes were legendary) and was a sometime scriptwriter, classical composer and jazz musician. He later found time to start his own advertising agency in his native St Louis.

His third career began when his daughter married the English barrister Simon Tolkien (grandson of J.R.R.) and opened a vintage jewellery business in the Chenil Galleries, on the King's Road. It was then, in 1987, that Steinberg, with his wife Anne, moved to London to help with the growing business. He left behind in Missouri a son, who has since become involved in the business, buying and shipping out of American vintage clothing. The other son, a successful Wall Street banker, is the family's "black sheep".

A few years after Mark Steinberg's move, in 1993 Steinberg and Tolkien expanded dramatically into the cavernous two-floor space at 193 King's Road it occupies today. Steinberg was a permanent, extravagant, generous and spirited fixture of the shop for the past decade. And to his family, staff and customers, his spirit remains there still.

Mark Steinberg, vintage clothing dealer: born St Louis, Missouri 17 November 1927; married 1957 Anne Taraski (two sons, one daughter); died London 3 March 1999.