The forces' favourite

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From Sergeant Pepper jackets in the Sixties, to combat pants that have actually seen combat: Laurence Corner's army surplus has become a fashion institution. Sally Williams meets the woman in charge

WHO'D HAVE thought that selling cast-off combat trousers could be exciting? Let alone include journeys to Istanbul and Egypt searching out unusual fatigues, visits from Val Kilmer, Annie Lennox and Katharine Hamnett, invitations to fashion shows, chatting to stylists, fashion editors, television producers and seeing your old clothes turn up in the most glamorous of places. "Vogue, Loaded, Dazed & Confused, the Observer." Kim Jamilly, managing director of Laurence Corner, the army surplus shop in London's Hampstead Road, is rattling through her list. "All the uniforms on Spitting Image, the belts the sand men wore in Star Wars... just about everything from Indiana Jones to the whistle Dawn French will blow in the next Comic Strip production. About a third of our business is in magazines, film, videos and stage production, so this isn't straightforward retail at all." True. Normal shop keepers don't, as Jamilly did, have to dispose of a ton of unwanted 1940s jock straps. "They just didn't sell," Jamilly says, bemused. She also has a problem with a pile of hymnals: "We sell about one copy every six months." Only five tons to go.

Jamilly is fresh from ferreting around a derelict basement in Reading "It was a tip-off. Anyone can set up a surplus store if you can find the stuff to sell," she says. Small, with hair several shades of blonde, she talks like Annie Nightingale and wears jeans as tight as Suzi Quatro. Teetering around on spiky heels, she cuts a glamorous rock-chick figure in the very unglamorous surroundings of the shop. Sparsely decorated with the cockpit of a plane and a layer of dust, the shop is full of heavy- duty great coats, rubberised storm smocks, camouflage jackets and wool army shirts, all piled high and sold cheap. This much khaki was last seen by your average civilian in an episode of M*A*S*H. She has six staff, none of them in battle dress, but she insists they all know everything there is to know about it. "You have to," says Jamilly, "we get all sorts in here."

Ever since the late Sixties, when hippies went Sergeant Pepper-style as a form of war protest, trendy young things as well as militia experts have ransacked surplus stores. Laurence Corner has lived through many mini utility-chic revivals, through fads for tasselled Yasser Arafat scarves, canvas rucksacks, string vests, great coats, bush shirts, army shorts and now combat trousers - the new jeans (old jeans are worn by parents). They're selling fast. "Especially these," says Deborah Thomas, the shop manager, pointing to a pile of Desert Storm combats, "they're the real McCoy. Worn by troops during the Gulf War."

Thomas is an expert. She knows her Zouave jackets from her Scots Guards tunics; when to stock up on sailor suits (Gay Pride) and oil skins (Glastonbury); how British uniforms have changed (more polycotton in the shirts and water- proofing in the boots "Trench foot was a real problem during the Falklands war"); and how to swiftly despatch the occasional customer seeking Nazi uniforms.

The good old-fashioned service, according to one fashion insider, is one of the reasons why Laurence Corner is so well-known."I'm always amazed by how knowledgeable they are. You go in and think smell and dirt and yet you always find something interesting." And cheap. Chanel's combats with silk and lined pockets cost pounds 920. A Laurence Corner original is pounds 16. "Its central location," points out Laurie Milner, an historian at the Imperial War Museum, "is also crucial." Laurence Corner has been on the same unremarkable corner in Euston since Victor Jamilly (Kim's husband) and Laurence Creager first opened in 1953, to sell off the surplus of cheap government clothing that was hanging around after the war. It's been open so long that taxi drivers now use it as a landmark. "Parents who shopped here in the Sixties come back with their children," says Jamilly.

Regular customers get nostalgic about their First Good Find. "A heavy wool smock with wooden toggles," said Annie Cockburn, former fashion editor at Elle. "Two British forces uniforms from the Gulf War, all badged up," said Laurie Milner. "Button-fronted sailor pants," says Independent fashion writer Melanie Rickey. Jamilly first visited the shop years ago, but didn't buy anything."I had my own second-hand stall in Kensington Market." Brought up in Warwickshire, she moved to London soon after leaving school in the late Sixties, fell in with the hippie scene, travelled, then opened her stall selling "Moroccan stuff". She's been with Laurence Corner for nine years. Before that, she was a property developer and before that, it all gets a bit vague. She went to America. There is a son, an ex-husband. "It would take too long. Let's skip it. Let's just say I like wheeling and dealing and am a great entrepreneur." And she is. She has converted some Laurence Corner property used for storage into the money-spinning Mystic Maze - a mini New Age market full of aromatherapists and palm readers. She has introduced more overseas stuff to Laurence Corner: "I love the Russian officer's coat. Any man wearing it looks so sexy." She is bringing out a mail order catalogue and launching a Laurence Corner label.

But Laurence Corner never changes. The Christmas decorations are still in the window from Christmas 1996, the mannequins from circa 1960, Deborah Thomas has been there for 17 years, and the "new" girl for four. Even the cleaner has only just retired after 27 years. Jamilly would like to change the shop, but "I'm not talking radical," she assures. Let's hope not. As Thomas points out, "If it was swanky, it wouldn't be Laurence Corner, would it?"

Laurence Corner, 62-64 Hampstead Road, London NW1, 0171 813 1010

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