THE STYLE POLICE: Oldies but goodies

Fashion:This season's nostalgic styles are a gift to vintage clothing fiends. Shop with care and you could give Rodriguez a run for his money, writes James Sherwood

SOME PEOPLE give vintage clothing a bad name. Style Police is talking about you, the art college student in the granny coat and A-line on the knee tweed skirt. Or you, the ever-so-eccentric divorcee floating down the King's Road in a kimono and turban. The art of buying vintage clothing is not to look like an extra from a Fellini movie. It is to work antique pieces seamlessly into a look that says l998 London, not 1890s opium den in Marrakesh.

This season, fashion does have history written all over it. The catwalk shows are fashion's pantomime season, so we did see McQueen reinventing the total Forties femme fatale look, Galliano showing a decadent Thirties tribute to Liza in Cabaret and Chanel showing the languid Twenties line. So the key pieces for autumn/winter 98 are fishnet stockings, a bowler hat and a flapper dress, right? Wrong. Fashion magazines have thrown all these pieces into one dressing-up box and called it "Bohemian". Style Police calls it a disaster.

So here's the dish on how to wear vintage and still do that bare, spare Nineties separates story. First, you need to find the specialists. Every major city has one of those granny's attic-style shops crammed with dusty fox furs and faded tea gowns. Find it. London's just happens to be called Steinberg & Tolkien. Fashion editors will use this vintage clothing store's name as explanation enough, leaving you none the wiser.

So this week, Style Police has gone straight to source. Brixton Brady has worked at Steinberg & Tolkien for five years and is the glittering example of how to wear vintage with wit and polish. "You need time to find vintage pieces," says Brady. "People are so used to shops these days where the choice is edited down for you to one or two pieces in one or two colourways. Here, you need to spend as long as it takes."

What we are looking for is not Voyage slip dresses. (Actually, Voyage buys its slips from Steinberg, then customises them). No, if you're looking for old pieces with a now look, then take your inspiration from Givenchy, Galliano or Narciso Rodriguez. The look is a sleeveless tank dripping with beads, silk satin pencil skirts, minimal colour and touches of detail.

Restrict yourself to a simple palette: if you're going for a beaded tank, then buy one of the Fifties knitted pieces in cream with tone-on-tone pearl beading. Wear it with cream Capri pants or a black pencil skirt. When faced with a shop crammed full of vintage clothes, tell yourself you're looking for something in black, grey, cream or this season's fire engine red. It saves time. Mix high street with vintage; elaborate beading with the severest cut. There's always that Danny La Rue problem with beading. Some of the heavier Fifties pieces look like remnants from a drag queen's garage sale. It's all in the balance.

"The pieces in Steinberg & Tolkien have survived for 30, 40, 50 years," says Brady. "I think that gives you a rough idea of the quality. They are timeless pieces. When a girl comes in here to buy an intricately beaded bag it gives her a little touch of glamour for pounds 25 and nobody knows whether it is vintage or this season's Lacroix. The hard and fast rule is not to wear the total vintage look." Again, you balance a black satin underskirt with a brand new cashmere jumper from The Scotch House or wear a vintage lambswool cardigan dotted with seed pearls over a maxi skirt from H&M.

Of course, there are traps to be avoided. There's little point looking for an authentic Forties maxi skirt when the high street can do them for next to nothing. Besides, in the days before synthetic mixes, fabrics were heavier and less fluid.Your major targets are pieces you know you couldn't afford. The high street can't do beading like Narciso Rodriguez. Steinberg & Tolkien can. Enough said. Steinberg & Tolkien, 193 King's Road, London SW3, tel 0171 376 3660

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