Catherine Smith is a vintage bounty hunter, a woman who has made it her mission to seek out rare fashion pieces from yesteryear and give them a beautiful new life in the wardrobes of her discerning customers and clients.
A Harrogate purveyor of the finest style of the last century, it was entirely appropriate that we seek out Catherine’s help for our “picnic afternoon tea” fashion shoot at the town’s very own earthly paradise, RHS Garden Harlow Carr, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Yorkshire legend Bettys and its fabulous teatime delights.
Catherine Smith Vintage Fashion is on Harrogate’s Cold Bath Road, an area increasingly sought out by those who appreciate independent shopping and dining. Step through its doors to find a beautiful and bright interior lined with rails of exquisite and unusual dresses, jackets, separates, bags, shoes, hats, jewellery and more from decades past, some styles we all remember, some only our grandmothers or great-grandmothers perhaps might have worn first time around. But this is no museum. These fashion pieces look new, as if made yesterday, fresh, clean, pristine and, perhaps most remarkably, as wearable today as they were when they were bought by their very first owner.
Catherine opened her shop in 2010, offering all eras of vintage clothing and accessories but specialising in the high end of the market, those hard-to-find pieces in perfect condition.
“I buy privately from original owners, going out sourcing and doing viewings,” she says.
Originally from London, Catherine was an accountant and had a successful career in financial services until she took voluntary redundancy in 2004 and then took a job in an Oxfam shop – a move that allowed her to see the potential of top quality vintage fashion. She started going to vintage fairs, charity shops and jumble sales. In 2007 she rented space in a store in Leeds and then in 2010 took the bold step of opening her own shop in Harrogate, where she soon built up a loyal following of customers.
She says: “It’s a very broad group, from young teenage and 20-somethings right through to more mature ladies, ladies looking for special occasion outfits, so all ages and to a certain extent all pockets.
“Although I work at the high end of the market for people who will spend that bit extra for a special occasion, I do stock those everyday pieces that people can mix and match. But it’s generally people looking for those one-off special outfits, or unique pieces and accessories to mix and match.”
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Designer names found in store include Jean Muir, Ossie Clark, John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney as well pieces from couture houses such as Chanel, YSL, Lanvin, Dior.
“We’ve had the most beautiful 1920s Parisian multi-coloured beaded silk coat, which was a brocade covered in beautiful hand-beaded embellishment. That was worn to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot,” Catherine says, adding that she has some well-known celebrities and people in the public eye among her clientele. “I have seen pieces they have bought from me worn at events,” she says. “You have to be so discreet. They vary from real fashionistas, faces from the music world through to more discreet business professionals who have a very understated style.”
At the moment, she says, customers are looking for quality – well made stand-out pieces that no one else will have but everyone will notice and want. “Because the high street has very few brands that offer interesting, well made and quality fashion, I get a lot of comments from customers who say that they go into stores and everything is the same,” Catherine says. “There’s nothing that really catches the eye and stands out. And that’s what people who come into the boutique are looking for. It could equally be for an eye-catching piece of jewellery or a bag.”
Providing a heavenly al fresco setting for our picnic shoot, Harlow Carr is set in a valley at the edge of Harrogate town centre, covering 68 acres and offering the chance to experience a rich variety of growing landscapes, from ponds and rose gardens to woodland and wildflower meadows. There’s a Bettys Cafe and Tea Rooms there and a shop. Bettys, of course, offers gift bags, gift boxes and hampers packed with delicious goodies perfect for picnics, or you can add Bettys favourites such as Fondant Fancies, Fat Rascals and Macaroons to make up your own hamper or picnic afternoon tea, as we have done here.
As our shoot demonstrates, the Seventies silhouettes, the shapes and styles typified by Ossie Clark and Biba, are the look of the moment. Catherine says: “Customers are taken by soft, feminine maxi dresses in flattering fabrics and prints, often with unusual details such as fan or balloon sleeves. Recently, a beautiful early ’70s paisley print maxi dress came in. From this it wasn’t hard to see where The Vampire’s Wife (the fashion house of Susie Cave) had taken their inspiration. It had the most amazing puffball sleeves. Needless to say it sold the same day.”
Vintage is increasingly sought out for special occasions, but Catherine advises not going for the whole vintage look (unless, of course, it’s a themed event). “Just take a statement vintage piece and team with more contemporary fashion,” she says. “For example, wear a gorgeous original vintage dress and complement it with up-to-date jewellery. Alternatively, wear a modern outfit but add just that one item of vintage that’s so unique it lifts the whole look. Perhaps a pair of amazing vintage statement earrings or a beautifully embellished vintage bag.
“There’s a place for vintage in everyone’s wardrobe and by choosing the right pieces, it can be right for every occasion, too.”
The teatime treats, hampers and picnic baskets are all available at Bettys All clothes and accessories from Catherine Smith Vintage Fashion, Catherine Smith Vintage Fashion, 57a Cold Bath Road, Harrogate HG2 0NL, Tel: 01423 500234, online www.catherinesmithvintage.co.uk Location: RHS Garden Harlow Carr - www.rhs.org.uk/gardens/harlow-carr Photography: Simon Hulme Styling: Stephanie Smith Hair & Make-up: Lauren Rippin at Laurenrippin.co.uk and Instagram @facesbylaurenrippin Models: Charlie Cowap at www.charliecowap.com and Instagram @charliecowap. Elisha Ainsley at /www.elishablogs.com/ and Instagram @elisha_blogs