A vast collection of vintage clothing is not all as it seems, as I explore the stories beneath the surface.
Words and images by Rebecca Hawkey
The entrance itself is unassuming, a little white gable end shop located at the top of Helston’s high street, with three female mannequins in the window dressed for an era not of today. If you walk past the entrance however, and gaze up, you will come face to face with a striking mural of Lady Eve herself, a masterpiece created by Jordan at Spraysaint, and that pays homage to Helston’s heritage and a sneak peak of what you can find in store.
I have lived in Helston for a number of years, I’ve seen shops come and go, I’ve seen the high street remain somewhat the same over the course of 20 years, so I thought I knew what to expect after all this time. This mural was a pleasant surprise when it seemingly arose out of nowhere not so long ago, a change in the norm, something elegant, vibrant and really quite captivating. When the opportunity presented itself to dig a little deeper into this venture, I just couldn’t say no.
I open the door to the shop entrance and step inside, instantly enveloped into an emporium I was drawn to explore, filled with tales dying to be told. Behind the long wooden counter, repurposed from its previous owners, I find Bee and Jan, themselves dressed in high-end vintage looking right at home, a statement to their craft. The array of garments, trinkets, bags and brooches that are on display were calling to be tried on and tested, but I focus my attention long enough to discuss the fascinating backstories of Bee and Jan.
Bee’s history is rooted in fashion and textile design, having worked at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth for the wardrobe department, along with many years in retail, a time teaching art in a primary school and experience as a window dresser for Monsoon. An impressive résumé and years spent honing her craft not just in clothing but in the fabric used. Bee and Jan’s love of mid-century fabrics has continued to this day, as both hand-make all of their own textile products that you can find instore, which includes lampshades, pillowcases and bags to name just a few. If it’s creative, no doubt Bee has tried her hand at it, and the same goes for Jan, whose love of vintage goes back a little further, having been a wearer and collector of vintage clothing since the age of 12. Jan had amassed quite a collection which was eventually sold on when her children were born. She never lost her passion however, channelling her admiration of vintage and eye for design through work as a bridal dress maker, managing several fashion retail chains, working in a primary school and eventually setting up her first vintage store in Hayle a few years ago; her first experience as a businesswoman and the perfect stepping stone to building The Lady Eve Vintage.
Bee and Jan first met at a craft fair at the Tolman Centre in Constantine, both forming a strong friendship over their desire to create a space where vintage fashion and the sharing of stories could co-exist, as the two really do go hand-in-hand. Like a magpie I was instantly drawn to the brooches, a collection so intricate in their design, worn by women for centuries as a fashion statement, a utilitarian accessory and a symbol of class and wealth. My great-grandmother had one forged with delicate silver stems topped with crimson red rose petals which she left to me when she passed, an heirloom that Bee and Jan suggested I dig out and wear, for they stand by the idea that regardless of era, trend or popularity, if it makes you feel good and it means something to you then you should wear it with pride.
It wasn’t just the collection of brooches, scarves and pins that could have kept me there all day, but the stories behind some of their more high-end vintage finds, that Bee and Jan were kind enough to share with me. The first being the tale of an elderly Australian woman, who now lives not far from the shop itself, Lillias. Bee and Jan made a house call to see the collection Lillias had amassed over the years, and whilst they worked, they were told this story which began in the 60’s when, as a young journalistic reporter residing in South Africa, Lillias was asked by her employer to interview the captain of a docked cruise liner. Lillias reluctantly makes her way aboard when suddenly she trips and falls, only to be caught by the captain himself. They ended up dining together, falling in love, getting married and spending a lifetime together exploring the open seas on cruise liners. Lillias, as the captain’s wife, wore this gown that Jan shows me, rich in greens and blues that was fitted with a central column and overlayed with a sheer fabric that covered just the one shoulder and flowed, like the ocean, to the floor, walking alongside her husband on an evening aboard the ship. Lillias’s husband passed away not six months prior to Bee and Jan being gifted this treasure and the story that it holds, due to Lillias reflecting on which items she wished to hold on to. At The Lady Eve Vintage they don’t just collect beautiful designs but heart-warming stories.
Following this, Bee and Jan emerged with an iconic 1950’s American Lilli Ann eyelash wool pleated swing coat with silk velvet trim. I was shocked, as for a coat it was immensely heavy due to the yardage of weighted fabric used, both to hold and to wear. I was lucky enough to try it on and instantly felt like I was born in the wrong era. Bee and Jan are exceptionally generous with their time and expertise, house calls being a regular occurrence for larger collections of vintage items that people are looking to let go of, which is how they came upon this piece. An expensive, unique treasure that had been forgotten, only to be revived and rehomed the same day I visited the store.
As someone who finds humans, and the stories we collect, fascinating, it is no wonder that I could have spent hours, if not days, listening to the history that comes with the items of clothing carried with us. Items that sometimes last a lifetime, and see us through joy, grief, new arrivals, new jobs, lost jobs, new homes, new lives. Bee and Jan are historians, researchers, collectors of vintage attire and anecdotes alike. They believe that the garments they sell on should be kept, worn and treasured for years to come, not for such masterpieces to be thrown away when the next new trend comes knocking. It is no secret that the harmful industry of fast-fashion should not be allowed to continue, so surely re-homing clothes that are well-made, long-lasting and beautiful is the most sustainably obvious choice?
Bee and Jan at The Lady Eve Vintage make an impressive team, a combination of skill, creativity, business acumen, passion, kindness and a love for times of olde that I have not come across before. They do not live in the past, but rather they respect it, understand it and learn from it, ensuring its place in our future is not forgotten. I for one will be returning to explore this treasure trove, and the antiquities it holds.