- Credit: Nick Butcher
Why would you want something new when you could have something with a past life and fascinating history? Tina Crisp and Nadia Leonard Shah, who run vintage markets in Southwold, show Sheena Grant some of their best finds, including a particularly cushty number all the way from Peckham.
Back in the 1970s, Nadia Leonard Shah can remember selling items by iconic swinging-sixties fashion designers for next to nothing on a stall she ran at university.
“If we got £3 for something by Ossie Clark we were in raptures,” she says.
A few decades on, anything by Clark sells for much, much more and that’s not only because of his status. Some of it is down to the seemingly inexorable rise of our desire for vintage.
But unlike many, Nadia and Tina Crisp, who together run vintage markets in Southwold, are anything but newcomers to the vintage scene.
They’ve both been immersed in the culture of pre-loved fashions, furniture and collectables for as long as they can remember - and certainly before it became so trendy.
For them, vintage is a way of life and they’re always on the lookout for things they can rejuvenate, recycle and upcycle. Sources include lost property stores at airports and train stations but also the things some people discard as rubbish. Nadia admits she finds it impossible to pass a roadside skip without asking permission to have a root around inside.
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“It’s always worth having a rummage for anything of value – right down to the Sunday supplements,” she says.
As well as their regular vintage market at Southwold Town Hall they’re currently selling their wares in the yard of the former Blue Lighthouse, in East Street, after being invited to set up shop for three weeks alongside a pop-up retaurant making use of the empty building.
On the day I visit they’re selling clothes, bags and homewares from bygone decades alongside a handful of other traders.
Nadia, with her creative eye, sees the potential in things most of us would pass by.
“Look at this old ash sideboard,” she says soon after I arrive, drawing my attention to a piece of furniture she has customised with a glass top under which she has displayed old sheet music. The quirky look has given the sideboard a character all of its own, a kind of retro individuality. This is Nadia’s speciality. She’s just finished designing the interior of her husband’s restaurant near Bungay in a similar way.
“What I love is bringing something back to life,” she says. “We used all vintage things in the restaurant and I did it with no budget. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
Tina’s skills, meanwhile, lie mainly in working with vintage fabrics, converting them into clothing, bunting, bags, items for the home and even re-covering old furniture.
In fact, that’s how the two of them met.
“I asked Tina to do some alterations for me,” says Nadia. “I had some old Laura Ashley dresses and I asked her to crop them and make something shorter. It worked really well and she made the leftover material into cushions.
“We’ve become friends because of this. It’s a shared interest. We’re both Capricorn and on the same wavelength. We’re both vintage crazy.”
For Nadia, there’s something almost spiritual in the way she talks about her love for clothes and furniture with a past life.
“It started for me when I as five, with my mother,” she says. “She used to sell fabric at Rayleigh market in the 1950s and I remember going to Canvey Island in dad’s sidecar. It stays with you. My great grandmother in France used to make hats and sell to the gentry. Sometimes you don’t know where that interest comes from but for me I believe it comes from those things.
“I get a lot of stuff from lost luggage. Also, people come in and we buy things off them, we go to London and get things, go to auctions and car boot sales.
“There is potential in most things for me. If I see an old pile of rags on the floor it is my dream. I can find something and customise it. It’s all about recycling and upcycling.
“It is also being able to share this vibration of energy with people and create something. Sometimes I see people looking at things and hear them reminiscing because it’s brought something about the past to mind. It’s lovely.”
Today, it’s an freestanding 1930s boiler that’s reviving a few memories for one visitor to the market. She remembers her grandmother had one just like it. But being from a time when things weren’t churned out on a factory production line quite as they are now this ‘boiler’ is a thing of beauty, with ornate legs and decorative sides. Its ‘boiling’ parts have been removed and it’s ready for a new life as a piece of furniture or receptacle for... who knows what?
This passion for giving something a new life is what drives both Tina and Nadia, rather than the financial rewards of trading in vintage. In fact, they both laugh when I suggest it might be quite a lucrative field.
“Not the way we do it,” says Nadia. “It takes a lot of work. Sometimes I will spend three days de-bobbling a jumper in order to bring it back and send it out to the next life for a few pounds.”
She’s also spent some time recently making cushions out of old tea towels, a task that’s clearly been about so much more than just sewing.
“When I do it I think about the life of person who had used the tea towel before,” she says. “I think about what the woman (it was probably a woman) dried up with it and what she was thinking about - was she trying to impress her in-laws? The past lives of these items is endlessly fascinating to me.
“We just do it for the love of it and people we meet along the way recognise that deep feeling we have for things from the past.”
Nowhere is that point illustrated more clearly than in a story Nadia goes on to tell about a bar she has in her studio at home in Beccles.
“We got talking to one customer who told us she was looking for a home for some things she had from some TV studios. She recognised the feeling we have and through her I ended up getting the original bar from Del’s ‘home’ in (the BBC sitcom) Only Fools and Horses.”
This gem would be a piece of collectable gold for most people but for Nadia and Tina almost anything that can be recycled and put to a new use is of value.
Nadia has even collected cardboard food packaging, such as cereal and cracker boxes, cut it up, hole-punched it and attached a piece of string to make quirky labels for their wares. They’ve become such a talking point that many customers ask to take them away with their purchase.
This urge to recycle has an environmental dimension too.
“If everybody in the UK bought one item of (second-hand) woollen clothing rather than a new piece each year it would save enough water to fill a reservoir,” says Nadia. “Wool is everlasting if it is looked after. I have taught my children and children’s children to have the same outlook.
“I had a load of jeans and I’ve been cutting off the legs to make frayed shorts. I get my grandchildren involved, cutting and fraying the jeans too. They love it and to my mind it’s so important to let them see that everything doesn’t have to come from the high street. There is an alternative source. If we don’t teach them that they won’t know any different.
“Nothing is ever wasted. All the material I cut off the jeans for the shorts will be bagged up for bunting.”
For Tina, the make-do-and-mend attitude was fostered from a young age too.
“There were four of us children and mum did not work,” she says. “Dad was the only breadwinner. My mother used to make our dresses when we were children so I’ve been using a sewing machine since was 12. I was around in the 1970s when Rod Stewart and the Bay City Rollers were all the rage and the boys used to bring their tartan fabric around to my house and get me to make them trousers with it.
“I was born in ‘59 so my teenage years were in the 70s. I was brought up in Hertfordshire but my grandparents lived in London and I would always be jumping on the Tube and going down to the markets, loving being in the outside world, looking at feather boas and anything that Marc Bolan might have worn. I was happy to buy something second-hand even then, when I was 13 or 14.
“I used to make my own clothes as well, going down to Portobello Road and buying fabric. There was lots of fabric everywhere then.”
Tina had a varied working life in TV and latterly teaching hairdressing and beauty therapy before quitting in 2001 and heading off to Cornwall to “find myself”.
“I thought, what do I really want to do with my life,” she says. “I realised it was collecting vintage materials, shirts and shorts becauase that was where my passion was.
“I love working with vintage fabric – and new fabric – but it has to appeal to me before I can do anything with it. I re-cover furniture, mainly chairs from the 1950s which have had a hard life, with vintage fabrics.
“I love everything about the 1940s and 50s because of the associations it has for me – I think about my grandparents and my mother being a child – but I am particularly heavily into the ‘50s look.”
The pop-up market in East Street is scheduled to run until mid-September. Nadia and Tina also have markets at the Town Hall this weekend and next as well as in October.
“Then we’ll both go away and get rested up and get stuff ready for what happens next,” says Tina.
And that really could involve anything, possibly, of course, even the odd skip.
“You should never stop being inquisitive about things,” says Nadia.
Vintage markets will be held at Southwold Town Hall on September 21 and 22 and October 5 and 6, 10am to 5pm. For more information go to www.suffolktouristguide.com/Southwold/The-Vintage-Market-Southwold-1707.asp