I still remember the day I stumbled across Clara Fox. I had recently moved to Melbourne and was prone to long ambling walks with no particular destination. As I strolled further down Brunswick St, away from the hustle, I was lured in by a little shop window filled to the brim with vintage treasures. When I stepped inside Clara Fox, I instantly knew it would be my new vintage shopping haven and it has since remained one of my favourite retail spaces in Melbourne.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Di, Clara’s owner, over a pot of rosehip tea and some delicious cucumber sandwiches.
GD: When and how did Clara Fox begin?
DI: About six years ago, but I’d been doing ‘Clara Fox’ for a number of years.
GD: What had you been doing beforehand? Have you always been collecting vintage?
Always, yes. Well we didn’t call it vintage when I was younger but I was into second-hand clothing. I went to live with my aunt, I think I was around 15 and a half and her husband had just died. It was a big old house in Richmond, a big Victorian house. I remember she had two big wardrobes in my room and I wasn’t allowed to go in them, but I peeped into them one day and they were filled with, what her age group called (she’d be over 100 now) costumes. So they would see something or go into the city and draw something, then they’d go home and get them made. And there were all these beautiful, as I know now, 1930’s and 1940’s day dresses with little jackets- but they were all decaying. It was like they’d been locked away for 25 years then.
So from there I used to go around Richmond and Prahran and go into second shops because I had very little money and with very little money I could pick up a beautiful 1940’s black crepe that I thought was beautiful. Looking back, because I didn’t have a concept of how society viewed me as a young teenager, I just did my own thing. I was actually wearing these beautiful old garments, and that’s probably how it started for me.
It just went from there, almost like you get stuck. I don’t think I’ve ever been into a Country Road or a target or a David Jones and gone into their frock salon and tried on a frock and bought a new dress. So it’s been a long time.
Around that time in the 60’s too with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the Mary Quant movement in England, Carnaby Street, and then there was the romantic era which was perpetuated by people like Stevie Nicks, with long flowing black, they were wearing what we would say was vintage today. We called them flea-markets then. So then when I went to live in Europe in the early 70’s I kept the momentum going.I was there for three years and would go to the old markets and it would be all about (and I guess this is the case if you develop it when you’re young) texture, feel, quality. You look at it and you know there’s only one there. The fact that some of the stuff was a little damaged didn’t worry me in any shape or form. I really started Clara Fox when my daughter said to me, ‘Mum, you’ve just got to do it’.
GD: Do you have a favourite piece in your collection?
DI: I’ve been asked this question before, and I think it’s important to realise that in my case you don’t get connected to or caught up in one piece. When I was younger I had favourite pieces. If I was to say today what would be a favourite piece I guess it would be this crushed velvet dress which I acquired not so long ago. I love that, but I don’t have favourites.
I think for fashion the mid-20’s through to the mid-40’s is a very exciting time. The emancipation of women, they got out of all that boning. Schiaparelli made beautiful knits and it was as if you could be tall or short in those days and they would cut the garments so that it gave you that sort of boyish look. If I could wear it everyday I would love to wear 20’s and 30’s.
GD: Is Clara Fox by appointment now?
DI: No, its all trial and error, nothing is ever set in concrete. Of course you can make an appointment to come here but I am open Wednesday – Saturday from 11-5, and as you can tell the back section has some beautiful pieces in it. I guess the front salon, which I’ve tried to recreate from memory and looking at wonderful old books, is that you wouldn’t want to have a crowd in here, so it’s more like a one-on-one. I even think that people wouldn’t really even wear all of it, it’s almost more about collecting it- as people would collect wine or paintings or motor cars. If you can afford it you should collect a couple of good pieces – everything that I’ve collected I haven’t been able to fit into!
GD: That’s what I do! I keep buying little 24 inch waist tap pants! And then I keep asking myself ‘why am I buying these’?
DI: It will be revealed to you at a later date, it’s a process.
GD: Do you have any advice on caring for vintage garments?
Generally I would say, depending on the fabric, you’d have to be very careful and find a good dry cleaner who understands what your doing. If you’re not wearing the garments, I probably wouldn’t hang them. I would definitely pack them in acetate free paper. If they have sleeves, I’d stuff the sleeves, if they have beading make sure it doesn’t touch another part of the garment because you can get an imprint. You should store it in a good box or a trunk as I do.
Also if you have furs, I find really good cotton sheets, wrap them up, put them in and then when you go back you probably will find that they will be in pretty good condition. Don’t expose them to sunlight, hence as you can see here I’ve made the heavy curtains at Clara. Especially with very old garments you need to keep them in a cool environment. Cleaning is another area, but in general, if you went out today and bought a fur and weren’t necessarily going to wear it I probably would shake a little bit of bi-cab soda on it, give it a bit of a vacuum, and if you wanted to explore it, the Opera Company in Brisbane has special talc for furs that I’ve heard about. Wrap them up in a bit of calico, stitch it up and make a bag.
GD: If you weren’t doing Clara fox, what would you be doing?
I’d be doing a lot of gardening, I love old fashioned gardens and I really love the old fashioned plants. Given that water is so precious in our society today, there are a lot of plants out there that are very hardy that you have to go and find, and are really beautiful. I’d also be growing food, I like the idea of growing your own food, And of course I’d still be collecting.
Di also had the following to say, which I think is very important.
“I just want to share with you something that’s very close to my heart. Obviously over the past couple of years there has been the revival with movies like Moulin Rouge, which kick-started the Burlesque movement, and now we’ve got the Great Gatsby. With a business like mine that does have good quality 20’s pieces in it, I get phoned a lot by people who are going to ‘a 1920’s party’ and I feel that people don’t understand but a 1920’s garment, and I am generalizing here, is a historical garment in 2012. So I have decided that with my 1920’s collection, which some of is here and I have an extensive collection at home, that I’m not going to sell it unless it is to a collector or to people like yourself who would love it and understand it and take care of it, but for parties no. There is a very good place in Gertrude St that hires out clothing, or they should look at modern day designers and what they’re doing with 20’s inspired.”
Thankyou to Di and Jess for a wonderful and insightful afternoon!
479 Brunswick St, Fitzroy North, Melbourne
(03) 9481 1990
Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 5pm
Written by: Gabrielle Delacour Drama of Exile
Photography by: Gabrielle Delacour
We cant wait for Gabby’s next contribution.A huge thank you to Gabrielle, Di & Jess from the VSA team