Beautiful. Fearless. Idiosyncratic. Exquisite. Unshrinkable. Audacious. Lionhearted. Levelheaded. Presuming. Proud. I could go on but these are just a few words I would use to describe Virginia Bates, the remarkable and visionary owner of the vintage shop ‘Virginia’ on Portland Road in London’s prestigious W11. It is a treasure trove of the most perfectly preserved, ornate and fragile antique clothes to which people cross the globe in order to buy. Fiercely secretive in her methods of sourcing, she has very good reason to be. She is unique in the fact that each piece is pretty much perfect since the day it was made, ranging from Victorian bloomers, 1920’s floor–length tea dresses, dainty silk night-dresses to costume tiaras and patterned parasols. The shop itself makes you feel like Alice down the rabbit-hole, a pokey yet warm and womb-like space that allows you to meander around in meditative escapism, decadence and wonderment. She has not only managed to surround herself with brilliant people throughout her life but to mirror that genius within her own realm and make it totally her own.
Born Virginia Wetherell in Surrey, she spent much of her childhood in Mauritius during its wild and uninhabitable days before the emergence of shops, hotels and restaurants until the age of 12 when she was duly carted back to England to boarding school. From her abrupt episode of abandonment not only came rebellion (she stole, was unruly and even ran away and slept beneath bushes for a spell) but also a premature sense of independence and inner strength. Her teenage subversiveness also gave her a taste for ‘theatrics’, so it was not much of a surprise to anyone when she entered drama school. Ironically, her first film was “West 11”, directed by her good friend Michael Winner. She soon went on to have parts in the original “Doctor Who”, “Hammer Horror” films and the masterpiece “A Clockwork Orange”. Virginia remembers being perhaps one of the very few not to be sheepish or terrified of Stanley Kubrick whilst filming. Her character is the rather unclad female presented to Malcolm McDowell’s ‘Alex’ at the end of the film to test his reformation. Virginia fondly remembers Stanley clambering over her naked body in order to get the perfect shot. It was around this time that Virginia started her collecting frenzy. Every new film set meant a new bric-a-brac shop to root through. In those days everyone was getting rid of anything old and Virginia simply scooped it all up lovingly in her arms whether it be a brass tap fitting, lampshade, lace camisole or even bathtub.
She adored every part she played and each director that she worked with. They were the happiest times for her as they gave her a sense of extended family that she so missed as a child. The Hammer Horror films have now reached mass cult status, yet at the time were only small fill-in jobs. It did however give her the opportunity of meeting her husband, the dashingly handsome actor Ralph Bates (star of Poldark and Dear John). They met on the set of the Hammer Horror film “Dr. Jeckyll and Sister Hyde” in which Virginia played a prostitute who is stabbed in the back by Ralph’s ‘Dr. Jeckyll’. The two of them got the giggles during filming because the timing of the stabbing and the blood splattering didn’t always go on cue. Ralph made her roar with laughter everyday after that until his untimely death of Pancreatic Cancer in 1991.
It was in 1972, the year after she met Ralph, that she happened upon her shop on Portland Road. Some friends needed the place filled for a couple of weeks and she basically never left. The constant dragging around of tubs and wardrobes did, however, prove too much after the passing of Ralph and she streamlined her shop to stock mainly clothes. She also decided that it was time to pull her finger out and really make the business work, what with 2 children to raise. If anything good was to come out of Ralph’s death then this was it. Providence did eventually come in the form of Helena Christensen. She started wearing Virginia’s vintage slips. Then Naomi Campbell came knocking on the door. Then John Galliano. She now has her astronomically-high Dior-attired feet firmly wedged in with the A-list fashion set.
Surprisingly, Virginia’s favourite concern of scandal is not the high-end parties she attends, but the previous night’s episode of Eastenders. Indeed, when I ask her who her heroes are, she unfalteringly calls up Dot Cotton (played by June Brown) and only after a short pause adds John Galliano, John Sullivan (writer of ‘Dear John’ and ‘Only Fools and Horses’), the Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev and his friend, the painter Leon Baskt.
Apart from the glitz, Virginia loves nothing more than relaxing in the garden with Daniel, her pet turtle, chatting on the phone to her son Wills in New York, fussing over her daughter Daisy’s son, Woody, and raising funds for The Ralph Bates Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund. (Registered Charity number – 1007819) It is most apparent that in everything she does, the spirit of Ralph still presides vastly, something that I find most heartwarming. When the ‘health & safety’ man came to remove her table and chairs from outside the shop one glorious summer’s day, a gust of wind swooped up one of her parasols and nearly took him out. “That was Ralph”, she beamed. And when she was recently burgled, the police caught the culprit mainly because he had the impertinence to take Ralph’s collection box.
With such colossal success I ask why she has never thought of taking her shop to a more vibrant or competitive part of London. She resolutely maintains that the support from the locals is immediate and equates true friendship and all that is important in life…something that no amount of fame or money can afford.
You can also follow Virginia on her Vogue blog
WISHING YOU ALL AN AMAZING XMAS. Thank you everyone for all your love and support over the year. Here’s to 2011! x
Next Week will be “A Xmas card of London”