Courtesy Cambridgeshire Collection
84 Mill Road, Tigerlily
A first-wave vintage clothes shop
I signed a lease on the building at 84 Mill Road along with a couple of friends in Oct 1974. Helen and I took over the large upstairs room for our ‘period’ clothes (the term ‘vintage’ was unknown then, likewise ‘retro’). Downstairs, Paul and Arunee ran their jewellery business, selling gems and fine jewellery from Thailand. One of the first things we noticed was that the walls sprouted a fine crop of fungi, and throughout our tenancy of about six years, we had to call up the landlords constantly with reports of leaking roofs and dripping ceilings. Still, it was cheap. We did excellent sales of granddad collarless shirts, 1940s crepe dresses, 1930s chiffon ball gowns, Victorian nighties and petticoats, Hungarian smocked blouses, deco scarves, demob suits for men and, come May Ball time, old but rather stylish djs and tailcoats. 50s gear was not yet back in fashion, though we risked a few baseball jackets and full flowered skirts.
Sourcing it was fun. I would get up about 3am on Sunday morning and drive down to the Cheshire Street area, near Brick Lane in London, where clothes were sold out of bales in old warehouses and derelict shops, and often off the pavement itself. I discovered ‘rag warehouses’ too in places further north, especially Batley in Yorkshire, where the kindly women would save ‘the hippy stuff’ for me. All this required a lot of laundering – my washing machine worked day and night, and we had a paid team of part-timers to help out with the sewing and ironing. At the other end of the scale, I attended costume auctions held by Phillips and Christies in London, and creamed off all sorts of costumes, embroideries and lace that weren’t of interest to the specialist buyers.
Our customers were varied and included students, teenagers, costume dealers, and mums or grannies buying an antique christening robe for a new baby – born at that time in the Mill Road Maternity Hospital opposite. The shop turned a good profit, partly because it cost very little to set up, since we simply acquired clothes rails, a curtain for a changing room, a couple of old haberdashers units with drawers, (bought from a gentleman’s outfitters over the bridge in Mill Road which was closing down), an antique counter and till. My children, then very young, remember playing hide and seek among the clothes on the rails. It was great fun, and when I’d had enough after five years or so – my main work was, and still is, as a writer – I handed my side of the business over to a woman called Caz, who’d worked for me. The jewellery business downstairs had moved earlier to new premises in the Burleigh St area, and the Afghan import business (from Cambridge market, I think) took it over for a number of years.
I would love to read other people’s memories of Tigerlily, and to see any more photos.
Image courtesy of Ann Horn