In a world cluttered with indifferent fast-fashion labels that buy hard and sell hard with little or no compassion directed at their customers, vintage can be a soothing relief from an industry of purchase-and-dump ideals. It’s a collective thought process that has brought about the inception of a plethora of vintage shops in recent years, siting it as a ‘hipster vintage revival’ that’s seen thousands of like-minded fashionistas sport bellbottoms and gypsy tops as naturally as their relatives of forty years past. While this sudden mass adoration for archived designs is all well and good (My wardrobe has personally benefited from the influx!) a large part of me has wanted more than anything to search and discover the true founders of vintage boutiques; those that were selling flapper dresses when everyone else wore disco jumpsuits, the ones that sold to individualistic creatures long before vintage was actually “in”.
So when I stumbled across a little gem of a vintage boutique, I naturally halted my tracks to make a visit. Quite literally, I was travelling back to Dublin from London after completing a two-week work placement in the city and, impulsively, took it upon myself to make a detour into Oxford to visit Unicorn Vintage (I had been waiting for the right time to finally make a trip to the boutique after knowing of its existence for over two years – so I was determined to visit, disgruntled looks from my travel companions aside). I happily strolled down picturesque Oxford paths until I found Ship Street, a quaint little avenue that would automatically transport you a few decades back thanks to its well-preserved architecture, and halted a few doors down at the boutique. If I’d experienced feelings of nostalgia by just walking up the street, then I truly felt like I was in a time capsule outside the shop – the window display was filled with gorgeously detailed hats & printed scarves, mint-condition vintage books and large millinery boxes beautifully inscribed with brands evidently predating the past circa 30 years, in a non-organised manner that only further added to its initial charm. You could just about get a glimpse of the garments waiting inside – with cream and tea lace dresses enticingly visible through the faded windows – so I didn’t waste any more precious time and stepped inside..
Entering felt like being immersed into a kaleidoscopic wonderland, and I had to double-take my surroundings before starting to browse. The boutique was composed of one relatively small room that somehow managed to house an infinitude of clothes, each rail more vibrant and abundant than the last. My eyes were drawn to a dozen things at once: a silky blue corset jewel-encrusted with every shade found under the sea; a delicate peach negligée that had creamy lace and satin dresses as its neighbours; a spectacular-looking dress that showcased gorgeous Oriental embroidery on turquoise silk; and then, a heap of heavy-embellished garments that sparkled and shimmered even with little or no sunlight shining in. My gaze finally rested on a friendly, animated woman who smiled and nodded an acknowledgement before turning to resume her engaging conversation with a female friend. This was Unicorn Vintage’s founder, Ivi Bentley, who I later discovered has been running the shop for 35 years (and therefore was selling successfully long before the vintage re-genesis took hold. This was exactly the kind of treasure I’d been searching for..). Prior to finding out this out, however, I decided to delve even deeper into the mass of clothing, shoes and accessories on offer (being such a little treasure trove, you’d literally need to dive head-first into the sea of vintage):
After my rummage around (during which I found an amazing little piece I’ll share with you in a short while) and basking in the glory of my surroundings, I spoke with Ivi about Unicorn Vintage’s backstory. As I mentioned above, the shop has been going for well over three decades, and is decidedly one of Oxford’s best kept secrets: with no social media or website to further raise its status, it has depended on word-of-mouth and whispers through the grapevine over generations. Ivi’s enthusiasm when talking about her never-ending stock is palpable, however, just as much as her knowledge – and ability to scour piles of covetable vintage items to find that one item a customer desires – is impressive. She’s clearly a creative soul, and though both her and I could agree wholeheartedly on the magical and timeless quality of vintage, she herself isn’t trapped in a time capsule alongside her boutique: on the contrary, she’s well aware of all that is occurring in the fashion industry right now, collections and trends included. Aside from keeping her finger on fashion’s pulse of her own accord, this could be partially due to the fact that her shop is a go-to place for emerging designers – to seek inspiration and potentially borrow some of her garments on display. Hiring out stock is actually a main part of her business right now, as students love to come in and borrow her items – including medieval and 20th century costumes she keeps in an adjoining room – for plays, fancy dress, and parties.
During my chat with Ivi (where I learnt of some of the many incredible garments she’d stocked over the years; think embroidered silk velvet coats and one-off designer pieces), something caught my eye below one of her rails, nestled between a floral tapestry jewellery box and a few pairs of courts. It turned out to be an exquisite purple suede boot, lined with genuine leather and boasting gorgeous fleur-de-lis patterns with suede and leather. From what Ivi implied it was a small enough shoe size, but I decided to try it on all the same (I take a EU 38). Amazingly, it fit like a glove and was incredibly comfortable, but to my chagrin, I couldn’t find the matching boot! It’d seem like the bane of shopping in somewhere that’s full-to-the-brim with items, but Ivi was determined to search – though I put a stop to her quickly enough since I knew I’d be back in London late August and could make a trip down to her (and anyway, the boots wouldn’t have gotten wear in such sweltering weather!). She’s still keeping them aside for me and at the time, kindly offered to ship them to whatever destination I desired: it wasn’t necessary in my case but for any international readers out there, that’s definitely something you can take advantage of if you make a visit to Unicorn Vintage.
Needless to say, after discovering such a little gem of a boutique I couldn’t leave empty-handed! This incredible shirt really is the true definition of unique - its sprawling ‘Venice’ text, gorgeously silky fabric and vibrant print of the city makes the item well-and-truly one of a kind, and I managed to purchase it for just £18! I shall give you a better look at the detail here:
Notice how impeccable the attention to detail was when it was crafted; even the buttons perfectly match the print! To say it was a real find is an understatement, and it only further cements my longing to make another visit very soon, and perhaps stay for a couple of hours next time..!
Unicorn Vintage is located on 5 Ship Street, Oxford, and generally accommodates flexible opening hours all week. If your desire to make a visit is as strong as mine to go back, then you should act upon it as soon as possible – Evi admitted that though she’s loved her business, she may well close up within the next couple of years.
Unicorn Vintage is quite isolated in comparison to its widely-publicized boutique relatives, and doesn’t benefit from any of the mass desire for vintage as much as the next shop; yet since its inception it has still truly strived and, loving a rare boutique find as much as the next éclectique girl, I wouldn’t have it any other way. ♥