Vintage clothing retailer Beyond Retro is defying the gloom and growing fast. John Ryan travels to Dalston to see its latest store.

Mention the word ‘vintage’ in a fashion retail context and for many the image conjured up will be of ill-assorted rails, and ‘rails’ is probably the operative word, of clothing housed in a lacklustre environment.

Things may be cheap, but finding anything worth having will involve a lot of digging through the offer and even then you may emerge empty-handed.

This view, however, is outmoded, according to Kate Peters, managing director of London-based vintage clothing retailer Beyond Retro, who says that retailers of this kind are largely a thing of the past. As she says this, she is standing in the middle of the latest addition to the eight-strong Beyond Retro store portfolio, which has outposts in London, Brighton and, somewhat improbably, Sweden.

Out with the old

This branch has a potential selling area of 10,000 sq ft, although it currently trades from 5,000 sq ft, and has been open since late September. And approaching it from the southern part of gritty inner city Stoke Newington Road, the aspect is impressive. Until relatively recently, this was a Kurdish community centre but originally the building was a cut-and-sew factory for formalwear brand Daks and dates from 1929.

Peters says that one of the things that first attracted Beyond Retro to the site was the legend above the main door: ‘Built 1929 The house of’. The name that was there is now missing, but in its place are the words ‘Beyond Retro’. It is, in fact a very grand piece of Art Deco architecture and the new owner has made the most of it.

There are also a pair of windows, featuring camped-up char lady mannequins of the kind that you know are a send-up, but which go some distance to telling you about the nature of what lies within. The problem, as Peters says, with selling vintage clothing of any kind is that every piece is a one-off and therefore any display has to be illustrative of a theme rather than of specific items, as the latter will have a very limited shelf-life.

Internally, and depending on which door you use to gain access, one of the first places that you are likely to encounter is the cafe. This opened in October and is the first of its kind in any of the Beyond Retro stores. It looks as if it has always been there, with a panelled wood serving counter, a planked wood wall behind the serving counter and plumbing of the kind that might have been encountered in a 1960s boarding school.

All is not what it seems, however. Planks, pipes and counter are indeed old, but all of them are the result of stripping out sundry parts of the building’s fabric and reinstalling them to form the cafe. This means that the serving area is formed from the former front doors and the planks have been taken from an area that was at the front of the shop.

Peters says that visitors to the cafe have found it to their liking – so much so that many of those who frequent this part of the shop may not make it into the main merchandise area. “One of our challenges is to get people out of here [the cafe] and into the shop”, she says.

It’s a general positive having a cafe of this kind, however, and does add to the sum total of reasons for visiting the store. Worth noting too are the cafe’s chairs and tables – vintage pieces all and on brand with the rest of the shop. For those entering by the main door or who manage to drag themselves away from their skinny lattes (you can carry them around the shop if the mood grabs you), the rest of the shop awaits.

Pillar of the community

This is a store with a high ceiling, many square pillars and not a great deal of paint. Or perhaps there is, but it is peeling wherever you happen to look. Shiny air-conditioning ducts and suspended lighting gantries are on view for those who happen to look up, but in truth this is hardly likely to happen as the gaze will be almost entirely preoccupied with the store’s visual merchandising.

Peters says that the store is divided by gender and within this by clothing type. Practically, this means that for women there are rails with nothing but sequinned tops, fake fur coats or playsuits, for example. It’s the same for men, with denim shirts, tweed jackets, plaid shirts and jackets all being given separate space. Each of the categories is displayed for a reason – this is not about mass undifferentiated merchandising and Peters says that close observation of current trends is what the offer is about: “For every garment that makes it to the floor, we probably look at more than 1,000 pieces. And with an average selling price of around £15 we do have to shift a lot of units.”

She adds that in spite of this, since opening the store has been recording increases of between 15% to 50% above the planned weekly sales figures But perhaps less than the stock itself, it’s the manner in which the merchandise is displayed that really makes this a shop worth visiting. Peters says that those responsible for the quirky displays are not trained visual merchandising professionals, but in many instances are former art college graduates who have turned their talents to making this store different.

This can be seen at its most apparent towards the rear of the store where an unnerving blue girl’s doll is held by a mannequin sporting a pink outfit, red hair and turquoise and purple lipstick. Next to this is a bust of Lenin, naturally, and a pulpit from a church.

It is kitsch overload and is really the only possible response to such an eclectic offer.

Worth mentioning too is the fact that the merchandise comes, for the most part, from across the Atlantic where the retailer’s Canadian rag-trade owner is based. This does carry the pretty obvious advantage that the stock is likely to be unfamiliar to UK shoppers, even if they are old enough to have been around when it was originally produced.

Vintage clothing is enjoying something of a boom at the moment and puts one-off fashion and a non-standard view of the high street within the reach of those who might not otherwise be able to afford something of the kind.

Beyond Retro, Dalston, London

Location 92-100 Stoke Newington Road

Size 10,000 sq ft

Layout and design Brinkworth

Average selling price £15

Beyond Retro and into the future

Originating in Canada, a great proportion of Beyond Retro’s vintage clothing is sourced from across the North Atlantic. Yet the first store opened in a disused dairy in east London where it has developed as a brand for those seeking a particular idiosyncratic style.

Managing director Kate Peters says further expansion beyond the current portfolio is on the cards and has ambitions to open stores in Glasgow and New York at some point in 2012. She also hopes to open another London store, although a location remains unconfirmed. With four stores in Sweden, three in Stockholm and one in Gothenburg, the retailer is gradually taking its form of ‘cultural nostalgia’ overseas.

Beyond Retro uses consultancy Brinkworth to create its store layouts and alongside rival Rokit, which currently has just four stores, is the go-to vintage clothing retailer of the moment.