I confess to being a textbook male shopper: In as much as nine times out of ten I will put off buying clothes until the last minute, and then walk away with the first the thing I try on, in the first store I visit; it probably explains why my cupboards are full of unworn clothes, still in their cellophane wrappers, with their tags and labels:
Trophies of a guilt ridden consumer who doesn’t like to look as though he’s just stepped out of a changing cubicle.
Kim, on the other hand, is in her new togs within seconds of returning home. Wearing them so frequently over the ensuing days and weeks that I have to ask her to change.
But that was old was me, before I’d stepped inside Hornets, on the ‘S’ bend, half way up (or down, depending on how you look at it) Kensington Church Street, and discovered the joy of genuinely good, elegant, and above all seductively affordable – vintage clothes. Secondhand if you are old school.
I can still recall that first time, as vividly as my debut Cuban cigar. It was like – coming home. So this is what life and shopping and sensual joy are all about. Described by the effusive owner Bill Hornets, as the Ascot/Wedding/Clearance Shop, I was confronted by rails of frock coats and dinner suits, tweed suits, ties, cravats, and a personal indulgence of mine, waistcoats (aka vests). I remember buying two waistcoats; one in apple green, and quite fitted, and another in Lincoln green, with acetate buttons and lapels. I think I got the two for the price of one, and even that wasn’t very much. I returned a few months later for another, in tweed, that had been made, bespoke, for an army major.
Patrick, the tall Portuguese assistant, dressed for a day in the country, was more like a butler crossed with a stylist, suggesting colours and fits, enjoying the task of matching the clothes to the man.
At the back of the shop, some pinned at awkward angles on the walls, were battered wax cotton raincoats, that looked as through they’d been pulled through the gorse backwards a few times. Bill (aka The Guvnor) explains that they sell a good many used Barbours (£79-£129) to young army officers who, are attending their first shoots, but don’t want to look as though they are new to ancient outdoors pursuits.
Therein lies the key to vintage wear; it doesn’t look new. Good clothes, well made clothes, that radiate the discreet taste of a man desirous neither to flaunt some ghastly label, nor appear to have succumbed to another whim of fashion. Hornets exists for men such as these.
And it gets better, because there isn’t just one Hornets – there are three, each one different from the next. The other two side by side in Kensington Church Walk, a peaceful pedestrian lane between Holland Street and the High Street. In one there are suits, some off the peg and others Savile Row bespoke ((£90-£450 – the top price for a Huntsman that new would set you back several thousands), shoes, ties, scarves, and a range of new top hats (from from £49 to £229). The other shop is in some ways the more eccentric, specialising in sporting clothes, casual jackets, knitwear, and that great misunderstood garment the car coat.
It’s where I found my 1970s double breasted Yves Saint Laurent blazer, with brass naval buttons, twin flaps, and lapels you could launch jets off. I seem to recall paying about £100. Recently, with a view to knocking them dead at Christmas parties, I was to have bought a three button bespoke Balmain velvet jacket, in burgundy, for about the same price. But I remain one who hesitates, and while I obfuscated between a Mille Feuille and a Frangipan at Patisserie Valerie, the jacket was snapped up.
There are mansion flats opposite the two Hornets, in Kensington Church Walk, with a low wall upon which Bill and his small, and sartorially cognitive team, place cushions, come rain or shine. This is their office, a sort of al fresco style surgery, where friends and customers chat about anything from smoking jackets, to the way the country is going to the dogs. There were Spanish tourists buying cricket sweaters, a woman with very red lips and a theatrical manner, and a local sculptor on my last visit.
Bill, resplendent as ever in a voluminous tan 1930s leather driving coat, cuts an impressive figure. Today, beneath a battered trilby, he is operatic, and he can fashion a good quote as fast as snapping a hat brim.
“Hornets sells clothes to men and boys who are turning into men. Anything from 16 to 76 is our range.
“This is a classic masculine look. Simple but very strong, maintaining that the lady on your arm must shine, not you.
“I sell style – not fashion.”
Hornets, 36b Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BX & 2&4 Kensington Church Walk, London, W8 4NB. 0102 9937 2627/1515. www.hornetskensington.couk