Ethical and Accessible Vintage: Willow Hilson

Balancing act in the world of Vintage – Willow Hilson, a boutique breathing new life into Vintage through accessibility and an ethical business model.

As I walk into Willow Hilson’s open plan and bright boutique on Exeter’s Fore Street, I can already sense that this is unlike the majority of vintage stores I have previously visited. The atmosphere is inviting and light; refreshing compared to the dark dens of more crowded vintage shops and the intimidating shop-fronts of high-end boutiques. From the age of twenty-two, Willow, a master seamstress and vintage expert, has worked tirelessly to bring vintage clothing back to the modern woman. Each item in the shop, from a one-of-a-kind bespoke flapper dress to a delicate 1940’s blouse, is hand-picked by Willow herself. It is in this curation, alongside alterations on all pieces and a new everyday collection coming in Autumn, that Willow is trying to make vintage more accessible to all.


She asks if I don’t mind us talking while she finishing the alterations of a dress, so I follow her to the backroom where Imogen and Emmy, her co-partners, are sorting through a myriad of different colour threads and receipts. “Do you mind if these girls chip in too?” she asks, ‘They will probably answer just as much as I will!’ I soon realise how integral these women are to her business, with their own passion for vintage that Willow has nurtured over the years. Willow’s relationships with Emmy and Imogen go back a long time; “I thought Emmy and I were kindred souls in our vintage, I always wanted her to work here. Imogen, and amazing writer, used to come in with her mother. We all add something to the mix.” For Willow, it is her staff that make the boutique so distinct from other vintage stores.

“Some shopkeepers are so rigid in their ideas of vintage that customers coming in almost have to impress them to fit into a piece, rather than the shopkeeper explaining the piece and welcoming people in.” Emmy chips in. “They don’t think other people will get it. So they don’t want it to be accessible. They want it to stay untouchable, almost a mystery.”

Willow reveals how they “started out as quite a heavy, retro vintage store, and as I’ve grown up with the shop, I’ve changed. I was head-to-toe vintage when I first started, that was my customer base, until I realised that I want to target women like my mum – everyday people who want to wear vintage.”

It is for this reason that the girls mix vintage from the store with their own, more modern clothes. “The vibe we go for in the shop is that you can wear vintage but in a modern way. I think that so many of traditional vintage shops push for people to be vintage head to toe. It’s unrealistic and gives people anxiety when they come into the shop. They’re like ‘oh my goodness she’s so dressed up!’ and it makes you feel like you could never achieve that.” By mixing old and new, they are keeping vintage fun, light and accessible. “The aim is being able to integrate vintage pieces into your wardrobe. You can pair a vintage top with a 50s’ skirt, yes, but also a pair of boyfriend jeans.”

Curation is also key for accessibility. Most people don’t have the time to search online or through second-hand shops for good quality pieces. Boutiques like Willow Hilson have already done the searching, with Willow travelling as far as Germany to uncover different fabrics and cuts. Emmy is her touch-base with the fashion industry: “She reads all the blogs and magazines. She knows what will be on trend in four months so I can select pieces that are vintage but also fashion-forward.” This has led naturally to her own collection, which will consist of everyday essentials. All pieces will be designed and made in store using vintage fabrics and designs. The goal? “Taking old vintage designs and making them a bit more accessible to the everyday woman – like having your own affordable version of couture.”

This form of up-cycling is also environmentally conscious. Willow hopes her work will inspire more people to reflect on their consumption as fast-fashion takes its toll on our earth. She has hope for the younger generation who are, in her opinion, more tuned in to these issues. She is currently training a young seamstress who can bring the business’ ethos into the next generation.

Not only is this group of women bringing sustainability, inclusiveness and new life to vintage clothing, they are also making a statement on modern femininity: Vintage clothing does not mean old-fashioned, being a seamstress is an empowered position, dressing yourself in an old-school form of femininity does not mean you are behind the times. Nestled into the backroom discussing vintage, the environment and femininity with three warm, passionate and contented women, surrounded by sewing machines and dresses, felt both like looking back to a former time and far ahead to the future. This particular future looks bright for fashion.  

– Victoria Pownall

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