The traditional haberdasher is a dying breed, certainly so far as the UK high street is concerned. I vividly remember childhood trips with my mother to our local haberdasher. It was a large shop arranged over two storeys, huge cylinders of heavy furnishing fabric lining the walls. Upstairs on the first floor were the pattern books, where I could (and frequently did) spend hours browsing, enjoying the images and the deferred pleasure of choosing a fabric once I’d settled on a pattern. That shop is long gone but thanks to a large local immigrant population, an adjacent street is full of small shops selling bolts of iridescent, sparkling sari silks, block printed cottons and lurexes. I expect children visit those shops experiencing just the same rush of excitement.
Just as the high street haberdasher has evolved, so has the specialist. Online presence is essential but lucky London and Paris dwellers have access to two really exceptional treasure troves. If you have not yet discovered them, or if you are visiting either capital, these places are not to be missed.
London’s Marylebone is home to the gorgeous V V Rouleaux. One window invites you to peruse rack upon rack of velvet, satin or petersham ribbon in every imaginable colour. The other window showcases a display of hats sporting some of their exotic trimmings. Inside, it feels a little like a kind of mad milliners’ rainforest – ribbons dangle like lianas; brightly-coloured plumage flashes across your path, furry beasts lurk in the corners, button eyes glitter out of the shadows. It is a completely overwhelming experience.
On a more serious note, the range of trimmings on offer is simply astounding and includes unique vintage stock as well as modern products. Best of all they also offer all kinds of tutorials and not only for millinery but trimming for any purpose, whether clothing, accessories or home furnishing. A word of warning before you go: allow time to explore this shop. On my first visit I lost track of time completely and ended up hot-footing it off down the street, late for my next appointment. Haberdashery can do that.
Paris’s Ultramod was established in the nineteenth century in what used to be the milliners’ quarter of the city. By the 1920s it had diversified into haberdashery, gradually amassing stocks of ribbons and trimmings of all kinds, most of which it managed to preserve through two world wars. This keen sense of preservation seems to have set the business model that it still follows today. On one side of rue de Choiseul, you find the modern haberdasher, filled to the rafters with reel upon reel of brightly coloured thread, racks of buttons, rolls of fabric and all kinds of sewing equipment. On the opposite side, open only on request, is the specialist millinery shop still selling the historic stock amassed by the owners over more than a century. Here you will find dusty wooden cartwheel brim blocks, nestling alongside 1960s turban hats, while racks of fur felt cones line the walls. If you ask, they can show you box after box of antique veiling in more patterns than you could possibly imagine. As you wander between the racks, you get the distinct feeling that coming upon a gallic Miss Havisham, perfectly-preserved and still shopping for her hats would not come as any surprise. It is a time capsule, a place of endless discovery and a box of delights.
Not to be outdone, Manhattan still has some marvellous haberdashers and millinery suppliers in its garment district. Check out the top locations, recommended by the ladies at Atelier Millinery and by Albertus Swanepoel to plan your walking tour.