First up, I should confess that I love Maggie: she’s quite probably my favourite fashion writer. Up until recently she wrote a weekly column in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald’s “Good Weekend” magazine and many of these columns have been published in book form. They were my favourite part of Saturday.
There are also other novels, which tend to fall into the light and entertaining model – recently I read “Cents and Sensibility” and was completely sucked into the jet-setting world of Stella Fain and especially her wonderous family life – I cast Tom Baker as her architect father and enjoyed visualising the wonderful houses he had designed for his growing family.
When I heard that Maggie had written a novel about a vintage clothing retailer I couldn’t have been happier – I missed the launch at Readings but they were kind enough to find a signed copy for me so I felt suitably special.
“Shall We Dance” is the story of Loulou Landers, the Queen of London Vintage – she was clever enough to buy her Primrose Hill shop when she was nineteen and ever since she’s lived upstairs whilst trading out of the downstairs shop. Single ever since her awful husband ran off and left her with a small child, her daughter is now 21 and unbearably obnoxious, refusing to do anything with her life or move out (to be honest I loathed Theo, so was glad when she started to show potential).
Thankfully Theo is the only unpleasant person in Loulou’s life: her two best friends Richard and Keith both adore her and love nothing better than spoiling her and making her feel loved. Her upcoming 49th birthday is a good excuse to do so, although Keith’s attempts are a little cringe-worthy in parts!
Most of the story revolves around a romance with a dashing young man who wishes to sweep Loulou off her feet – she’s most unwilling but gives it a lot of thought, perhaps a little bit too much thought: in her high heel shoes I would have dithered less, I suspect – but then 49 seems a lot younger to me than it does to Loulou. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot as there are pleasant surprises.
The most appealing part of the book of course is the portrayal of Loulou and her vintage life – apparently Maggie did some research in this area, working in a vintage clothing shop and the authenticity shows. Her attitude to her beautiful stock and her fascinating customers is one that I warmed to: Loulou is generous and does not discriminate between her clients, offering a special service to all, even limiting how many can come in at a time so that no one is neglected. Her customers happily queue outside, patiently waiting their turn.
Upstairs is a special salon for favoured customers including a famous fashion designer – she carefully prepares, selecting and placing items she knows he’ll like, in hidden places for him to “find” – her tactics could seem manipulative but instead come across as considerate and charming.
When she’s not transforming teenage ducklings into elegant swans, she’s crossing the country on the hunt for more treasures. Her unerring eye is the reason for her success: she can see the pearl amongst the dross and sooner or later knows the right person for each spectacular garment will be found. This is a book which made me wish for illustrations, but then perhaps the image in my head of the Ossie Clark hot pants is probably better than the real thing.
In short, Loulou Landers has it made – her vintage life made me envious although it’s clear that she works very hard and is deserving of her success. The downside is her private life, but thankfully Maggie helps bring improvements there and even bratty Theo is greatly improved by the end.
Most enjoyable, and a wonderful insight into how much fun the life of a vintage clothing trader can be. Thanks Maggie: perhaps a sequel?