Bay Garnett is a one-off: a bona fide fashion anarchist who operates within the highest echelons of the world she so often rebels against. As a top stylist who has worked for British Vogue and shot with photographers including Craig McDean and Nick Knight, you won’t find her dipping into coveted new collections for her shoots – instead, she works almost exclusively with vintage pieces, collaborating with Oxfam to give pre-loved items a new (and ultra-stylish) lease of life. Here she tells us how it all began and why second-hand has a luxury context.
“Charity shops have always been a big love for me – it sounds dramatic and self-indulgent, but they saved me,” says Bay Garnett. The power stylist is talking to me from the Shepherd’s Bush home she shares with her husband, the photographer Tom Craig, and their two children. She’s sitting on her sofa in a grey chunky-knit sweater and a pair of Clark Kent-style black-framed Cubitts glasses as she muses on her extraordinary two-decade-long career in the fashion industry and the role that vintage clothes have played in it. “Charity shops made me feel like I was good at something. And it wasn’t just the clothes; it was the ideas and the stories behind them, and the independence of creating your own stories with those finds.”
Garnett is the rarest of breeds, a true fashion maverick and self-confessed ‘Queen of Thrift’ who has yet found herself firmly embedded within the ranks of the stylish elite. As a stylist, her work has appeared everywhere from British Vogue, where she was a contributing fashion editor for 15 years, to the Evening Standard, where she was appointed the fashion director-at-large in 2016.
She’s worked with the world’s top fashion photographers, from Craig McDean and Nick Knight to David LaChapelle, and has consulted for brands including Louis Vuitton and Chloé. But while she has been entrenched in the world of high fashion since the late 90s, becoming the first stylist to include vintage pieces in luxury glossy magazine shoots, she admits she has always seen herself as something of an outsider. “I always had a step out of it, to be honest with you,” she says. “For me, there was always cynicism around mass marketing and also around fashion culture in general.”
Although it is her shoots for the likes of Vogue that put her on the map, many would argue that Garnett’s most influential work came in one of the first projects she worked on, published in the cult anti-fashion fanzine Cheap Date, which she co-edited with Kira Jolliffe in the late 90s – a book, The Cheap Date Guide To Style, followed in 2007. (The inimitable duo teamed up again in 2016 on another fanzine, Fanpages, which featured contributions from the likes of Sophie Dahl, Chloë Sevigny and Alexa Chung.) Devised to celebrate the power of thrifting, early issues of Cheap Date were printed on cut-price black and white paper and sold for $2, but while it may have been made on a shoestring, it still packed a serious punch: Rolling Stones muse Anita Pallenberg interviewed Debbie Harry for a cover story, and Garnett herself shot Sevigny for a mock centrefold.
One of its most memorable shoots was a series of fake advertising campaigns, which spoofed the polished billboards of the era by recreating them using clothes sourced from vintage shops in Harlem and Queens and riffing on brand names. “In the campaigns, Yves Saint Laurent became ‘Salvation Army’ and Christian Dior was ‘Charity Donor’ – we wanted to flip them on their heads by using second-hand clothes,” says Garnett. It was these ads that caught the eye of Alexandra Shulman, then editor of British Vogue, and led to her asking Garnett to join as an editor. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, really? Me?! Ok then,” she recalls.
For her first editorial, she booked Juergen Teller to shoot Kate Moss, who Garnett styled exclusively in second-hand clothes. “Well, I didn’t actually know how to call in clothes, because I’d only ever been to vintage shops!” she laughs. Not only that – she’d never even assisted on a shoot before. One of the most famous pieces – a banana-print top that Garnett had found in a thrift store on the Upper East Side in New York, which she proudly still owns – caught the eye of Phoebe Philo, then the creative director at Chloé, who loved it so much she created her entire SS04 collection around the shoot. “I went in right from the beginning using second-hand clothes, and that never changed – it wasn’t for sustainable reasons at that point, but because I liked going off grid and I loved the way it bucked the marketing system at the time. There was definitely a political thing around it, especially with my work in Cheap Date – the anarchy is very clear there.”
Garnett styled Kate Moss in a banana-print top for Vogue (left), it inspired Phoebe Philo’s SS04 collection for Chloé (right)
Garnett grew up with fashion in her blood – her mother, the writer Polly Devlin, had been a Vogue editor herself, working under Diana Vreeland and Beatrix Miller. Born in Bath, Garnett grew up in Gloucestershire in a creative female household – she would spend weekends with her engineer father, Andy, in Bruton, Somerset – as the youngest of three sisters: the oldest, Rose, is head of BBC Films, while middle sister Daisy is a London-based writer. Garnett cut her teeth in the art world first, studying art history at Exeter University, before moving to Venice for five months to take up an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection – her parents honeymooned at the spectacular house before it was made a foundation and Guggenheim was godmother to her sister, Rose.
Garnett has been happily scouring charity shops ever since she can remember; her mother used to pick the three sisters up from school and head straight to the local thrift stores. Since moving to the capital, she’s always lived in west London, hopping around from Portobello Road to Holland Park before settling in her current home in Shepherd’s Bush, and is almost reverential about the delights of Portobello Market, where she knows many of the stall holders by name. Unsurprisingly, most of her favourite vintage shops are on her doorstep.
Now, of course, Garnett’s renegade ways couldn’t be more relevant. Post-COP26, when the whole world is waking up to the environmental crisis and the devastating effect that fast fashion is having on the planet, her approach to thoughtful vintage shopping is being adopted by the masses – something that she relishes. “The recent sea change has been like a tidal wave – it’s everywhere and it’s extraordinary,” she says. “It’s slightly bemusing but it’s also really exciting – it’s like, ‘Yeah, come on, welcome to the party!’” And while she didn’t originally set out with sustainability in mind, that has since become a huge part of her work, particularly in the projects she does with Oxfam, for whom she became senior independent fashion adviser in 2017.
Since working with them she has put on catwalk shows at London Fashion Week featuring Laura Bailey and the late Stella Tennant – one of Garnett’s closest friends; been part of Harris Reed’s headline-making spring summer 2022 collection, which was created entirely out of donated Oxfam clothes; and spearheaded three years of its annual campaign, Second Hand September, which has been fronted by the likes of Michaela Coel and Sienna Miller. Hugely popular pop-ups at Selfridges followed. Curated by Garnett herself, these pop-ups have hitherto been a haven for vintage lovers, packed full of everything from Manolo Blahnik heels and 90s Ralph Lauren safari jackets to Teddy Boy Rockabilly peacoats. “I think it’s important to have somewhere like Selfridges embrace second-hand fashion,” she says. “I wanted to put a charity shop in a luxury context, to make second-hand shopping appealing and alluring.”
For the final month of last year’s pop-up, Garnett asked four stylish trendsetters – Chloë Sevigny, Georgia May Jagger, Neneh Cherry and Mica Paris – to reveal the five things they always look for in a vintage shop and curate edited rails with Garnett. “I wanted to keep the energy fresh and fun, and not just make it my edits. Chloë’s a friend, I’ve known her for a long time, and I had this idea: What does Chloë Sevigny look for in a thrift store? That’s something I would like to know, so I figured others would too.”
For her part, Garnett still thinks wistfully of some of her most beloved vintage finds, including a brown Dior cape with gold tassels from the 70s and a tobacco-coloured Calvin Klein coat from the late 80s that she found in New York. “Brooke Shields would have worn it – it was so beautiful, irreplaceable,” she recalls. “I loved it and I lived in it; I had to throw it out in the end as it was literally falling apart.” The one piece she’s yet to track down is an oversized Saint Laurent denim shirt from the 70s, which is at the very top of her vintage hit list.
She does still occasionally buy new pieces, but says she’s not plugged into the scene when it comes to up-and-coming fashion designers, or those making waves in the world of sustainability. “I don’t check how sustainable a piece is because I never buy fast fashion or cheap clothes,” she says. “If I’m buying new, I’ll only buy classic pieces that I know I’ll wear forever, like a Harris Tweed blazer or a cashmere sweater from N. Peal.”
Alongside her Oxfam projects, Garnett also runs a much-loved podcast called This Old Thing? In which she interviews an eclectic mix of guests ranging from Charlotte Tilbury and Rachel Weisz to Miquita Oliver and Christina Ricci about the most memorable outfits from their childhood and beyond. Now in its third season and sponsored by eBay, current highlights include British supermodel Erin O’Connor (a friend for 25 years) talking about her favourite pre-loved, recycled and repaired pieces, and Sienna Miller discussing how it felt to have her personal boho style infiltrate the mainstream in the early Noughties. “On one level, clothes are seen as really superficial, but on another level they’re so un-superficial – they make up characters in movies, and what we wear and the stuff we remember other people wearing is really interesting,” says Garnett on the reasons behind launching the podcast. “I’m into clothes – what can I say?”
For Garnett, the recent move away from the elitist culture of high fashion towards something more inclusive and accessible feels like a refreshing change. “You have to understand, 10 years ago it was a very exclusive club, and a lot of people weren’t that friendly in it,” she says. “That’s changed now – fashion has had itself stripped away a lot, by magazines closing and by the rise of second-hand, all these other things that make it much more democratic and that feels like the right place for me – charity shops are a real equaliser, and that’s always where I’ve been happiest.”
The third series of This Old Thing? Podcast is available to download now