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Richard & Cosmo Wise, Rag Dealers

August 17, 2010
by the gentle author

This is Cosmo sitting in the trouser store at the warehouse where he works with his father Richard Wise, tending to the most beautiful collection of secondhand clothes I have ever seen. Father and son live together in the space where they also work together – day in day out – pursuing their joint passion for extravagantly worn out clothing that has a poetry all of its own. “We tidied up before you came!” claimed Cosmo brightly, giving an unconvincing and entirely unnecessary apology for the glorious mayhem of their living space. My eye was drawn in so many directions at once, to all the different specimens of their charismatic shabby clothes scattered everywhere, interspersed with intriguing collections, of guns, of medicine bottles, of flags, of tailor’s dummies, of old photographs, of string puppets and God knows what else. Yet although it looked like a hurricane had just passed through, there was such an atmosphere of calm that I could happily have curled amongst all the old rags and gone to sleep, which is more or less what Richard & Cosmo do each night.

The rags Richard & Cosmo seek are of significant age, from before World War II, peasant and working clothes sourced mostly from France and Japan, as Richard explained to me, rifling through rails to select choice examples. “We are looking for discolouration and holes, when a garment is just about to fall apart that is when it is at its best. I once had this old pair of women’s underpants that were more patches than anything else!” he announced delightedly, holding up the most breathtakingly faded old brown coat I ever saw, informing me with the critical authority of an expert,” The old patching is better than the new patching.” Before Cosmo produced a humble pair of old socks that had been intricately repaired more times than you could count, which we all admired in reverent silence for a moment, until he asked wistfully, “Where will all the darned socks be in fifty years time?”

As father and son showed me one cherished example after another of their shabby old jackets, dresses, trousers and jumpers, moth-eaten, repeatedly patched, stitched and darned, and in fabric softened with use, yet each piece possessing a unique luxurious richness of texture and stories that can never be fathomed – I began to understand how intoxicating this ragged aesthetic could be.

“At a certain age, you realise that what you do is who you are.” said Richard recalling his life working in finance. “I think the office is the most evil invention of the twentieth century, worse even than a factory.” - his caustic verdict on that world today, revealing a strong independent streak. The current venture began at a time of re-evaluation, while Richard was selling off the clothes of his deceased relatives in the Portobello Rd market, after he abandoned his earlier career. “I started to enjoy what I was doing, I got better at it and my eye improved.  Although it was when we started to go to France that we really developed.” he admitted, referring to the time when Cosmo gave up working as a chef and joined him. Both love the thrill of the chase, becoming lyrical and completing each other’s sentences, describing the rapture of their quest, rooting around in French provincial markets, even persuading a shepherd living on a mountain above Lourdes to part with his ancestors’ wardrobe – and all in the hope of discovering some rare arcane patched up and worn out specimen to delight their sophisticated customers in Spitalfields and Portobello markets.

“For the first time in my life, I can like the face I am putting on,” admitted Richard with quiet grin of reflection, “because in this line of business you can be yourself. You are your own master and your time is your own. We buy what we like, not what we think we can sell. So you are exposing yourself, showing your own taste and you’re trying to convince people to share your passion.” Cosmo is even more down-to-earth in his perspective on what they do,” A market is the oldest form of commerce, buying in one place, selling at another, and living off the difference – and selling old rags is keeping things going, so you’re not doing any damage.”

The operation divides into three areas. Firstly, Richard & Cosmo sell their well worn finds without any intervention. Secondly, there are clothes that are heavily reconstructed, repaired through careful patching or darning, and replacing missing buttons with old ones, to complement the spirit of the garment. Thirdly, recognising that there are are certain archetypes which come up again and again, Richard & Cosmo have begun making copies using rare examples of old fabric. These clothes made under the label “DE RIEN” have sold as soon as they are made, but as each piece is unique and the fabric is available in limited qualities there are severe limits to how many can be produced. The paradox of these old clothes is that, because we are familiar with more recent styles that are derivative, they actually look more contemporary, as well as being more characterful and idiosyncratic.

It is no longer the rule for families to be in business together, so I was touched to see Richard & Cosmo, both dressed head to toe in their wares and delighting in their working partnership, like some latter day Steptoe & Son pursuing their singular line of business in solidarity. I am fascinated by their radical vision and appealingly contrary opinions, giving value to what many find worthless and respecting the culture that lies behind these garments, of people that did not consider their clothes disposable. And it all came through the love of rags. But as Cosmo put it plainly, peering out from under his mop of curly hair and widening his dark eyes, “The reason we are doing this is because it’s a nice way to make a living and our souls are intact.”

Richard Wise

4 Responses leave one →
  1. August 17, 2010

    Please do pass along my compliments to the two Wise gentlement. I’ve always loved to rescue old clothing and fabrics, enjoy patchworking and can darn, too.

    They are very Wise to adapt the classic old designs to new items made from vintage fabrics.

    You’ve given me yet another place to try to find if ever I return to London.

    Thank you.

  2. Rowena permalink
    August 17, 2010

    Very intriguing. I admire their bohemian entrepreneurialism.

  3. Anne permalink
    August 17, 2010

    What utter beautiful chaos.
    This kind of business though was all around in previous times. Believe me ,if you were dressed in hand me downs and assorted rag bag clothes when you were young you really don’t want to go there again if you can help it. Photos i have of my sister and me in the early 50s tell of a time when all around us were dressed in a variety of strange garb but then it was normal. No designer baby and infant clothing for us. I’m sure we’re all the better for ‘suffering’ this way in our earlier life.
    I love clothes and would love to be able to buy more . I can’t quite get to the point though when i would want to wear old and patched clothing that has been ‘previously cherished’ to this extent. That does’nt mean though that i don’t buy some stuff from charity shops occasionally. I do but it has to be good stuff!

  4. Tessa permalink
    July 17, 2011

    Like Anne I wore a lot of passed on clothing, form older sisters and bigger friends. I feel ambivalent about them. Mainly because new clothes, even expensive ones, do not have the workmanship in them that clothes had even 60 years ago. Since the invention of the sewing machine more and more tasks have become mechanised.
    I’m not so happy about them scouring the attics of all and sundry, those clothes could sit and season for another 100 years or so. It is something the descendants could enjoy, going through the ancient textiles.

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