There it was, casually draped over the contours of a mannequin: the cream silk blouse for which I'd spent months scouring London. I'd unsuccessfully trawled all of the reputable high-street retailers in search of what I'd assumed was a staple item, but it had proved exasperatingly elusive. Trust a Toronto vintage shop to come up trumps.
Toronto has an astounding number of vintage shops: 50 in the city centre. It may seem an unlikely shopping destination but it's as important to fashion insiders as London, Paris and Milan. Salim Manji, a wholesaler of vintage and speciality used clothing says, 'There's more clothing sorted in Toronto than in all the United States combined.'
And it's long been a hotspot for specialist clothing dealers from around the world. Douglas Gunn, who runs the Vintage Showroom in Covent Garden, London, has been buying from Toronto for 10 years. 'It has a great mix of classic American pieces, but also it's own stuff - like Canadian cold-weather clothing,' says Gunn.
Toronto is a major hub on the used-clothing circuit, both because of the number of warehouses for sorting (opened on the city's periphery in the days when rents were cheaper than in America) and its location as a shipping access point. Much of the clothing is initially collected by North American charities and agencies such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill. They then sell the surplus to dealers, who have the clothes sorted in Toronto before shipping them abroad.
In Britain Urban Outfitters is one of Salim Manji's biggest clients. Many shop owners in Toronto order from him by weight, or go to 'pick' at his warehouses. Pickers are fiercely territorial and secretive about their sources. 'There's a limited supply,' says Manji. 'So it's not in their interests to say they buy from me.'
At 69 Vintage in Toronto's fashionable Queen Street West neighbourhood I meet the super-cool owner, Kealan Sullivan, 36. Topshop is one of her clients, coming to her in search of clothes to inspire new collections; on its last spree it bought 50 pieces. Today Sullivan wears a cotton shirt, cutoffs and loafers, but all her stock is representative of her style. 'I'd wear almost everything in here, although right now I've gone a bit un-cute,' she says. She picks up a 1970s Southern Belle style dress, all pink flowers and a laced bodice. 'In my twenties I would have lived in something like this.'
It's all quirky, stylish and clean, hand-picked by Sullivan, laundered, and displayed with precision. There is so much of it: rows of cowboy boots and racks of dresses, jeans and jumpsuits, but also on-trend hiking boots.
What sets these Toronto vintage shops apart is their boutique atmosphere. 'Here it's not glaringly obvious that you're shopping in a second-hand store,' says Gunn of the Vintage Showroom. Sullivan recently opened a deluxe shop, V (prices up to GBP250), which showcases her most precious pieces by theme. Right now it's an ode to Woodstock: embroidered peasant tops, sheer kaftans and fringed suede, a teepee in the corner and a radio blaring out the Doors.
Serah-Marie McMahon, the editor of Toronto's Worn Fashion Journal, reflects on the upsurge of vintage in the city: 'It's boomed in the past 10 years. It used to be centred in Kensington Market [a boho district], where slapdash, functional stores were jammed with clothes on dusty racks. Now it has spread everywhere, stores are curated and stock is selective.'
Roger D'Souza owns three shops in Kensington Market - Flashback, Flashback 2 and King of Kensington - and has been in the business for 16 years. Abercrombie & Fitch regularly makes appointments and it is not the only clothing giant to visit: scouts from the Levi's HQ in San Francisco come for D'Souza's supply of old denim, while Dean and Dan Caten of the label Dsquared, and the Club Monaco creators and designers, Joseph Mimran and Alfred Sung, have long been clients.
In the basement of House of Vintage, in the up-and-coming Parkdale area, the owner, Dennis Adamidis, shows me stacks of plastic crates and tells me to pick one to open. On top is a pair of sparkling silver, wide-heeled Thierry Mugler shoes ('I wish I was at that party,' he quips). He then pulls out a Pucci-print silk jumpsuit, an aggressive black caged jacket from Jean Paul Gaultier and gold snakeskin Halston shoes. I want it all.
None of it's for sale yet - some he'll keep, some he'll sell on 1stdibs.com, the luxury online marketplace. I can't resist a Victorian-style high-necked blouse that is sheer as gauze, for GBP20. In 2010 Adamidis expanded to Shoreditch, London, where he caters specifically to British tastes. 'The UK is more adventurous, so the more unique pieces go there. But Toronto vintage is half the price.'
Adamidis acquires his stock from estate sales, private dealers and picking at warehouses. In the past, affordable clothing didn't mean a sacrifice on quality and durability. 'These clothes have been around for 50 or 60 years and are still wearable because of their craftsmanship,' he says.
Victoria Dinnick, the owner of Gadabout in east Toronto, is particularly disappointed by today's 'fast fashion'. 'I'd give things two years before they fall apart,' she says, showing me, by contrast, the hand-stitching and metal zips in her 1940s and 1950s dresses. 'The original buttons are still on these.
There used to be a standard that the union workers adhered to; they were all well finished. Now you don't get that.'
Dinnick's shop is stuffed full of clothing from the late 1800s to the 1970s. She shows me a heavenly silk-satin and chiffon black dress from the late 1920s for GBP200. Her off-the-rack pieces and Canadian furs are hugely popular. 'Mad Men has been a wonderful addition to the balance sheet,' she says, but there's also Lanvin and Cardin, scarves from Pucci and Hermes, Chanel skirts and 'tons of Ferragamos'.
Dinnick doesn't go to warehouses; she gets up to six calls a day from people who need to empty family wardrobes. She also buys at fleamarkets in Paris, Mexico City and Buenos Aires, 'but not London - I couldn't afford anything!'
Gadabout is also renowned for its vintage paraphernalia. Set decorators are drawn here for authentic period items, most recently to furnish Jackie Kennedy's dressingtable in the television series The Kennedys.
High-profile clients - lately the actress Michelle Williams and the designer Alexander Wang - are lured by the charms of I Miss You Vintage on Ossington Avenue (also home to the wonderful Vintage Mix One shop, with its old-fashioned lamps, record players and posters). With walls the colour of candyfloss, eras here range from the 1920s to the 1990s, the prices from GBP10 to GBP1,200. 'Prada bought a 1920s art deco dress from me for inspiration,' says the petite owner, Julie Yoo. 'And after a famous Canadian designer bought a 1970s dress, I noticed that her next runway collection was entirely in that print.'
Yoo loves the long bias-cut of art deco gowns and her store is clearly curated with glamour in mind. 'Every label has passed through here: Pucci, Dior, Chanel, Celine,' she says, showing me a sherbet-orange 1960s Courreges linen skirt for GBP140. There are also handbags galore: Kelly bags, beaded evening clutches and exotic-skinned purses.
There is, of course, a finite supply of these treasures, yet demand for recycled clothing is on the increase. 'I'm concerned about vintage going forward,' says McMahon of Worn Fashion Journal. 'Anything made after the 1980s doesn't hold up - literally. If you try to repair fast-fashion clothes they unthread and fall apart at the seam. There are no new generations of clothes to sustain the vintage market.'
However, none of these shop owners or dealers is concerned yet; their basements still bulge with thrilling finds. Vintage fashion artistry is much like another diminishing resource, oil: when there is less of it, it will surely be appreciated even more.