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A Trousseau to Dream of

18 February, 2016

L'Arca store / L'Arca i @swingyourpics

L’Arca is a treasure trove in the heart of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, with singular antique textiles and extensive knowledge about the history of vintage fashion.


L’Arca unknowingly found fame with the premiere of the film Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. The actress was shown wearing various vintage dresses and antique pieces bought in this Barcelona store tucked away in the streets of the Gothic Quarter. When strolling the inner-city neighbourhood one day, an American woman entered and snapped up a large number of items, including dresses, shoes, collars and shawls. She could have been just another customer who, drawn by the exclusive nature of the items on sale at L’Arca (as it would happen, exceptionally exclusive in this case), was making an unusually large purchase. But she wasn’t. In fact, she was a producer and part of the Titanic film crew. A few months later she telephoned L’Arca to suggest the owners check out the movie, as its female star would be sporting some of their gorgeous vintage wear.

This was in the late 1990s and marked a turning point in the history of this firm that specialises in textile pieces from the 1920s through to the mid-20th century. “Tourist groups would pass by and the guide would say ‘This is the Titanic shop’,” explains Carmina Pairet. Together with her sister, Nina Balmes, she runs the project started by their mother, Carmen Viñas. “The woman bought up collars, lace and a chest of drawers full of stuff. It all used to belong to Catalan women!” says Pairet. She explains this while standing beside a 1920s gown which belonged to the same woman who owned the designs that Kate Winslet wore in the award-winning Hollywood movie. She doesn’t have too many details about the family origin of these antique textiles, nor about the majority of the treasures the sisters have accumulated in the shop. Part of the business’s success lies in scouring auction and sales channels both in Barcelona and further afield, including in Europe, for dresses, lace, veils and homewear.

Because they regularly visit antique furniture stores and art auctions, Pairet and Balmes are in contact with a network of professionals and intermediaries who tip each other off “when there is an upmarket apartment or home in the Eixample, for example, being emptied and its most valuable pieces are going to go on sale”. The sisters go and check out whether there are clothes that could fit the L’Arca style. “They must be quality pieces from 1900 through to the decade of the 50s, that’s where we end. We buy accessories and ceremonial clothing, but it can’t just be any old stuff. We define the pieces as vintage because they were good designs when they were made and were the work of well-known fashion houses and ateliers. I am talking about gowns by El Dique Flotante, Margarita Nuez or Pertegaz. They don’t always have to be famous labels, however”.

The owners’ knowledge about the history of 20th century fashion makes them a unique source of information and their store a benchmark for television and film productions and museum exhibitions. Spanish series such as La Señora, films including Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and Wild Wild West, as well as various works by Pedro Almodóvar and Woody Allen, including Vicky, Cristina Barcelona, have featured characters wearing pieces from L’Arca.

1920s brides

Although antique textiles are a cornerstone of Pairet and Balmes’s business, the bridal collections, old haberdashery goods and reproduction 1920s clothing are the other main areas of activity. “The antique business has changed a lot; there are increasingly fewer dresses and they are becoming harder and harder to find. There are no collectors left and there is stiff competition between purchasers with not that many vendors. Today you can find unique pieces on sale on second-hand trade internet portals,” Pairet says, surprised that the antiques market is also now present in these online spaces. It is for that reason and because the margin on selling unique pieces “isn’t what it used to be” that L’Arca has branched out into other business areas, to great success among its customer base.

Nina Balmes is in charge of the bridalwear designs. She manages the collection they present each year, as well as the adaptation of original designs. “We have been working with brides for the past four seasons, giving them two options. We can either make a fully customised gown, always with a vintage inspiration, or adapt original antique pieces, some which weren’t originally a bridal gown when they were made but can be now”. In the area set aside for brides in-store, Balmes shows us the authentic antique designs on display, as well as the contemporary ones. They could all easily have been worn by the daughter of a Catalan industrialist from the 1920s on her wedding day. Even now these types of designs are popular among young women, like the one waiting for Nina Balmes today. “Women are marrying later and want a vintage design. If the piece is made to measure, we do it all in our workshop upstairs. This gives us enormous flexibility. We also have many accessories, such as crowns and hair adornments”. These pieces are possible thanks to the sisters’ efforts to find craftspeople and to recover the savoir faire of people who are now “eighty or ninety years old”. “We work the old-fashioned way, with craftspeople who have mastered a particular part of the work, for example silk flower makers or antaladores, specialists in turning the lacework of a Spanish mantilla into a tulle veil. There are hardly any of these of these artisans left!”

Unique collection

The Viñas family’s passion for fashion history allowed them to build up one of the most important private collections of bridal gowns in Spain and abroad. “The collection features designs from the 1860s through to today. It is known as the Viñas Collection of Catalan Brides and now has 100 items on display at the Màres Lace Museum in Arenys de Mar, together with an original photo of the bride who wore each dress,” says Carmina Pairet. Her mother started the project in the 1960s when she was living in Paris and discovered first-hand the public enthusiasm for old clothing. “She brought the trend to Barcelona and was a pioneer in offering antique textiles,” say the daughters of Carmen Viñas, who opened a store named L’Arca de l’àvia on the same site where L’Arca stands today, back in 1965. This novel idea continues to garner public recognition. Today, however, the original business area is complemented with other activities that attract new customers. Old-style haberdashery goods are one of them. As Pairet says, they sell “original ribbons, appliqué work and lace from the 19th century by the metre”. “Many traditional haberdashery shops are closing across the city, while patchwork and DIY activities are becoming more popular. That’s why we’re doing so well with these products,” she says. To serve customers from outside Barcelona, L’Arca is also opening an online store in February.

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