Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show: Let’s do the time warp again

Willy Wilgress, Ottawa’s original wild child, is ready to sell off the clothing from her rock ’n’ roll lifestyle

Former owner of Willy's Wine Bar in Ottawa, Willy Wilgress lived through fun times in the '60s and '70s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Bowie and the Beatles. (Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen)

She’s partied with the Beatles in London and the Allman Brothers in Atlanta, did makeup for Mick Jagger and David Bowie and once opened a restaurant with Elton John. Ottawa’s original wild child is all grown up and is finally ready to leave her rock ’n’ roll lifestyle behind.

Willy Wilgress, who twice operated bars in Ottawa called Willy’s Wine Bar, is opening her closet and is saying goodbye to hundreds of pieces of clothing from her past, including an original dress by Twiggy.

“You have to grow up at some point,” says the 63-year-old Wilgress. “I don’t fit into these clothes anymore. I lived that life and it was wonderful. It was great.”
On Sunday, a wide selection of her past will be up for grabs at the Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show, including silk dresses and jackets, kimonos, shoes, purses, belts and jewelry collected after decades of living in England and Atlanta.

Wilgress moved to England originally in the late 1960s to attend university, but left to begin work for a company that took care of the needs of clients, including a number of young, rising stars. She started doing errands for the likes of Jagger and Bowie, and found work as a makeup artist for London designer Mary Quant.

“The character Columbia in The Rocky Horror Show was based on me,” says Wilgress.

“My roommate worked for Apple Records so we’d hang out with the Beatles. As friends started opening bars on the Kings Road, I got involved. At one time, I hired Elton John to play the piano. We eventually opened a bar together in Covent Garden. At that time, you felt like you could do anything. We were young, wild and enjoyed our drink. It was such an adventure.”

When she tired of England, she twirled the globe and moved to Atlanta because that’s where her pin landed. She met the right people and before long became a fashion buyer. At one point, due to the backing of a wealthy gentleman, she was operating several clothing boutiques.

“I didn’t know anyone, but it was such a warm place. They opened their arms to me and took care of me. It was an amazing time. I don’t want to sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but I was groovy back then. I was also lucky.”

Wilgress returned to Ottawa a few years ago and moved in to her family’s homestead in Rockcliffe Park to help care for her ailing father, who recently passed away. Her grandfather was Leolyn Dana Wilgress, a Canadian ambassador to the former USSR from 1944 to 1946 and high commissioner to London in 1949 to 1952. The 1950s home where she and her two siblings grew up was built by her father and packed to the rafters with stuff, including Wilgress’ clothing.

Dressed in dark jeans, a navy jacket, red Converse running shoes and round Harry Potter glasses, Wilgress is unsure what her next chapter holds. “I’m keeping nothing. You have to let go.”

Leah Miller and Esmeralda Smith Romero of Ottawa-based Second Grace Vintage will be selling the Wilgress collection at the vintage clothing sale at the Ottawa Convention Centre on Sunday. The pair held a small cocktail party on Nov. 2 at the Black Tomato restaurant in the ByWard Market for a sneak peek at the clothing.
“We love vintage fashion and finding treasures at estate sales. Willy’s story is amazing — she’s a ’70s haute couture rebel. She is known around the neighbourhood for her soft spot for animals and for taking care of strays, including blind foxes,” Miller says.

Catherine Knoll, co-owner of the vintage show, says vintage attire is enjoying a resurgence of interest among all age groups.

“The Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show is 25-per-cent larger than our show at the Toronto Convention Centre. In fact, it’s the largest one in Canada,” says Knoll.

Part of the reason why Ottawa embraces the show, she says, is that there are only a handful of vintage shops here compared with about 40 such boutiques in the Toronto area.

Knoll, who has taken to social media to get the word out about her show, expects about 5,000 visitors. The one-day event will feature clothing and accessories from the 1940s and beyond from about 60 vendors.

“We’re seeing a new younger demographic coming out because they are interested in one-of-a-kind clothing and quality materials that last.”

The Ottawa Vintage Clothing Show

When: Sunday, Nov. 10, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Ottawa Convention Centre

Tickets: $10


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A silk camisole and matching shrug trimmed in ostrich feathers are part of the Wilgress collection (Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen) @JanetDWilson

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