Tribal gowns, embroidered hats, woven pouches and ornate treasures dress every inch of wall space. The colours are kaleidoscopic, the assortment encyclopeadic. Stepping into this cubbyhole I feel instantly tranquil, a sentiment followed swiftly by marvel and wonder. Sitting at an antique bureau, flanked by a rail of psychedelic Afghan coats, is Pip Rau.
Rau is gentle and serene but I quickly learn that she does not lack gumption. “Alexander McQueen came in and bought a load of stuff once. He was completely revolting. He bought some of these.” She grabs the nearest technicolour dreamcoat to show me. “It came to £350 or something. He gave it to me in cash and said ‘I bet you’ve never seen that amount of money before.’” She explains that it was probably because she had no idea who he was. “I asked him ‘Are you some sort of designer or something?’”
When Rau, 73, begins to recount her nomadic life, it becomes clear why she has one of the world’s most impressive collections of Central Asian artefacts. For almost 40 years she has been making an annual pilgrimage to the region in search of ethnic goods; her eponymous shop in North London is dripping with exotic history.
In the Sixties she studied art, first at Central St. Martin’s in London and then in Paris, Jerusalem, and finally at the California School of Fine Art. She gives this as the reason for her “well trained eye”. After, she revisited Israel where she married and stayed for several years, but in 1971 she returned home to London with two sons and a hoard of Palestinian dresses.
Her quaint Victorian shop, all wooden inside, is a work of art in itself. She bought it shortly after returning off an 18-year-old taxidermist who kept a live eagle chained to the wall. “He was a real little wheeler dealer,” she says.
In the early days Rau made regular trips to Istanbul to invest in traditional kilims (tapestry-woven rugs), which she sold alongside the dresses. Ethnic styles are ubiquitous in contemporary fashion and it was in the Seventies that they first became really popular, as more and more people embarked on the original “hippie trail”. Business was good and it was time to expand, so in the summer of 1976 she got in her Volkswagen station wagon and drove to Afghanistan.
She bought countless items along the way in Yugoslavia, Turkey and Iran, and made it as far as Herat, western Afghanistan, where she bought her first ikats (nineteenth century woven silk jacket). Arriving back in Dover six weeks later she had the whole lot confiscated by customs. “The car was stuffed to the roof. I didn’t have any proper papers,” she says. Salvaged by a clearing agent, today Rau’s collection of ikats is arguably the most extensive in the world. In 2007 the V&A Museum held a special exhibition of them, and published a book, Woven Silks from Central Asia: The Rau Collection.
The stories she tells of her many trips suggest that this is not a job for the timorous. Among them was the time she ran out of petrol in the middle of the Great Salt desert in Iran, only to be “rescued” by men who wanted sex as a reward for the fuel they gave her. Luckily, she was saved by a passing family.
Normally, however, Rau is busy spotting authentic, unique and sellable items wherever she can – roadsides, markets, specialist shops. She sells the majority of what she buys, but keeps some things for her private collection. “Once I was travelling on a bus in Afghanistan, full of locals, and I stopped the bus when I saw an amazing coat on a stall in the middle of nowhere. The bus waited for me while I did a spot of shopping.” Rau has a wonderful way of making the remarkable seem like the everyday.
The phone rings tirelessly and her tone when speaking to clients is familiar. She also receives plenty of visitors. A friend who had accompanied her on a trip six years ago comes in. They laugh hysterically about how they got motion sickness on the 11-hour bus journey from Islamabad to Kabul. Rau was nearly 70 at the time.
These days her job is less of an adventure, and she has not been back since 2005. “I always buy more than I can sell,” she explains. She has regulars who come to her for flamboyant gifts and Christmas time is busy, but she makes the best money selling ikats (the average price for one is £700). Her shop, however, is not her only source of income. “I do a lot with theatre, opera, films. They [creative directors] come and use a lot of costume jewellery. And kilims, they took a lot of kilims for The Shining.”
It is a wonder how people discover Rau. She has no online presence and has never advertised in her life. “I’m just here. I’ve been here such a long time.” From this I understand that word of mouth alone has kept her business afloat. “You can’t find ikats anywhere any more. And if you do, they’re twice the price of mine.”
She gestures towards the shop front and says, “In fact, that is the person who started me off,” and in walks her friend Jenny, the first person that Rau had ever sold a dress to back in 1971. “Jenny came with me to Pakistan once. Was it 1993?” Rau asks. Neither of them can remember. “Was it Taliban time? We crossed the border [into Afghanistan] wearing these,” she says, handing me a traditional chadri (an Afghan burka with mesh over the eyes). “I had a visa but Jenny didn’t, so we had to pretend we were Afghan women.” At that moment I imagine Rau’s CV. It says: “always willing to go the extra mile”.
Rau Rau Rau:
36 Islington Green
020 7359 5337