I’ve been traveling constantly recently and, while that can be exciting, it means that I’m forced to unpack all of my clothes each time just to fold, roll, and squish them back into a suitcase a week later. After all of this alone time with my wardrobe, I’ve realised that nearly everything I’ve bought in the last year or two has been vintage and the good majority of the clothes I now own were once in the possession of someone else. While many people are put off by this concept and like their clothes to truly only be theirs, I think being secondhand adds a certain amount of significance to a garment that would otherwise not be there.
As I scan my closet full of 80’s sport coats, 70’s collared Liberty blouses, and 60’s miniskirts, I can’t help but think about the history each piece has. The only reason these clothes are here right now is because someone cared for them for decades. If a piece has survived for longer than I have without a stain, tear, or fray, it must be full of love from its previous owner and you can feel that spark when you try on an old fringed leather motorcycle jacket with red flame detailing.
In addition to vintage clothing’s emotional properties, the designs themselves are superb. Today, fashion seems to fall into two categories: the generic, cheap “fast fashion” you find at the mall and the wildly overpriced, designer variety. However, vintage almost always has the best qualities of both. Since the clothing is secondhand, the lowest-end thrift shopping can be insanely cheap to the point where you leave the store with two massive trash bags full of Polo shirts and mom jeans and a massive sense of pride. Even the most expensive vintage is comparable price-wise to department stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s. However, unlike most modern collections, 20th century garments tend to be incredibly good quality, highly durable, and showcase discernible artistry and craftsmanship not unlike pieces you would see at Fashion Week.
Finally, I love vintage clothing because it appeals to the emotional hipster in all black smoking a cigarette who lives in my heart. Each piece is truly striking and is arguably the last of its kind – so you know that what you’re buying is truly unique. If you’re wearing something vintage, your outfit is entirely your own and is unable to be copied but it still pays homage to your fashion predecessors. In order to be your own brand of chic, brandless fashion is the way to go.
I visited my first vintage shops while spending my summers in San Francisco as a child. I, a 12-year-old Abercrombie junkie at the time, took three steps into Wasteland on Haight Street, promptly declared it “weird” and “ugly” and demanded my father take me to buy new Uggs at the mall. However, by the time I reached high school, I had spent $100 on a tee shirt from the Sex Pistols last show in 1979, so I had decidedly moved on to other, equally overpriced, sartorial habits. Over the years, I’ve learned how to vintage shop more efficiently, so I find beautiful, high-quality pieces for cheaper than what you’d find at most high street shops almost every time. Here are a couple things I’ve learned over the past few years:
– Secondhand stores seem to fit into four categories: costume vintage, consignment, thrift, or boutique, but sometimes they can fit into more than one of these. Costume vintage shops tend to be smaller and specialise in styles from the 30’s to 50’s – think Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and, more recently, Dita Von Teese. These kinds of stores are great for really out-there pieces and more feminine items but most of their merchandise is a bit Rockabilly for my taste. Consignment stores are really hit-or-miss. You could find some nice retro pieces or you could end up drowning in Zara blouses from eight seasons ago and saggy Céline luggage bags. True thrift stores are absolutely massive, crazy messes that require quite a bit of digging. However, in the piles of trash, you’ll find a couple treasures with prices averaging $10 or less. Vintage boutiques are almost like fashion galleries. These shops are smaller and feature a carefully selected collection of pieces from talented designers (well-known or obscure), each of these works of art tends to carry a heavier price tag but it’s slightly overwhelming how magnificent the selection is.
– Check the quality and condition of clothes before you buy them, this is incredibly important because I’ve bought far too many beautiful vintage items that have promptly disintegrated after one wear or that have had major flaws I overlooked in the store. Pull at the seams, check the quality of the fabric (aim for organic fibres and, remember, shininess is a tell-tale of cheap material), examine the piece for any fraying, rips, or stains, and make sure the buttons are on securely. For shoes, check to see if the soles are falling off, make sure the straps are tight, and look to see if the heels are in good shape. Remember that, if something is truly gorgeous, you can always pay to get it repaired but be wary – if something is terminally broken, for example, if the fabric was worn too thin and will continue to rip no matter how many times you sew it, you need to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and move on.
– Don’t be afraid to talk to the staff. People who work in vintage shops, especially smaller boutiques, tend to be very well-versed in fashion. Sometimes they’re able to give you a bit of background on the garment or usually can at least tell you what era it’s from. Also, it’s sometimes possible to negotiate a lower price if you notice any irregularities or flaws on clothes before you buy them.
– Check your clothes for surprises! Look though all the pockets and see if you find any lost treasures (I recently found an old school picture from China in a purse I bought in London) and, if it still has a tag, do a Google search of the brand of what you bought, because learning about the piece makes it a lot more fun to wear. Also, check the garment thoroughly for any fun details staff may have missed – one time I bought a “brandless” cashmere sweater in LA for $15 and, when I took it off after my first time wearing it, I noticed it had a little label sewn into the side that read “Dolce & Gabbana”.
– Don’t be afraid to try new things or take sartorial risks. Vintage shopping is amazing because everything is slightly weird but nothing’s going to break the bank, so you can afford to take a chance on something a little off-colour. Also, try shopping in the men’s section, that’s where I find all my tee shirts and coats.
Here are my favourite vintage stores from around the world:
Wasteland (Melrose Ave.): Part vintage, part new clothing, and part consignment. It’s all mixed together, so you have to do some digging to get past the more basic items but I always come across several great retro finds.
Slow / American Rebel (Melrose Ave.): A little pricey but this shop is a personal favourite of mine. It’s incredibly organised and almost all of their merchandise is truly 60’s and 70’s. It doesn’t matter if you’re into mod, bohemian, Western, or rocker style, you’ll find it here.
New York City
Beacon’s Closet (Williamsburg, Brooklyn): This store is so big it’s overwhelming but it feels like a sartorial playground. Grab yourself a coffee on your way over because it’s easy to spend hours in this place going through colour coded racks in every shade, literally hundreds of band tees, and every kind of platform you can imagine. A lot of what they carry is consignment or even just thrift condition, but there are definitely some fairly-priced treasures in the mix.
Screaming Mimi’s: The perfect vintage boutique, and I don’t say that lightly. This store regularly appears in the credits of Vogue editorials but it’s also an East Village favourite. While this shop is definitely more expensive than most vintage (yet still cheaper than most new clothing), everything there is so cool, even Mick Jagger would be impressed.
Kilo Shop (Le Marais): It’s pretty self-explanatory, you pay by the kilo, not by the item, so it’s a great little shop to load up on vintage chiffon but maybe not the best for furs or leather. This place is truly retro and has an awesome selection of vintage from around the world. If you’re in the market for a kimono, this is the place to go.
Free ‘P’ Star (Le Marais): If you’re looking for sartorial satisfaction, you’re found your paradise. In no other store have I ever had to push through hoards of people, literally dig through huge piles of clothing, and teamwork with strangers to find each other clothes in the mess, to leave two hours later, sweaty faced and victorious, with huge trash bags of new clothes, and only 20 euro short of when I walked inside. The entire upstairs of the store is one euro an item and they have the best selection of coats I’ve ever seen. Last time I was there I bought a beautiful shearling for 20 euro and a calf-length military parka for ten.
Mile End Pound Sale: Every so often, there’s a bazaar in Mile End that’s basically the vintage event of the century. There are literally tens of thousands of pieces on sale, each for a pound, so you can completely re-vamp your wardrobe for half the price of a pair of tights from Topshop. Be prepared though, it’s absolutely crazy. Thousands of people come out early in the morning and the line wraps along the block. Just know you’re going to have to wait for at least an hour to get in and you’ll be digging through a lot of old, stained clothing that hasn’t been washed in about 20 years.
Camden Stables Market: Re-purposed horse stables converted into a marketplace for antiques, craft goods, and vintage. Pick up a beautiful Burberry trench for 140 pounds at the same time as a copy of Madame Bovary from 1870.
Beyond Retro (Soho): While Free ‘P’ Star is my lover, Beyond Retro is my husband and I spent a year in London getting to know him very well. While it’s easy to spend over 150 pounds in this store in one casual go, it’s super organised, big enough that you can find a lot of good things, but, unlike many large vintage stores, everything in this shop is beautiful and has been carefully selected.
San Francisco, however, will always be my first association with vintage shopping. While it’s been several years and I don’t remember specific names at this point, I spent tens of hours on Haight, popping from vintage shop to vintage shop, trying to find the perfect pair of cut-offs or the button-down with the longest, most obnoxious collar. I also found that Amsterdam has great vintage for relatively cheap, but be careful with quality because many things I bought there were super cute but fell apart almost instantly. However, if you want to know the true secret to finding the best secondhand items, visit thrift shops and consignment stores in small American towns. These local treasure troves tend to be full of random weird knick knacks, furniture, and elderly women, but the selection of $1 deals is truly amazing. If you’re in the market for Patagonia swimming shorts, American flag tee shirts, bucket hats, or heart-shaped sunglasses, forget the mall and head to the closest town where Confederate flags are “heritage not hate” and locate the Goodwill.