You might see her walking down King Street or out drinking wine on a Saturday night. Like Molly Ringwald at her influential peak. Or if Betty Draper walked right off your television screen.
But you might wonder why you’ve never seen that ’50s party dress at the mall or found those perfect pumps at Steve Madden.
And you probably never will — unless you’re looking in the right place. If you want to find that timeless YSL blouse or that gold panther brooch, you have to go beyond chain stores. Charleston’s budding vintage fashion community is proof that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
The average shopper is not privy to the city’s vintage underground. Composed mainly of trunk shows or online stores, a number of re-sellers have emerged in the past year, giving fashionistas more options than ever before.
“I think the combination of the growing city, the bad economy, and the move toward eco-friendly fashion has helped Charleston turn more and more into a great vintage destination in its own right,” Deirdre Zahl says.
Zahl owns Candy Shop Vintage, offering jewelry mainly through her Etsy.com shop and at Mac & Murphy. She makes sure to keep up with trends, following fashion magazines and blogs. Her decades-old accessories are just as stylish as if they were brand new, only with a key difference.
“When you find a vintage piece, you know that it is not something someone else can easily get their hands on,” Zahl says.
You might think it would be difficult for a vintage reseller to decide between keeping something for themselves and offering it to customers. However, Lauren Lail says she gets tunnel vision when she shops for her Library: Archives of Fashion vintage collection. She keeps her personal interests out of her purchases, using her limited time to stock up on additions to Library — not her own closet.
“Ask my friends and family that have come along with me and they will tell you that I don’t even let them stop for a drink or bite to eat,” Lail says. “It’s intense, but I find myself on a mission and don’t stop until I’m satisfied.”
Many classic brands — from Chanel to Valentino to Givenchy — are available through Library at reasonable prices. Lail believes that affordability is an important objective in vintage. She prices her items in a way that offers something for everyone, whether it be “a 1930s crocodile-skin clutch for $60 or a delicate couture lace blouse for $500.” Zahl says she aims to stay below the $50 price range, with a few special exceptions.
Skeptics may cite quality as an issue that prevents them from buying vintage clothes; second-hand items can have stains, tears, and missing buttons. Julie Wheat of Cavortress will tackle problems if she can, but she’ll leave minor repairs alone if the piece is good enough and price it accordingly. She made her collection, Cavortress, available publicly beginning this past fall.
The overall trend toward eco-friendly products has also added to the popularity of vintage. Reconstructed clothing adds a twist to the trend, creating new pieces from vintage materials; even Urban Outfitters offers an “Urban Renewal” brand at its stores.
Wheat designs a line of reconstructed clothing for Cavortress that will debut in March. She incorporates vintage fabrics — found from sources including a designer in Oklahoma who makes outfits for rodeo queens — into modern, basic pieces. The line won’t be sold wholesale, but pieces will be available at House of Sage.
And unlike retail stores that advertise to specific age groups or style preferences, vintage has limitless appeal.
“The one common thread among my customers is that they are looking for something truly one-of-a-kind and they love great style,” Lail says.
While most of her clientele tend to be in their 20s or 30s, Wheat’s customer base has ranged from “high school kids to ladies in their 50s.” Zahl believes that women of all ages appreciate her jewelry selection and the idea of buying something unique and special.
“Girls never get tired of shopping, and buying vintage is a wonderful way to create your own, unique look,” Zahl says.
Wheat and Zahl agree that in the past, Charleston wasn’t particularly notable for vintage, especially compared to bigger cities. Though none of the three women have plans to open official retail spaces in the future, they agree that things are changing in the city.
“Charleston’s fashion community is growing,” Wheat says. “If you build it, they will come.”
Vintage shops and resources
Library: Archives of Fashion: libraryfashion.com
Candy Shop Vintage: candyshopvintage.blogspot.com
Lori Wyatt Vintage: loriwyatt.com
Estella Vitae: 90 Society St., (843) 577-2944
Culture Vultures: 8 Daniel St., (843) 402-9955
Exchange Factor: 283 Meeting St., (843) 965-5559; 5128 Rivers Ave., (843) 747-9625, exchangefactor.com