The Ballad of Vintage Couture
Less than a decade ago, Vintage Couture clothing was merely old clothing, an unnamed category of inventory, unappreciated at every thrift shop in America. No resale shop would accept this type of merchandise, or passé clothing for consignment. Children of couture-clad mothers and aunts and grandmothers disdained their legacy and donated these items. Volunteers were indifferent, tagging the merchandise at low prices and tossing them on racks where they would swing month after month, snubbed by the impoverished and most foraging bargain hunters.
Few valued clothing produced and styled forty to fifty years ago. The couturiers fell into public obscurity: Jean Muir, Pauline Trigere, Rafael, Madame Gres, Donald Brooks, Gloria Scherrer, Hanae Mori, even Chanel by CoCo. There was a minuscule market, and it was a refined market. Instructors at Fashion Design Schools would forage, find, and purchase definitive items to teach their students construction, fabrics, detailing, and styling. Treasure hunters would rummage and purchase an item that triggered a girlhood memory of an aunt, their mother, a cousin, or a movie star, whose panache was evoked by this clothing. It was unlikely they wore these purchases. They were mementos, purchased in an impulsive, nostalgic recollection moment for a song. Another type of shopper was the home sewers, not seamstresses or tailors by vocation, but home sewers. They would hunt for the perfect piece to take apart and study, re-construct couture, and make and update patterns from the pieces. Thrift shops selling vintage couture become a staple of modern cities near the turn of this century. Theme parties, Halloween, cross dressers, transsexuals would bring customers to thrift shops for costumes. It was no longer the excitement of vintage clothing that was driving the traffic, but the sheer nature of mimicking an earlier time.
I was not in any of the refined markets listed above when I happened upon a severely abused, moth ridden, red and blue striped, wool jersey Chanel suit with a skirt tagged $13 in 1995. I was, instead, looking for merchandise for an as yet nascent resale shop which would specialize in used couture clothing and accessories. My shop was to be located somewhere wonderful in wonderful Chicago devoted to obtaining couture merchandise by outright purchase, not consignment. My money for inventory was very tight. I had to resort to thrift shops to obtain sufficient inventory to stock a shop whose square footage ultimately could be no more than 300 square feet. The sleeve and its clearly identifiable Chanel button caught my eye. Neither stripes, nor red, nor blue, nor suits with skirts, nor wool jerseys were in style. The jacket was unstylish, a fitted jacket; the skirt was unfashionably designed with a pleated torso.
I bought it in a moment, along with each and every other couture item I could find that day and each successive day until the ‘starter’ store opened on June 10, 1995. I paid hundreds of dollars to renovate, recondition, and dry clean these items. I blew my budget and resorted to consignment for current couture clothing and accessories to bulk up to 450 pieces. I arranged the Shop by couture label, interspersing current with passé. I sold to encourage
women to try on styles from 40-50 years ago, reminding women of couturier names from the past, drawing up similarities between then and now styling and associating obscure couturiers as muses of present couturier houses. Many customers called it “Old crap.” I had no response.
And to this day, 13 years of operation later and in another shop four times larger than the starter shop from ten years ago, I cannot tell you exactly why I did this. What I can tell you is that I had to, was compelled to, because the clothing and accessories were simply wonderful. Now, this merchandise is called Vintage Couture. It’s very difficult to find at reasonable prices for it’s very popular. I find it here and there at somewhat reasonable prices and stock it in the Shop, where it proudly hangs amongst its younger cousins.
You might ask about the red and blue striped wool jersey Chanel suit with a skirt which began the epiphany. I renovated it, reconditioned it, had every moth hole repaired, replaced the lining, shortened the skirt and wore it for a publicity shoot at the kickoff of the starter store. I can’ tell you why I choose it. Turning fey, I can pretend it called to me from my closet, “I’ll be a good luck talisman during the heady first year of operation roller coaster all new merchants are required to ride.” Maybe; maybe not. The roller
coaster has smoothed out to a highway where I drive The DAISY Shop car, steering it this way and that and loving the merchant qualities I’ve learned to acquire.
The suit has transmuted into my uniform. I wear it to speaking engagements, where I sit nervously through the MC’s introduction and zone out concentrating on the rippling stripes until I hear the polite smatter of applause. Then, I stand up, feel well turned out, as I proceed to the podium, and do my best to give back to the entrepreneurial community. I wear it to preview parties, where I mingle and munch with other merchants from Chicago’s wonderful Oak Street and feel well turned out and a part of the merchant community. I wear it to business meetings, where I listen or am listened to and feel well turned out. The fact is I never tire of wearing it.
I don’t know who purchased this suit originally from Chanel, but I wish I did. I know she was a small-framed, lean person, for the suit is small, and only thin women are willing to wear horizontal stripes. I imagine she was fair-haired, for red and blue look well on fair-haired women. I know she had a relatively large disposable income, for Chanel was always pricey. Frankly, it’s a rather jazzy outfit, and I’d like to think she was a jazzy lady, not quite quietly elegant, sometimes outré and other times conservative. I’d rather not think it was a fashion mistake that she put in the back of her closet, never wore, but couldn’t bear to donate for the high price she had paid. I think she went to the Chez Paree in Chicago on Saturday night dates with her husband and smoked cigarettes there from long cigarette holders. I think she did volunteer work some where worthwhile and had a long and happy life with her large family around her. I think she would enjoy knowing her suit is still valuable and doing its job of making its wearer feel well turned out.
I think CoCo would be pleased, too.