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Vintage Virtuoso: Mastering the Art of Thrift Shopping

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When I watch an award show, I’m tuned in for one reason and one reason only: the fashion. Sure, I do have a sliver of interest in finding out who’s going to win best actress, but I’m really anticipating the dress. And if it’s vintage, all the better. For me, retro clothing is more interesting because it wasn’t just purchased off a rack where there were ten identical items hanging right behind it. I also like that I won’t see it on the “Who Wore it Best” page next time I’m in line at the grocery store flipping through US Weekly. The person who chooses vintage must have an eye for detail and a real sense of style, not only to discover the right piece but also to put it together the right way. This requires loads of patience and skill.


One celebrity who has managed to successfully pull off vintage time and time again is Chloë Sevigny. Over the years, the actress/fashion designer/former model’s name has become synonymous with style. Whether it’s a vintage black-and-white moon-printed Yves Saint Laurent gown at the Golden Globes or high-waisted mom jeans with suspenders and a Cramps tee and clogs on the street, she looks cool. So, what are the most important things to remember before heading out to the consignment shop? How can you master the art of vintage like Chloë has?


Clip Art
Tear out magazine pages that feature some of your favorite looks and take them with you for inspiration. You may be able to re-create an entire outfit for a fraction of what you would pay a retailer. More importantly, the images will give you something to work from.


Patience Is a Virtue
One of the most essential qualities of a successful vintage shopper is patience; the real gems are not going to jump out at you. Most likely, you’ll have to set aside at least a few hours and look, look, then look some more. This process also allows you to become well aware of what each store has on hand, making it easier to spot the new arrivals the next time you stop in. Another good practice may be getting to know the shop owners and salespeople. If they know who you are and what you’re looking for, they can be more help the next time you drop by. Tommy Dorr, owner of Lost and Found Vintage in Royal Oak, Michigan, recently told me, “If it’s a good store, you should always be able to ask who’s working there because they will know the product.”


Brand Names
Purchasing brand names is more important for the serious collector who may be more interested in hanging on to items for future resale. However, more often than not, something with a big-name label has been better cared for over the years, so it doesn’t hurt for the average vintage shopper to keep an eye out for such labels.


Wear and Tear
Another fundamental rule of vintage shopping is inspection. Closely examine everything before purchasing. Look at areas that might naturally have the most wear, such as the elbows, knees, and butt. If the fabric is stretched out of shape, it’s probably safe to assume that you won’t get it back to its original state. If you do find a tear, remember that a tear on the seam will be easier to fix than one in the middle of the garment. Also, inspect for stains under the arms, mothball holes, and discoloration. If there is a flaw, figure out if it’s damage that’s repairable. In her book, Style A to Zoe: The Art of Fashion, Beauty, & Everything Glamour, style guru to the stars Rachel Zoe asks Cameron Silver, owner of the Los Angeles vintage shop Decades, for his tips on vintage shopping, “Beware of substandard fabrics. Disposable clothing from forty years ago is likely disposable clothing today. Stick with quality fabrics.”


Tailor It
It’s one thing for people to know you’re wearing a vintage piece, but it’s another if it fits you improperly. Unless you’re dressing up for Halloween, you never want your retro finds to look like a costume. If you tailor the piece to fit your body, it will look more polished and you’ll feel more comfortable in it.


Wash It
No one wants yet another reminder of the current bedbug epidemic that’s sweeping the nation, but here it is. While these pesky critters primarily take up residence in mattresses and bedding, they’ve also been found on clothing; so be sure to properly clean any items before bringing them home. Aside from getting rid of bedbugs, it’s also a good habit to clean clothing before wearing it.


Size Matters
Trying items on is key, especially when you’re just starting out. Clothing sizes vary widely, and often times, sizes from ten to twenty years ago are not comparable to today’s standard sizing. Not to mention that sometimes something you absolutely fall in love with on the hanger does not always evoke the same feelings once you have it on.


Silver points out, “Forget the trends, even in vintage. Certain bodies look great in a 1950’s dress, others in a 1970’s sheath.” It’s also important to remember that only after you’re well acquainted with how certain labels fit should you test out the Internet-buying waters. And even then, you’re taking a risk. Be prepared to get it altered.


Make a Deal
The only way to truly know whether you’re getting a deal or not is to know what’s out there. This requires doing preliminary research before you hit the pavement and then doing price comparisons while you’re out there. The more knowledgeable you are on the clothing, the better you’ll be able to judge what’s being sold for a fair price and what’s not.


Buying and wearing vintage clothing is not only about sharpening shopping skills; it’s also about changing habits. Once you can avert your gaze from the Shopbop pages and J.Crew storefronts, you can effectively train your tastes to see the potential in vintage pieces.



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