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If living quarters are a reflection of their inhabitants, then Sara "Birdie" Brown-Rubinstein's Brooklyn apartment mirrors her vintage-loving life — and aesthetic — perfectly. Nestled on a quiet street in Greenpoint (just around the corner from the neighborhood's Polish bakeries and trendy new bars), Brown-Rubinstein's sun-drenched home boasts a laidback, well traveled feel. Sort of like your favorite Pinterest board come to life, except with 10 times more personality.
From the woven patterned tapestries hanging on the wall — which she picked up in New Mexico — or the antiques lining the bookshelf from Maine, nearly everything in the space has a story behind it. Brown-Rubinstein attributes this comfortable vibe to the fact that she's lived here for six years: first with her identical twin sister, Karen, and currently with her husband, Mordechai Rubinstein. But then again, having great taste is technically part of her job requirement.
Given her role as a Director of Decorative Global Store Development at Ralph Lauren, it should come as no surprise that the Connecticut native is a complete pro at outfitting both her home and her closet. When we met, she was wearing nearly head to toe vintage, including a beloved pair of Levi's bellbottoms that she found at the Inspiration Vintage show in Brooklyn a few months ago. "I can never find jeans online that fit, and I had exhausted all of the stores in Brooklyn, so I was lucky to get these," she explains, lounging on her living room sofa. On top, she layered a ‘90s wool blazer over a personalized ‘60s hoodie sweatshirt (a gift from her husband, who had Brown-Rubinstein's nickname "Birdie" embroidered on the front). Topped off with Adidas sneakers, a turquoise necklace, a vintage tooled leather belt, and her signature long, wavy hair, it's the best kind of introduction to Brown-Rubinstein's self-described "sporty bohemian" style.
The aesthetic — one she says she's had since childhood — is reflected cleverly on her Instagram page. Brown-Rubinstein's won a cult social media following for her mishmash of pictures from her travels (like a recent trip to Aspen), old-school fashion advertisements, and outfit shots. But it's the close-up snaps of her assorted vintage patches, flea market scores, and print-clashing layers that make her account feel more like a well-curated collage than simply an #OOTD feed. It can be tricky to make a closet full of vintage look modern, but Brown-Rubinstein's stylistic touches make her outfits decidedly 2016 (never 1960). As I learned one recent Saturday afternoon, the secret lies in her fiercely independent style philosophy, a preference for small-town thrift stores over New York boutiques ("It's more special that way," she explains), and an extra dose of wanderlust. Read on to hear Brown-Rubinstein's takes on shopping, personal style, and finding fashion inspiration from strangers.
Your apartment has a really unique, relaxed vibe. How did you settle on this type of decor?
Even though I've been working in interiors for so long, up until recently I only invested my money in clothes! [Laughs] They were just more fun — or, at least they were when I was younger. The look in my apartment has evolved very slowly. I think in New York you have this mentality that you're always going to move. You don't want to put too much into an apartment because you don't know how long you're going to live there. So, I always thought that way. But slowly, we've settled in... we're getting there.
Where do you shop for furniture and home goods?
My stuff really comes from all over. I do a lot of eBay and flea market browsing for the smaller items, and then vintage shows for some of the textiles. But mostly, it's just an accumulation of years of searching for things. Whenever I see something I like, I'll just pick it up without thinking twice.
Tell us a little bit about how you parlayed your interest in interiors into a career.
I'm from Connecticut, and I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. My sister [Karen] and I were always interested in vintage when we were younger, and we would shop at Goodwill and local secondhand stores. I remember we went to Urban Outfitters when they first got their vintage section — in their Philadelphia store — which was a huge deal for us. We were always into fashion and art growing up. That's how I wound up in my current role.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in interiors?
I originally went to University of Wisconsin to study fashion, but eventually switched to art. I took a lot of photography, ceramics, and graphic design courses. By the time I graduated I just felt inspired by so many elements of design, so I thought it would be great to work for a company that had both the fashion element and also the interior element.
Who were your style icons growing up?
It wasn't so much about a specific style icon for me; I was always just looking up to these older, more experienced girls. I felt like that little girl who always wants to be the cool high-schooler. I think my style was inspired by girls on TV shows like My So Called Life, or movies like Clueless. My mom was really open with me and my sister, and she let us find our own style. We would go to Nordstrom, but then we would go to Goodwill. We were combing our looks from a really early age.
What was the thrifting like in Connecticut?
When we were in school, Goodwill was incredible. They were getting tons of estate collections, where I would find really great preppy shirts, but then also designer pieces mixed in. Once vintage shopping became more of a thing, you saw the change in the local thrift stores immediately. The selection became picked over instantly — overnight even. But when it was good, it was so good. We would mix in our thrifted finds with stuff we got at the mall... because back then, the mall was really cool. [Laughs]
How did having an identical twin sister influence your style growing up?
We were both very set on being ourselves and having our own style. But, at the same time, because we are identical twins, I think we're both going to be innately influenced and inspired by the same things. There are some things that one of us will be more drawn to — and in turn, it'll influence the other one. You're inspired by what's around you, and when you have the same exact upbringing, it makes sense that you would go down a similar path. One year it was all about skater boy dressing, and then another year we had a big Tommy Hilfiger phase... we went through it all.
What are some of your favorite stores?
It's so funny because people will ask me this, and I'm not a big shopper! If I'm inspired by a look, or if I see someone and they look beautiful, then maybe I'll quickly go on eBay and see if I can find something similar. I was in Aspen recently, and I found a pair of jeans with these rose patches embroidered on the hips. I got them at this little antique furniture store, and the jeans were only $20! I don't necessarily go shopping just to shop; it's just when I want something I'll look for it.
What sorts of things inspire your style?
I love looking at the runway shows — and whatever inspires me I'll pull it as a reference. But mostly, it's about seeing girls and guys in New York. There's so much culture around us and so many interesting people. Everyone is inspired by each other, and to say that you're a poser or copying someone is so ridiculous. It's fine to acknowledge that a girl looks beautiful, and then dress that way. I'll never wear something the same exact way as someone else. It's about pulling unique elements in the things that you see. I'm not inspired by famous women, really, it's more about cool-looking normal people. I'll also look on Pinterest for old ads and photography references.
What's currently the most beloved piece in your closet?
My favorites are always changing because I get sick of things really quickly. I think jeans would have to be my favorite, because when you find a great pair of jeans you just wear them out until you can't put them on anymore. It's so hard to find a pair that fits you well and that has the right wash. I have an amazing pair of patched vintage jeans that I bought in Woodstock in a little store, and I wear them all the time. I also have an embroidered silk kimono that my grandfather gave to my grandmother after coming back from the war in Japan. It's really beautiful and amazing, and it's one of my favorite pieces. I try not to wear it too often, though, because it's really fragile.
Do you have a favorite vintage t-shirt?
I got a really cool ‘60s T-shirt that says "Coca Cola" in Hebrew. My friend actually found it and bought it for me for a wedding gift, and I love it. On eBay I'll occasionally come across a gem, but it's rare and it takes a lot of work.
What are some of your tips for shopping for vintage on eBay?
I think just being patient! You have to enjoy the thrill of the hunt. Plenty of people are just as happy going to a vintage store in New York and finding something, but I prefer to just do it myself. It takes more time and effort, but the end result feels more like a reward because you put work into it. You obviously have to know what you're looking for. Of course, while I'm searching for something I always get sidetracked and end up finding something else! Don't worry about getting sidetracked, because either way you'll end up with something great. [Laughs]
What's your most prized eBay score?
I got this vintage Grateful Dead T-shirt from Red Rocks. It was done by this artist, and it has this Native American Hopi illustration. The combination of the Grateful Dead element and the Native American element makes it really cool.
Do you ever steal your husband's clothes?
All the time. It's actually amazing because I love menswear and anything oversized. He's not much bigger than me to begin with, which makes it great because I never buy sweaters or sweatshirts.
What's your overall style philosophy?
As I get older I realize that you have to embrace what is best for you and your body type. My hair is always messy, so I go for a more bohemian look. And I always played sports when I was little, which I think brings out the athletic tone. I studied art, so I like mixing different colors and textures. I think there is a reason behind everything, and my philosophy is about embracing what looks best for you. It took me so long to figure out, like, "Why do you like sneakers so much?" and "Why is this what I feel most comfortable in?" It all goes back to your history, and what you're comfortable in.
As a vintage pro, what's one thing you should never buy vintage?
Besides underwear, obviously, you shouldn't buy hats or bathing suits. Vintage jeans are a nightmare to buy online because the sizing is never consistent. For every pair that I own I've probably tried on about 20 pairs.
Are you a morning person or night person? Night person. I always wake up tired, so it takes me a while to sort of get going.
Best meal of the day? Surprisingly enough, it's breakfast! Because I'm not a morning person, I never wake up hungry. But I still love breakfast food: bagels, lox, pancakes, and eggs... but just maybe for dinner!
Favorite New York neighborhood? I'm probably one of the few people who loves the Upper East Side. It's quiet and it's beautiful and kind of feels like one of the neighborhoods that's untouched over the years — it hasn't really changed. I love it up there.
Most beloved item in your apartment? My favorites are always changing, but my current favorite is this piece of blue coral that Mordechai and I got at an antique store in Maine.
Most-checked websites? Pinterest, eBay, and then random online shopping websites.
Coffee or tea? I can't speak or function without coffee in the morning.