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New York City is famously painted with the romance and excitement of chance discoveries — from Patti Smith’s Just Kids and her series of fortuitous encounters with Robert Mapplethorpe to Nora Ephron’s love story in When Harry Met Sally and Gay Talese’s intimate examinations in New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey.
Though the convenience of e-commerce, apps, and advanced search bars have conditioned us to find what we want in a matter of minutes, a Saturday spent offline and outside is still the best way to find something unexpected and have a conversation with strangers. And one of the best places for both of those things are one of New York City’s many vintage stores.
The accessibility of curated vintage boutiques has made it easier for city shoppers to pick through racks to find something they’re actually looking for, unlike the glut of unsorted garments a general secondhand store might offer. But how did there get to be so many of these era-encapsulating shops in the city?
In the early ‘60s, stores on Essex Street were known to be the stomping grounds for thrifty aficionados and budgeting college students. There were places like Diamonds — a half-used clothing store, half-pawn shop owned by a Holocaust survivor — and there were the Army Navy stores, like Hudson’s on Third Avenue and 13th Street. Young, experimental buyers could easily find canvas leggings, 1920s dresses, chinos, and deadstock leather to resell to friends, but the best finds were bins of Levi’s and Wranglers glowing with tags marked for just $5 a pair.
With the boom of fast fashion and corporate retailers like Sears and JCPenney, people participated in secondhand shopping partly as political criticisms against the conformity of mass consumerism that were adhered to by their parents’ generation. David Ornstein, an older prominent figure who’s behind the bi-yearly vintage trade show in New York called Manhattan Vintage, tells me that when he was in his 20s during the ‘60s, “antique clothing” was interchangeably referred to as “anti-clothing.”
It was 1965 when his industry colleague Harriet Love (who Ornstein recalls “always held her flag the highest at the trade shows”) opened what’s said to be New York’s first vintage shop in Greenwich Village, named after herself.
Love specialized in Victorian clothes and white lace dresses from 1910, with much of her merchandise now archived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You might recognize her pieces in clips from the original Great Gatsby film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, including the famous party fountain scene. “It was funny, but a terrible idea,” Love says over the phone, adding that it ended up causing her a bit of grief. “I mean, who jumps into chlorine in a beautifully beaded dress? They ended up ruining all my clothes!”
Love reveals that estate sales and flea markets were her primary sources for most of the pieces she’d found, but she loved buying in London, too. I asked what she thinks made the pastime of vintage shopping such a strong accent of New York. “You know, I believe it’s the amount of people interested in theatre and the arts community here. There’s a certain bohemian style that New York’s always had, and it keeps the vintage culture very much alive and original,” she suggests.
Other businesses like Jezebel, Everybody’s Thrift Shop, L Train Vintage, and Antique Boutique (now Bloomingdale’s on Broadway) opened shortly after Harriet’s. Throughout the ‘70s, thrift shops were no longer run solely by charities like the Salvation Army, but affiliated with stylish entrepreneurs and novelty collectors.
International players like Japanese vintage dealers became largely involved in leading the western market for men’s vintage. Designer Ralph Lauren was also known to visit and work with vintage buyers, sourcing pattern inspirations for his collections.
One of these buyers was Larry Steinhorn, who since 1977 has owned a vintage fabric reselling company with his wife called Steinhorn and Green. Larry recounted his younger days in New York, frequenting every shop he could find in his free time.
“We’d get in the old broken car and go from shop to shop. The mindset for all this was looking for cool things and spending nothing. It was anti-trendy but then it became trendy,” he says. “Vogue started paying attention to street fashion, sending designers to the East Village to study what kids were wearing or wanting to buy. That was the end and the beginning of the cycle of fashion.”
Steinhorn says that in the late ‘70s to ‘80s, higher price points were established due to an increased popularity in vintage items, especially with celebrity icons wearing Hawaiian shirts (see Robin Williams and Elvis Presley), souvenir jackets, and other era pieces like paletots, capes, pilot coats, working jackets, and frock dresses.
In terms of trends, the ‘90s saw a large ‘70s revival with bell bottoms, collarless coats, and halter tops, all which continue to be seen in present day. Over the course of the 21st century, New York would also see the mainstreaming and reproduction of retro and vintage styles in contemporary clothing lines (think, of course, Urban Outfitters and Nasty Gal). But small businesses specializing in authentic vintage items remain very much alive.
In Heike Jenss’ ethnographic report Fashioning Memory: Vintage Style and Youth Culture, Jenss refers to the 21st century consumer model as the “nowist,” someone who is compelled to acquire based on what’s trending or immediately available, as opposed to excavators of vintage clothing, who behave more like archivists. For consumers and buyers, time is a large form of capital — and for the garments, an exhibiting factor of quality.
Business owners such as Sonya Abrego, who runs an online store called Dated Vintage when she’s not teaching at the New School, often travel across the country to acquire certain merchandise. “There's an impression that there might be a lot of a certain item because it's online, but it's not always true. I'll drive two states away to get a specific dress or accessory even if it’s for just one customer, and though I'd end up making only a hundred dollars, it’s worth it to know they'll love it," she says.
She touches on her buying process and how she decides to price her items — which, to some shoppers, might seem like an elusive number to haggle down. “When I sell, I focus on selling to people who are styling vintage in a more contemporary way, and of course, what the item is and the condition of it.”
Like a fine wine or Pharrell, the older the items were, the more sought after they became. The joys of contemporary thrift shopping are still fostered by particular subcultures, with some scouting ceremonies traversing onto digital platforms like Etsy and Instagram. Many young creatives and entrepreneurs have taken to starting their own vintage businesses through the help of social media and digital platforms (if you want to learn how, see here).
Although younger and smaller, these contemporary vintage shops aim to heighten the experience of community, allowing customers to engage and identify with brands more intimately than the traditional “targeted shopper” — reminiscent of the kind of authenticity that sparked the vintage shopping movement to begin with.
In the salad days, what used to set vintage shops apart from mainstream commercialism was a distance from advertising. Excluding traditional newspaper ads, businesses largely relied on word of mouth and a certain unspoken co-alliance with high-fashion industry clients. In the current economy, modern vintage businesses continue to thrive through word of mouth, but in a much different way, largely through social sharing, lifestyle branding, and Instagram accounts.
The success of these businesses rely heavily on building not just a strong brand identity, but also rapport between other kindred buyers and brands that can help drive traffic both online and offline. With any venture, community seems to remain the greatest currency.
Between both Brooklyn and Manhattan, most of the stores that first paved the scene in the '70s have closed down by now, but hundreds of others have opened in place of them, with an ever growing community of collectors — including the 50 vendors and buyers who meet at industry trade shows like Manhattan Vintage or A Current Affair — to cultivate it.
To keep the trail word of mouth, I asked some contemporary buyers in the world of today’s retail business for their favorite vintage coves on the map, and their best unexpected discoveries.
Rachel Ward, Assistant Buyer at Urban Outfitters
Favorite era: I have big feelings for ‘90s McQueen, Issey Miyake, and Betsey Johnson. I also like what’s happening now, the mash-up of the decades, ‘70s through Y2K. Unisex and fun color.
Favorite vintage shop: The Break Vintage in Brooklyn.
Most unique/interesting purchase(s): Multi-colored fur and faux leather raver top with a double tie and open back. I plan on wearing it layered with an oversized turtleneck.
Ali Breslin, Stylist at Rachel Comey
Favorite era: Late ‘70s and early ‘90s.
Favorite vintage shop: Grand Street Bakery in Brooklyn.
Most unique/interesting purchase(s): White sailor pants.
Mckenzie Dowler, Stylist at Rag & Bone
Favorite era: As contrived as it sounds — because it's very trendy right now — the 1970s. I can't have the young Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Steven Tyler shag haircut I have now without paying tribute to the inspirational rockstar forefathers.
Favorite vintage shop: Zingara Vintage in Rockaway Beach.
Most unique/interesting purchase(s): Erin [at Zingara] has this INSANE vintage terry cloth collection, all curated from the early 1960s through the 1970s. She has terry cloth mod dresses, beach jackets, and even terry cloth blazers in psychedelic, zany prints — she even had a terry cloth Peanuts/Snoopy print once that was in perfect condition.
Leslie Hamilton, Design Assistant at Rachel Antonoff
Favorite era: I'm always in awe of clothing from the 19th century, but also the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘90s.
Favorite vintage shop: The Times Vintage in Greenport, New York.
Most unique/interesting purchase(s): This is a hidden gem and well worth the trip. They have really fun bright pieces, but my personal favorite is this very "‘90s-does-’70s" snap button-up red shirt with a bright floral print and what looks like some Polish lettering bedazzled in little yellow stones on the front right side.
Correction: January 1st 2017
A previous version of this story inaccurately described Diamonds as a half-used clothing store, half-porn shop. It was a half-used clothing store, half-pawn shop.