NEW YORK — Vintage shopping in New York can be a discouraging affair. After all, the prices at consignment stores on the Upper East Side rival those found at Bergdorf Goodman, while downtown, Seventies Levis are selling at $300 a pop.
But for those who consider stalking estate sales and scrounging in the Goodwill thrift stores an art form — not to mention a veritable sport — Brooklyn’s Hooti Couture shop is a gold mine. Owner Alison Houtte, who named the boutique after her grandmother Clemmie’s inventive way of pronouncing her last name, spent her formative years as a jet-setting fashion model, gracing the pages of French Marie Claire before Vogue flew her to New York for a shoot. “I wore my best two-dollar suit,” says the lifelong bargain shopper, “but I paired it with my Robert Clergerie shoes.”
Houtte’s modeling career was longer, and more prosperous, than most and she continues to do the occasional advertising campaign since she moved to Park Slope in 1994 to open her store. “Brooklyn is definitely my rehab,” she explains.
Now 45, her decades-defying 6-foot-tall frame lords over a crimson storefront on Flatbush Avenue, selling immaculate furs, ornate gowns and even stained-glass scarf ties at bargain prices to a dedicated corps of customers ranging in age from 10 to 94. Last week marked the release of her first literary effort, “Alligators, Old Mink, and New Money: One Woman’s Adventures in Vintage Clothing.”
Coauthored by her older sister, Melissa Houtte, a San Francisco-based journalist, the book speaks to those who derive more satisfaction from stumbling upon a vintage Pucci clutch at the Salvation Army than a deeply discounted Zac Posen cocktail dress at Barneys New York. The witty memoir follows Houtte’s trajectory from her girlhood in Miami — in which she pulled weeds in order to purchase her friend’s garage-sale castoffs — to her current incarnation of a slap-happy boutique owner haunting estate sales in Pennsylvania.
Characters such as Mary Coleman — Houtte’s right-hand woman who is responsible for the clever lines such as “Tearfully, Julie Nixon comes to realize that Daddy will resign” that grace every price tag in the store — populate her narrative. As an appendix, Houtte offers a “Vintage Shopper’s Guide,” educating like-minded folk about the merits of church rummage sales and the tricky realm of price negotiation.
This story first appeared in the November 29, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Luckily, Houtte’s storied history and gregarious personality are excellent fodder for such a memoir. “I try to please everyone,” she says, handing a customer a Forties swing coat, complete with mink collar, that echoes the latest designs from Marni.
Among the thousands of pieces that have passed through her hands, Houtte manages to animate a few of her most precious finds, including a Gucci handbag purchased 28 years ago that she still carries today. The sculpted leather tote, which houses a red suede jewelry tray that zips out of a hidden pouch (perfect for putting in the hotel safe), is unfortunately not for sale. “But she might be in 15 years,” Houtte adds. “Could you check back?”