VINTAGE SHOPS THRIVE ONLINE

Byline: Peter Braunstein

NEW YORK — You’ve been a die-hard vintage clothing hound for ages, but at a certain point your habit got out of control and you ended up with more retro dresses and accessories than you could possibly wear in three lifetimes. For many people in this predicament, the Web has become an outlet. Vintage fashion connoisseurs are transforming their obsessions into entrepreneurial Web ventures by setting up vintage ‘mom and pop’ e-commerce sites online, providing consumers an alternative to the boutiful but hyperactive auction model of eBay. Amidst the extraordinary diversity of online indie vintage sites, their owners all share an encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history — and have major issues with people whose understanding of vintage begins and ends with Pucci.
Like many online vintage players, Maria Bustillos, chief executive officer of Popula.com, was first and foremost a collector. “I’m a lifelong pack rat, and then in the ’80s I became a jewelry designer,” Bustillos told WWD. In October 1998, Bustillos launched Popula.com, which currently conducts up to 2000 auctions at any given time of rare books, art, vintage clothing, and erotica, with apparel making up one-third of the business. Bustillo conceived of Popula as a way of educating consumers and merchants alike about the nuances of vintage retail and connoisseurship. “The reality is that the Web lends itself to the selling of rare goods. Most online vintage dealers have a brick and mortar presence elsewhere, but they are uninformed about basic retail concepts like turnover,” said Bustillos. “We see our site as service-oriented for dealers, enabling them to incorporate their specific, detailed knowledge about vintage items while keeping them mindful of the bottom line.”
At the same time, Popula also hopes to educate online vintage consumers. “A lot of times people ask me what the difference is between ‘vintage and ‘antique’,” said Bustillos. “And I respond: ‘the age of the person asking’.” Many consumers have a somewhat elastic concept of ‘vintage’ — in fact, Kate Spade bags from 1996 are often marketed on eBay as ‘vintage’ — and Bustillos has made it a mission to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. “The uncoolest vintage-wear circulating right now is what I call ‘Scary Pucci’: overpriced, licensed polyester Pucci dresses,” she said. “But many people don’t know the difference between licensed garbage and the real thing. They’ll be like ‘but it’s Pucci’ and you’re like ‘uh, not really’.” Furthering Popula’s goal of “empowering people to create street fashion from the past” is a weekly email newsletter, which currently has 7500 subscribers.
Elisa Casas has been running the vintage shop 1909 Company in Soho since 1993, and took her vintage retail concept online this past January. Casas is marketing her vintage site Chelsea-Girl.com to upscale vintage consumers. “Shopping vintage on eBay is a full-time job, and my customers don’t have time for that,” said Casas, who has also dispensed with eBay’s auction-based approach. “eBay is better suited for people who have time on their hands, and who are trying to find a vintage Gucci purse at bargain prices.” Although Casas conceived of Chelsea-Girl.com as an alternative to larger marketplaces, selling some of her vintage items on eBay has served as an oblique form of advertising. “My eBay sales items mention my site and link to it, and I’ve received a fair amount of new customers that way,” she said. “Otherwise, to advertise your site on search engines like Yahoo! costs $200 for ‘preferred placement’, and I don’t like the principle of that.”
Casas considers vintage clothing to be a driving force behind mainstream fashion trend cycles. “I buy cutting-edge vintage items for my stores, then designers buy them from me and copy them,” she said. “Customers see the designers do it and immediately seek out the vintage version — because it’s less expensive and at the same time more authentic.” The current Lulu Guiness floral handbag vogue, Casas argued, epitomizes this type of circular trend that begins and ends in vintage shops.
For Catherine Leroy, owner of the vintage e-commerce site Piece Unique (pieceunique.com), the main advantage smaller vintage sites have over larger online marketplaces is quality control. “Many of my clients have purchased vintage items online described as ‘mint’, but they received rags instead,” said Leroy, who relies on a small circle of consigners for her vintage inventory. “What differentiates Piece Unique is that when someone says ‘I have a vintage Gucci snakeskin blazer’, I don’t take their word for it that it’s vintage. I want to see it. Then I take a photograph of it and post it online.” Leroy offers 200-250 items for sale at any given time, and receives a 38 percent commission on every sale.
Madeline Meyerowitz, owner of vintage site Enokiworld.com, contended that the Web is big enough to accomodate both ‘indie’ and ‘marketplace’ e-commerce models, given the diversity of vintage consumers. “Right now everyone is jumping on the vintage bandwagon,” said Meyerowitz. “Some people are drawn to it because there’s shock value to wearing it, others because it’s a mass commodity, or simply because they can’t afford the new version. Item-specific consumers and cheap people will stick to eBay.” Meyerowitz lamented the fact that too many vintage shoppers tend to gravitate to the usual suspects — Gucci, Pucci, et al. — while remaining oblivious to brilliant but less recognized designers like Bonnie Cashin. Consequently, Meyerowitz pointed out, vintage status fluctuates according to the current cachet of the designer in question. “No one wants to touch Halston vintage right now, because of the current direction the house is taking,” she said.