It’s fair to say that as a nation, our style is, collectively, in a state of disaggregation. I blame the pandemic, changing bodies and atrophied social skills, though those are just working theories that lead to more questions.
Do the old rules of dressing we once subscribed to even apply in a world where many people no longer have to work in offices but do sometimes meet for after-work drinks? Could I now be someone who wears Western-style shirts on a first date? Is a red satin Versace sheath dress “too much” for sipping a Negroni at a sidewalk cafe on a Wednesday afternoon?
“The resurgence in vintage is partly due to our collective ache to be noticed by other people again after feeling invisible for so long,” said Kat Henning, 34, a freelance shoe and home goods designer in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn.
And as we dip our toes back into a semblance of normalcy and try to figure out what fits (literally and figuratively), vintage clothing can be a fun way to play around without spending so much money (not to mention being conscious of sustainability).
“You had a lot of people going through their closets in the pandemic,” said Liana Satenstein, a senior fashion news writer at Vogue who calls herself the Schmatta Shrink. She also hosts an Instagram series called Neverworns, in which she coaches guests on discovering overlooked items from their closets, then encourages them to donate or sell what no longer works. “They wanted to offload stuff, and vintage dealers got an influx,” she said.
Ms. Satenstein, 32, is a big fan of well-chosen vintage, and she recently splurged at James Veloria, a store in Manhattan’s Chinatown that deals in designer pieces. “I got Plein Sud cheetah print super-high heels,” she said. “I want to look like a hot oligarch’s wife. Anything animal print or psychotically delicious neon color.”
Or to put it another way, “people are ready to stop wearing nap dresses and start partying,” said Blythe Marks, 26, a vintage dealer in Los Angeles and hostess for online vintage trade shows.
The Pleasure of the Eccentric
The hunger for vintage ebbs and flows, but after several years of all things anodyne and aggressively simple being the height of fashion, there is a pleasure to be found in the messy eccentricities of individualistic, pre-owned items: bold costume jewelry, wool trousers from obscure Italian designers or broken-in Hermès scarves.
Vintage shopping online has certainly never been so accessible, with sites like eBay, Poshmark and Depop, which was recently bought by Etsy for a reported $1.62 billion. People born in the 2000s can embrace the low-rise jeans and jersey dresses of decades before they were born, regardless of where they live, and resist the siren call of fast fashion.
But buying vintage lends itself particularly well to stores one can actually visit. “There is a boomerang effect from vintage shopping going all online and swinging right back around to people craving in-person experiences,” Ms. Marks said. “My friend Jeanna of Swanee Grace runs a vintage studio out of her home in Staten Island. You can have a glass of wine and talk about clothes all evening long.”
There has been a proliferation of new shops in New York in the last few years. “We are an in-person experience before anything else, and people are craving that,” said Kathleen Sorbara, the owner of Chickee’s Vintage in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Like most vintage stores with a physical presence, it also maintains a website and social media.
For a recent interview, she was dressed in a vintage Rodier sundress and gray New Balance 990 sneakers. “We operate best in real life, and vintage does as well,” she said.
It’s not just the irregularities of sizing or condition that Ms. Sorbara was referring to — although those are reasons enough — but a shopping environment heightened by the enthusiasm of a friend or a stranger or a stylish salesperson who may encourage you to buy your very first pair of Maud Frizon heels.
When Leisure Centre, a small vintage shop on Hester Street on the Lower East Side, opened in March, it was a temporary pop-up store. “We were supposed to be here for three months,” said Bijan Shahvali, who owns the shop with Frank Carson. Business was brisk, the owners said, and the kind of highly specific ephemera it sells — Chemical Brothers ringer T-shirts, Dean & DeLuca mugs, APC denim shirts from the 1990s — was in demand. They decided to make Leisure Centre permanent.
Smaller and specialized stores with a clear point of view, like Leisure Centre and Chickee’s Vintage and James Veloria, are doing well, as are stores that have become known as destinations for a particular type of item. Thank You Have a Good Day, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, has a small but thoughtful selection of vintage Levi’s and antique work wear. Jean Prounis, a jewelry designer who lives in the West Village, swears by the jeans and painter pants at Front General Store in Brooklyn. Karyn Starr, a personal stylist in Bed-Stuy, frequents 9th St. Vintage in the East Village.
“They have the best vintage denim selection that I think is 1930s to 1970s,” Ms. Starr said. “They will also hunt for you if you are on the lookout for something specific, and they do incredible denim and Edwardian blouse repair.”
Shoppers are also flocking to large and more varied (and often less expensive) stalwarts like Housing Works, L Train Vintage, Buffalo Exchange and Beacon’s Closet, where a line of two dozen people waited to go inside the Guernsey Street shop in Greenpoint in Brooklyn on a recent Sunday.
Ms. Henning likes the Long Island City Goodwill Outlet, which charges $1 per pound, when looking for inspiration for her shoe designs. “I found a perfect pair of burnt-caramel-colored Italian loafers,” she said. “They don’t fit me, which is a small tragedy, but through my work I can resurrect those perfect oversize tassels.”
If you walk through the Lower East Side and Chinatown or Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn — two areas with a dense population of vintage stores — you’ll find plenty of vintage dealers lacking storefronts who simply display their wares on a rack on the street, making them the food carts of the vintage boom.
Recently, Desert Vintage, a designer boutique in Tucson with a large online fan base, signed a lease to open a New York outpost on Orchard and Hester Streets on the Lower East Side.
Like attracts like. “It felt like we were becoming part of a destination,” Mr. Shahvali of Leisure Centre, on Hester, said. “There are other vintage stores in the area, and that’s OK. It’s not a saturated market, but more of a ‘rising tide raises all ships’ thing.”
So Where Should You Look for the One Perfect Thing?
I polled my most vintage-obsessed friends for their ultimate list of shops. Some of them are proven entities that have lasted decades, and others are brand-new, but all of them will thrill a true vintage hound.
75 East Broadway, No. 225
The boutique is hidden on the second floor of a Chinatown mall and feels a bit like a pink satin yonic oasis. In August it introduced a large collection from the celebrated ’90s designer Todd Oldham, including rhinestone T-strap sandals for $160 and a patchwork print blazer for $250.
Chad Senzel’s #streetrack
Since this is a rack of clothes on a fairly busy street corner — the corner of Ludlow and Canal Streets on most weekends — there is no dressing room. There is, however, a full-length mirror for those willing to get vulnerable enough to try on clothes in public. An oversize Pleats Please Issey Miyake dress in dove gray would be easy to slip on, but the Levi’s baggy silver tab jeans would require more audacity — or at least a tape measure.
48 Hester Street
In honor of the U.S. Open, the store featured a collection of vintage tees from Opens past, including a graphic black and white one that a friend of mine bought from 1983, the year she was born. The owners, Bijan Shahvali and Frank Carson, will helpfully talk customers through why something is interesting, like a United Colors of Benetton shirt with a psychedelic flower print that, Mr. Shahvali said, was a design homage to (or, perhaps, stolen from) the rap group De La Soul.
5 Delancey Street
A destination for 2000s-era band T-shirts and mesh Jean Paul Gaultier dresses, but know you’re in for some competition. This is where the designer Virgil Abloh went shopping the day after the Met Gala.
70 Orchard Street
Megan McCormick, who was working at the store on a late summer afternoon, described the aesthetic as having “a ‘Dawson’s Creek’ baggy clothes vibe but with a sprinkle of really feminine gold.” She was a good advertisement, wearing Wallabees, vintage Levi’s and a hand-painted sweater. Two stacks of vintage music shirts included the Spin Doctors and Lollapalooza. The shoes — white Cynthia Rowley mules ($89), Freelance loafer boots ($160), Prada square-toe ballet flats with bead embellishment ($125) — are particularly good if you can find your size before they sell out.
The store has a light and airy feel, without the kitsch that many vintage stores gravitate toward. Come for the graphic tees heavy on arts institutions (one, priced at $88, just reads “JAZZ”), or Ralph Lauren knitwear, but stay for the Italian tailoring. Slacks are popular, paired with either heels or the shop’s consistently great selection of loafers (Tom Ford-era Gucci, $325).
157 North Sixth Street
Even if square-toe mules and slinky hot pink Betsey Johnson dresses ($229) don’t seem like something you want to wear, a few minutes in this store will change your mind. “You can tell people are excited about showing up and being pretty and hot,” said Helena Magdalena, the 25-year-old saleswoman whose current favorite boots in the store are a tall, fitted black leather pair from Freelance with a chunky silver zipper running up the front.
223 Bedford Avenue
There’s a reason this jewel box of a shop has been a Williamsburg destination for nearly 20 years. The co-owners, Marco Liotta and Patti Bordoni, follow closely what designers are showing on the runways and make sure to stock accordingly.
“If Gucci is doing patchwork or flowers, or Jacquemus is doing straw bags, we try to get an idea of direction they’re taking and have those items in the store,” said Mr. Liotta, who was wearing Korean War military pants and a Hawaiian paisley shirt. He pointed to a floral printed skirt in a Gucci ad that inspired them to buy similar skirts ($165 for a pink and green one). A white cotton crochet skirt ($225) was reminiscent of the lace and sheer pieces from Dior or the crocheted shirts sold this season at Bode.
10 ft Single by Stella Dallas
285 North Sixth Street
This store is cavernous and slightly chaotic. But if you can zero in on what you want, there is a logic to it. “There is still a point of view even though it’s big,” Ms. Starr said. “It reminds me of being a teenager and discovering thrifting.” There are entire racks of dead-stock cropped tanks in many colors, sweater vests, plaid and corduroy schoolgirl skirts and cutoff denim shorts in many washes, all very short. There are rows of cowboy boots and white overalls and a daisy print minidress for $35 that looks like something someone would have worn in an R.E.M. video in the ’90s.
606 Manhattan Avenue
This store is what Carolyn Bessette Kennedy’s closet may have looked like, all shades of black and white and beige and gray. A silver Ralph Lauren shift dress is $120; a cream Armani wrap skirt, $85; a black Christian Lacroix silk and lace assemblage, $129; Levi’s 550s, $108. The most perfect Robert Clergerie loafers are waiting for their own size 6 Cinderella.
Not done exploring?
Here are some additional recommendations:
Seven Wonders Collective
Dusty Rose Vintage
L Train Vintage
Vintage Thrift Shop
Goodwill NYNJ Outlet Store