Retro Revisited

The New Vintage

It's a whole new day in the vintage clothing business, and the good news is, there's more than money to be made here. This is a business with life. All across the country, what was once a mark of penury is now a badge of honor: Vintage is everywhere.

"Open any magazine and you'll see someone wearing vintage clothing," says Mary Penza, owner of Bittersweet Boutique in Wrentham, Massachusetts, and author of the self-published In Love With Vintage Clothing: How to Start Your Own Vintage Clothing Business ($65, http://www.bittersweetboutique.com, 888-794-4474). "There's always been a market for vintage, but now it's much more acceptable. For instance, a career woman who wouldn't have worn vintage ten years ago can now get rave reviews wearing a suit from the '40s."

Penza says vintage shoppers work from a variety of inspirations. "When Titanic came out, everyone wanted dresses and jewelry from that era," she says. Brides seem to have a perennial fascination with the Victorian period. Baby boomers have a weakness for '70s fashions, but then so do their kids. Swing music aficionados have an obvious penchant for zoot suits and '40s dresses. "There's always something [in popular culture] that gets people interested," says Penza.

But it's not just nostalgia that has shoppers in a retro state of mind. We're also starved for individual style. Just look at our retail culture. Every mall looks like every other; every department store hawks the same big brands. If you're not in the mood for, say, regulation cargo shorts, you're out of luck.

But venture into a vintage shop and you might find a black cocktail dress from the '50s with cool lines and the kind of detailing you won't find at BCBG. Another plus, according to Cindy Spade, 32, co-owner of Ver Unica in San Francisco: "You aren't buying something you and your friends will all be wearing at once. Each piece is one of a kind."

Pair that aesthetic with real customer service (at Ver Unica, the owners themselves steer you around the shop; at Decades, every purchase merits a thank-you card), and you've got retailing with real personality. Here are individual pieces that haven't been replicated a zillion times over. Here is style that's timeless and evocative, expressive, transcendent, unique--and a lot more compelling than the cookie-cutter mentality that passes for contemporary fashion.

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This article was originally published in the August 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Retro Revisited.

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