Retro Revisited

Self-Styled Success

But styling your own vintage clothing business isn't easy. Trendy, high-profile locations cost money. The partners at Ver Unica saved a few dollars on an attractive shop slightly off the beaten path (though within striking distance of busy Castro Street), but they may be paying for it in lost foot traffic. Though the store took in more than $100,000 last year--and the partners expect growth this year--marketing remains a challenge. "One of the hardest things for us has been letting people know we're here and what we have to offer," says Spade. "We've done a lot of advertising, but we're not always happy with the feedback."

Creating a buzz can be critical--both to store traffic and to credibility. Spade says publicity and word of mouth have been Ver Unica's best advertising so far. "When the San Francisco Examiner did a photo shoot with some of our stuff, it brought a lot of response," she says.

As vintage continues to gain fashion notoriety, publicity isn't necessarily hard to come by. Silver has been written up in Vogue, TheNew York Times, the Los Angeles Times and a host of other publications.

Some vintage retailers have raised their profiles online. Decades, Ver Unica and Bittersweet Boutique all have their own Web sites. Penza, in particular, has been pleased with Bittersweet's online response. "I've had people who live not three miles from here find me on the Web," she says. "I invested a lot of time and money [learning about the Internet], but it was worth it."

The costs of setting up a vintage clothing store vary widely with location, the types of clothing offered and the overall style of the boutique. With some resourcefulness, Penza reports, you can consign part of your inventory (meaning you pay for merchandise only after it sells) and buy used display racks and fixtures. ("I got mine from a store that was going out of business," says Penza. "There are always plenty of those.") Under such a scenario, $10,000 for inventory and fixtures isn't out of the question. Add to that three month's rent, and you've got a bare-bones start-up budget.

More realistically, though, Penza recommends having access to at least six months to a year's worth of operating expenses before opening your own store. "You don't want to be sweating every month about making the rent," she says. Adequate capital will enable you to purchase at least some of your inventory from private parties and/or wholesalers, to create an appealing retail environment and to advertise aggressively--all of which are essential to success.

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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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