Retro Revisited

Rack up sales with retro fashions.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the August 1999 issue of . Subscribe »

{Cameron Silver isn't into the latest trend. As the owner of Decades, a Los Angeles boutique specializing in vintage clothing from the '60s and '70s, Silver is the champion of fashions past. It just so happens that, in being so, he's an arbiter of things to come.

About 60 percent of Decades' sales come from contemporary designers looking for inspiration. They mine Silver's shop because everything old is new again. Because fashions come and fashions go, and what goes around comes around. And because no one knows the chic from the cheese better than Silver. "They say I have the eye, whatever that means," Silver laughs.

For one thing, it means Silver has become a style setter in a city where style counts. His clients include a long list of twentysomething celebrities and, though he declines to give sales figures, he acknowledges that Decades brings in about as much as a comparable contemporary boutique. Make that a successful contemporary boutique on Melrose Avenue, L.A.'s trendiest street. (You get the picture.)

What's remarkable isn't that a trendy retailer is making money in the big city. It's that a 29-year-old former cabaret singer with no business or fashion background can become a style icon simply by having a knack with old clothes.

Not that Silver isn't legit. His sense of style is uncanny. His ability to appreciate a silhouette, to find genius in tiny details, to exercise taste and to predict the next big trend is real and true.

And still. This is the vintage clothing business, the same industry that a decade ago thrived on smelly Hawaiian shirts and skirts that could only suggest a bad Cyndi Lauper fetish. This is the same industry that gave us thrift stores and seedy dark consignment shops crammed with polyester this and that. Gaze from one incarnation to the other--from the bedraggled thrift outlet to Silver's cooler-than-cool style haven--and you can conclude but one thing: Resale has been reborn.

Gayle Sato Stodder (, a self-professed fan of retro fashions, spices up her own wardrobe with vintage pieces.

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,, 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.

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.

A Shoe-In

Then again, the rules in this business--like every other--are a-changin'. Consider Tace Chalfa, 26, formerly a partner in Seattle's fabled Red Light vintage clothing store. Recently, Chalfa and her former partner ditched the store for cool cash. Now Chalfa operates online at

Chalfa is proof positive of the potential in this market. While at Red Light, she developed an accidental specialty in vintage sneakers. She bought her first pair of 1978 Nike Stings for $50, with little thought to their investment value. "I put them in the [display] case, and every kid who came in wanted to buy those shoes," says Chalfa. "They were begging, pleading, but for some reason I held out. Finally, some kid came in and said, `Please, let me buy those shoes for $1,000.' What could I say? They were sold."

Recognizing an opportunity when she saw one, Chalfa boned up on vintage sneakers. Apparently, there was a brisk trade with Japan, where young trendsetters couldn't get enough of old Nikes and Adidases. Chalfa's inventory was limited, but she was resourceful. "I started calling people who had been featured in old [sports] magazines," she recalls. "I told them I bought old sneakers for cash and asked them if they had any in their closets. A lot of times they did."

So many times, in fact, that Chalfa's little sneaker business took in $450,000 in 1998. She recently released an infomercial and a video about buying and selling vintage goods (Rags to Riches, $29.95, 800-723-6335) and is hoping to open a new store in Portland, Oregon. Says Chalfa, "There's so much potential [in the vintage market]. I mean, who would have imagined that old sneakers would be worth all that?"

Out With The Old, In With The Vintage

Old Retro

  • "Used"
  • Sign of poverty
  • Wading hip-deep in rags
  • Buy on consignment
  • $1.79 department store dress, circa 1957
  • Cyndi Lauper
  • Salvation Army
  • Fashion refugees
  • Dirt-cheap price
  • Ostracism
  • Smells like bad memories

New Retro

  • "Vintage"
  • Symbol of style
  • Service-oriented shopping
  • Buy upfront with cash
  • $4,000 couture dress, circa 1973
  • Cameron Diaz
  • Fashion icons
  • Platinum value
  • Individuality
  • Odor-free and loving it

Smart Move

Try It On

  • There's no specific trade association for the vintage clothing business. The National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops (NARTS) supports vintage clothing retailers but doesn't emphasize this side of the resale business. For information, contact NARTS at P.O. Box 80707, St. Clair Shores, MI 48080, or visit
  • Get the lowdown on selling vintage goods to Japan: Farley Enterprises' 70-page, full color guide, Wanted in Japan, is available for $13 by calling (801) 224-3130. Or visit for up-to-the-minute information on hot items and pricing. (You can order the guide there, too.)

Contact Sources

Decades, (323) 655-0223,

Ver Unica, (415) 431-0688,

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