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How to get the most out of NYC's vintage clothing stores

Experienced merchants offer their tips on how to navigate the racks if you want to explore funky, antique fashions.

Shopping for vintage clothing can be overwhelming, so

Shopping for vintage clothing can be overwhelming, so let us help you before you head to the Manhattan Vintage Show. Photo Credit: Artists & Fleas

The city has always been the fashion capital of the world, but not just for the latest designs. There is a thriving vintage market, too, and spring is its prime time.

Vintage shows and stores promise the best in antique textiles, beautifully constructed clothing and unique hats, bags, shoes, scarves and jewelry, but they can be overwhelming if you don't know what you're looking for or are just starting your journey into vintage fashion. 

To help navigate, we spoke with a few merchants to find out what's all the fuss about old, used clothing and how to dress vintage.

How to do it

Start small

Don't expect to show up to work in a dirndl or a full 1940s suit from the get-go. You can start by incorporating small touches in your daily outfits.

Vivian Rodgers-Hill from Lady V Second Time Around, a pop-up shop out of Queens, says to start with jewelry, scarves, gloves and handbags. "Whatever they start with will attract whatever they get next."

"Look for that one piece that calls out to you and would mix well into your current wardrobe," said Meika Franz of Jersey City's Another Man's Treasure. "Most people come back saying I get so many compliments and notice how much that piece shines in a great way. Then you will be ready to bring in your next piece." 

Martha Camarillo of Gypsy Nation Vintage, who sells her clothing at Artists & Fleas Vintage Showcase, said it can be as simple as wearing a current designer's dress but making it unique with vintage accessories.

"You can TLC a modern look with vintage accessories," she said. 

You'd be surprised how many things you own are inspired by fashion from the past, she added.

"Everything you have worn your whole life has been style-tested throughout the decades," she said. "Fashion is constantly referenced but with modernity. If you want to start to shopfor vintage, follow your instincts." 

Experiment and play

Be open and have fun when trying on funky looks. Just go with what you like.

Holly Ross, co-owner of Brooklyn's Thriftwares, says not to think about it as being "vintage."

"It's just fashion. Go to what attracts you," she said. "Think about how you can wear it with what you own. You will be unique, a little out of the box from what you normally wear."

Rodgers-Hill agrees that shoppers should forget any preconceived ideas and go with the flow.

"Don’t put any rules and perimeters around it," Rodgers-Hill said. 

But don't experiment so much that you'll feel uncomfortable wearing your purchases.

"Avoid things you don't feel comfortable in," Camarillo said. "While it's good to be out of your comfort zone, vintage doesn't deserve to just hang in your closet."

Buying something that is uncomfortable to wear, even if it's amazing, is a no-no, according to Ross.

"If you like the look but don't like the fabric — pass," she said.

Know a good tailor

"If you have a good tailor the world is your oyster in terms of vintage," Artists & Fleas co-owner Amy Abrams says. "In other words, you can purchase something too big that you love and then you can your tailor to alter it for a perfect fit."

If on a budget, do what you can with what you have

Rodgers-Hill says to place a simple pin on your business suit's lapel or pair your pants with a funky jacket. Essentially coordinate pieces you already have with vintage touches. 

Camarillo says you can "take it high and low."

"Splurge on one special piece and then spend less on other pieces," she said. "For instance, you can buy a gorgeous designer blouse but then pair it with inexpensive '80s jeans."

It's also important to shop around until you find something within your price range, Ross says.

"There are a lot of vintage shops and merchants; there are a variety of price points," she said. "Find the stores that have a range of prices. Don't be afraid to be creative with something that isn't expensive. You can turn a simple piece into something creative and stylish." 

If you can't find your size, look online

There is nothing worse than finding something you adore that isn't in your size. Luckily, there are shops that sell online, especially on Etsy, which has its own vintage section.

Learn by seeing

Keep an eye on what you see at shows, check out pages on Instagram like @Rachel_Maksy, @Les_Femmes_Vintage, @damfino, and peruse Pinterest and sellers on Etsy.

"They will show you ways to see yourself differently or how to create yourself differently, which doesn’t mean you don’t love yourself, too," Rodgers-Hill said.

Why do it at all?

Rodgers-Hill says it's about paying homage to those who came before us.

She has what she calls a "Legacy Line," where she buys the clothing of parents and grandparents and finds a new home for them. When she purchases apparel, it's because there's a connection to it, she said.

"My clothes are sourced from places where people spend 10 minutes telling me how they got the piece," she said. "For me, it's about having a spiritual connection to the garment, the story behind it and with the person who is selling it to you."

It's also an art that you appreciate when you stumble across the perfect jacket, skirt or hat. Like customers, vendors have meticulously searched for pieces to add to their collections, like curating an art collection.

"There is a 'vintage high' to finding incredibly timeless design," Camarillo said. "The art is the design of the clothes. The pieces speak for themselves." 

Franz says there is a bit of magic to finding the right pieces.

"It’s like it is meant to be yours, or meant to be for your customer," she said. "When the vintage finds its owner it’s like they are meant to be together or at least for a little while. It also takes a certain eye to find the pieces ... and that is definitely a creative process. I also think how you put it together in a collection or in dress is for sure an art."

Rodgers-Hill also says it's also a sustainable way to dress.

"It's called a circular economy and sustainability," she said. "You're taking part in healing the planet. We make a difference when we buy vintage on a world-wide level."

Vintage stores to check out

If you go: A Current Affair: Pop-up Vintage Marketplace is on May 11-12 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Industry City in Sunset Park.
There will be more than 70 retailers and private dealers from around the country and some international sellers. 

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