Taking hot vintage clothing to a higher level

bao@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2014 

In 2011, Andi Shelton, co-owner of Raleigh Vintage, picked up a dress she thought was pretty at an antique mall in Raleigh. She didn’t give it a second thought until a year later when she rediscovered the dress, packed away in a crate, and really took a look at it.

“When I looked at the label, it said Callot Soeurs,” she said. “My eyes did that cartoon thing when they bug out. I almost passed out.”

Callot Soeurs was a fashion design house that opened in 1895 in Paris. The four Callot sisters operated the business and used antique lace and ribbons as well as gold and silver lamé to enhance blouses and lingerie. Known for the beautiful detailing on their clothes, Callot Soeurs catered to an exclusive clientele from across Europe and the United States before closing in 1937. Currently, many history museums around the United States have Callot Soeurs dresses on display in their exhibits. The dress Shelton had picked up was from the 1930s, and she had been astounded by its near-perfect condition.

“I still have the dress,” Shelton said. “I’m probably going to hold onto that dress for a while. There are some pieces that are just so special and irreplaceable. It is priceless.”

Building a business

Shelton was surrounded by old clothing when she was growing up, she said, and wore vintage in college due to both budget constraints and a desire to express her individuality.

“I followed,” her business partner Isaac Panzarella, said with a shrug. “She got me into it.”

Shelton and Panzarella go on road trips to other parts of the country, looking for vintage pieces at antique malls and estate sales – something they’ve been doing since 2009. Currently their inventory includes between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces, and they’ve sold more than 3,000 through their online Etsy shop.

“We’ve paid anything from nothing to hundreds of dollars for vintage clothing before,” Panzarella said. “Lots of times people contact us to sell because they feel more comfortable handing off clothes that are special to them to us because we will clean and repair and make sure their clothes wind up somewhere where they’ll be cherished.”

Vintage, not thrift

Unlike many other used clothing sellers, Shelton and Panzarella take the time to clean and repair the pieces they sell. Shelton gently hand-washes every piece of clothing, and Panzarella is in charge of doing repairs. Then, they photograph the pieces and they go up for sale on their website.

“Most of our clothes are purchased by people who do wear vintage frequently,” Shelton said. “Some of them only wear vintage, but others may style certain pieces with more modern outfits.”

The individual care Shelton and Panzarella give each of their pieces has not gone unnoticed. Stylists from the sets of movies and TV shows have contacted them about buying their clothes – even Taylor Swift has worn a dress purchased from them.

The concept of vintage clothing has changed a bit over the past few years. With more young people interested in clothing styles from the 20th century, the term “vintage” is now frequently used to describe clothing from the 1980s and 1990s. Anyone can go to their local thrift store and pick up a pair of “vintage” cowboy boots or cat-eye sunglasses for $10.

However, the pieces that Shelton and Panzarella carry in their store are much pricier than that. For example, a bronze-colored velvet flapper dress from the 1920s, decorated with rhinestones and gold lamé, costs almost $700.

“A lot of people don’t really understand why our pieces are so expensive,” Shelton said, “because they think they can go get the same thing from a thrift store. But we don’t usually carry anything from after the 1970s because we want the quality and the beauty of the clothes.”

From a rack of clothing in her studio, Shelton pulled out a 1920s velvet cocoon coat, lined with beaver fur and beautifully embroidered at the sleeves – not exactly something you might find at a thrift shop. That coat is currently on sale for $728.

Vintage hats also hot

Ashley Webb of Raleigh, owner of Poppycock Vintage Hat Shop on Etsy, has a stack of books and catalogs on vintage hats in her studio that she frequently consults for information.

“I do my sourcing online from eBay and Etsy,” she said. “So especially with eBay, I really have to know my hat styles and materials. I’ve gotten quite a few steals before because I knew that someone had something worth more than they were asking for.”

Webb ships her hats from her home after sprucing them up with a steamer and making repairs. She opened her online hat shop in 2010. Right now, she said, she has between 200 and 250 hats in her inventory.

“My interest in vintage started in high school,” Webb said. “And I started a vintage clothing store before on Etsy, but it didn’t do so well. But I had a few hats in there and they sold really quickly, so I thought maybe this is something that I could sell exclusively.”

Poppycock Vintage Hat Shop carries many different types of hats, including floral headpieces, which are extremely popular right now, to silk cloches, a style that was all the rage in the 1920s. Webb’s hats cost from $10 to over $200.

“The coolest hat I’ve ever found was at an estate sale in Wilmington, North Carolina,” Webb said. “I didn’t get the back story behind it because those usually get lost, but this one was from the Civil War era.”

As summer blazes on, Webb’s floral headpieces and wide-brimmed straw hats have been selling really well.

“It’s an easy trend for people to try who may be just getting into hats,” she said. “They’re really easy to style.”

Local, but still online

Currently, the demand for higher-end vintage goods in Raleigh is not strong enough for sellers such as Raleigh Vintage and Poppycock Vintage Hat Shop to open brick-and-mortar shops alongside other clothing stores downtown. But having that kind of space to work on and sell their clothing is Shelton’s goal.

“I also really want to hold styling classes that will help people learn how to wear vintage in modern outfits,” Shelton said. “It’ll be a great way to bring the vintage community together and hopefully get more people interested as well.”

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