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Making Something New Out of Something Vintage; An Interview With Gill Linton, Founder of Byronesque

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Gill Linton has a foot -- likely wearing a 1980s pair of Thierry Mugler shoes -- in two worlds. Her mission is to bring the chaotic, local and impractical world of shopping for vintage clothing into the world of the web, ecommerce and original content. Gill's startup -- named Byronesque, launched last month -- is on a mission to not just create a new supply chain for vintage goods, but to provide an authentic counter-balance to the churn-and-earn values of the global fashion industry. She believes the market for this is enormous and under-served; in this exclusive interview she decodes her company's name, pulls no velvet-gloved punches about the moral calamity that the fashion industry has become, and details her plans to turn what might seem like a niche into a major turbine of trends and style.

Q: You chose quite the literary reference for your new company's name. Were you an English Major or were you just drawn naturally to aristocratic excess?

A: Actually, I've always rejected the aristocracy; to me Byronesque is the antithesis of excess. We're definitely more punk in attitude -- we reject fashion trends and frankly we believe that the "fashion aristocracy" has screwed up.

Q: So why Byron?

A: His subversive lyrics had incredible social impact. He was an unconventional and controversial rebel with a deep disrespect of rank and distaste for norms. He had many dark qualities, and from those depths came his immense sense of style and creativity.

We're not literally named after Lord Byron. But we are for sympathetic people whose dark and subversive style and attitude challenge mediocrity. By their very nature they are "Byronesque."

Q: It's certainly not the equivalent of calling your business "Gilt." Any other correspondence between the world of literature and the world of fashion in your fevered imagination?

A: The poet Jens Peter Jacobsen captures the soul of our audience. This particular poem resonates so much with us that it's become a shorthand for what we're about:

"There is here in this world a secret confraternity, which one might call the Company of Melancholiacs? That people there are who by natural constitution have been given a different nature and disposition than the others; that have a larger heart and a swifter blood, that wish and demand more, have stronger desires and a yearning which is wilder and more ardent than that of the common herd."

Q: Say you're in a vintage elevator, the ones with those architecturally wondrous collapsing grates. What's your elevator pitch?

A: They've turned most of these elevators into cheap characterless boxes. The vintage ones are rare and we appreciate them all the more because of it. The same thing has happened to fashion culture. We're an inspirational tool for people who appreciate the quality and provenance of unique design. We exist to push people's imaginations so we don't all look the same and can stop adding more waste to the planet. (Bad taste is a different form of waste.)

Q: You don't have much respect for the fashion industry, it seems.

A: It's driven by profits-only and cheap fast-fashion knock-offs. I believe you can profit from creativity, quality and progress. Byronesque sells inspirational editorial content and authentic vintage from the world's best vintage retailers.

Q: There are so many start-ups in fashion that are promising curation. Indeed, one wonders if curation has jumped the shark. How is Byronesque different?

A: I couldn't agree more. Curation has become a terrible marketing buzzword; too many fashion start-ups are using it as a way to claim uniqueness where it doesn't exist. They hide behind "curation" because they have no real brand point of view and simply aggregate other people's content. All our editorial is original, even our Facebook timeline. Our head of merchandise is one of the most respected vintage buyers in the industry.

Q: "Vintage" has also been cheapened as a concept.

A: Shamefully so. Authentic vintage is 20 years or older, but because "vintage" has so much fashion cred today, it's used to sell everything from thrift to last season's resale.

Q: But old can be bad, too?

A: Of course. Just because something is old doesn't mean it's good -- it's why we're establishing the first-ever global standard for authentic vintage fashion that has had a significant impact in culture.

Q: Byron said that "Adversity is the first path to truth." What adversities did you need to overcome?

It gets back to our curation discussion. It was tough to deal with potential investors who are convinced that the lowest-common-denominator "curation" websites are the future of fashion. Fortunately, I found an amazing group of investors including Andrew Rosen and Marvin Traub Associates. They recognized the value of high quality content and merchandise. It's simply not available anywhere else online.

Q: Where do you see Byronesque fitting into the world of vintage fashion sourcing? There are mom-and-pop shops, there's 1STDibs online, there are antique shows and fairs.

A: Some industries have been around for so long that we accept them as forever unchanging. That is, until someone comes along and reinvents them. So while vintage fashion is a fast-growing category, its model is very outdated. The "you never know what you might find" dream of rummaging for vintage, whether it's at a mom and pop store, a fair, or on eBay, isn't rewarding anymore. Especially now that we're culturally trained to expect a sophisticated shopping experience, particularly online.

Q: Your audience has high standards, then?

A: They are a sophisticated avant-garde fashion crowd who appreciate the quality and stories behind vintage clothes and accessories. They want to wear the original authentic design but don't want to look like they're dressed for Halloween or a period drama. There isn't one, globally influential, authentic, vintage fashion brand that speaks to them in contemporary voice.

Q: What kind of online experience did you set out to build?

A: A combined editorial and e-commerce brand dedicated to vintage fashion and culture with a dark, provocative and contemporary point of view -- ignoring all the trite and mediocre "best-practices" that the fashion industry is trapped by.

We want people to feel like they're shopping at a carefully merchandised boutique with extraordinary designs by culturally significant designers. We're not a history book, we celebrate the people who did things better the first time around. This recognition will push people's imaginations, and break the cycle of commercial mediocrity.

King and Partners, who designed the site, and who are also investors in Byronesque, created a new way of experiencing content and shopping online. The results so far show that people keep coming back to spend quality time on the site.

Q: What's your business goal? How much beyond a niche site do you expect to become?

A: Vintage isn't a niche business -- that's a misconception and the opportunity. Vintage is defined point-of-view; many powerful brands have that optic, and have become huge. We are addressing a massively under-served market.

It's never been more credible to wear "used" clothing. It's socially responsible and people value the scarcity and stories behind it. Vintage is a less price-sensitive business than the contemporary fashion market. Then there's the margin structure -- anywhere from 200-500 percent -- and you'll see our upside.

Our priority is to create an influential vintage fashion brand with a contemporary voice and grow the market globally by adding more retailers around the world. We've already brought on new retailers in the U.S and U.K. in less than a month.

Q: Can you share some of your mid- and long-term planning?

A: We plan to launch a subscription services next year and when the time is right, we're excited about a "future-vintage" manufacturing opportunity to diversify beyond "one of a kind" items. Key is retaining the integrity of the brand and minimizing the complexities and risks associated with wholesaling.

Q: Might you partner with traditional retailers to be their vintage closet?

A: Yes, in some capacity. We've already been approached by a number of stores and digital magazines too. It has to be the right fit for us though, something very conceptual. I'd love to partner with Dover Street Market for example.

Q: Who is your prototypical customer? Affluent hipsters? Wealthy Upper East Side matrons who want a vintage outfit to contrast with their face work?

A: I'm not judging rich hipsters or Upper East Side matrons, but they are well served by the "nostalgic" vintage fashion market. Our customer has a different appreciation for clothes, and they share our frustration with the banality of fashion. They don't want to be defined by Tory Burch pumps or a Chanel handbag. They are more interested in being different and that can be subtle or it can be extreme.

Q: What's your relationship to the fashion design community?

A: They are very important to us, and to me personally. Soon we're launching The Back Room, a subscription service specifically created to provide designers unique access to inspirational editorial content and vintage clothes and accessories from around the world. That fills a real need. Currently, they have to invest significant time and money on research and travel. There's really nothing online for designers who don't follow trends and who still need to be creatively inspired.

Our goal is to help inspire the next fashion troublemakers, because without a new generation of designers like Westwood, Galliano, McQueen, the fast guys will win. We won't knowingly sell Back Room subscriptions to fast-fashion brands.

Q: You have a real allergy to the hungry commoditization of the global fashion factory.

A: It's the shameless over-production of other people's creativity that I object to. Ultimately it ruins the joy of owning something special and unique for everyone else. Epecially the designers.

The BBC did a brilliant series a few years ago called "British Style Genius." They interviewed Malcolm McLaren about his punk legacy. He talked about how he thought his brand was ruined when Princess Diana bought items from the Pirate Collection that he created with Vivienne Westwood. That's why he created Bow Wow Wow.

Q: How do you avoid the problem of stuff that's cool-to-think-about but difficult-to-wear?

A: The merchandise we sell isn't difficult to wear. The bigger problem our customers have is that it's difficult for them to find. We choose pieces that will work well with the contemporary designers in their closets. .

Q: Where do you get your merchandise from?

A: Vintage retailers and showrooms around the world. Initially, I did a lot of traveling, narrowing the real vintage from the thrift and the ugly. We only partner with retailers and showrooms that share our style sensibility and that exclusively carry items that are at least 20 years old. These partners have unrivaled access to private vintage sales and auctions.

Customers looking for something specific or that was sold out can always email us at personalshopper@byronesque.com and we'll do our best to find a similar item.

Q: How important is editorial in your mix, and how can you afford to keep it fresh and relevant given the cost of really smart content that's at the level of your merch?

A: It costs nothing to be smart, you just have to have a meaningful point of view, and that's something the fashion industry isn't really known for. Moving forward, some of our costs will be absorbed by subscription fees. Many brands struggle to develop content strategies because they have nothing to talk about beyond hawking product. Our editorial is our marketing. It's the stories behind the clothes and accessories we sell that make them special.

Q: Your site has a line that caught me. You say "Nostalgia is the enemy of process and vintage is the future of fashion." That's clever, but if you don't harbor some nostalgia for the craftsmanship and stylistic passions of the past, are you more of an appreciator than a buyer?

A: Nostalgia is safe and comfortable. That's not what we're about. We're inspired by the level of craftsmanship and designs that were far easier to find two decades ago, than today. Our customers aren't interested in cloning the past. They're not trying to wear sixties vintage to replicate Jackie Kennedy.

Our customers want to simultaneously celebrate the people who did it better back then, but to wear those items with inspired creativity reflecting today's culture. In turn, that will inspire others to get out of the banal fashion run we're stuck in.

Q: You see fashion as a transformative force in the culture, then?

Absolutely. It's easy for people to dismiss fashion as being frivolous and superficial. (Frankly, much of it is.) But when you look back at the pivotal culture moments in history, you'll see fashion's role in shaping identity, attitudes and beliefs. Just look at mods, punks, skinheads, new romantics etc. They all had a point of view and you were either with them or against them. Diverse groups creatively inspire -- and alienate -- each other. That's how subcultures morph, bifurcate and grow. It's why we believe that vintage is the future of fashion.

Q: What in your background points to Byronesque?

A: I started my career in advertising working for start-ups. I've always had the entrepreneurial bug. Eventually I became a brand strategist and worked with many fashion brands from Lee Jeans to Chanel. My frustrations about the banality of the industry -- high and low -- turned into a passion to do something about it. And with Scottish parents it means I don't give up easily; persistence and determination made Byronesque happen.

Q: When are you going to expand to men's? My credit card is burning a hole in my 1970s Cardin suit.

A: Buy something for your wife so that we're successful now and I can expand into menswear by yr. 3. Deal?