It's easy to buy Balenciaga. Prada, too. But, to a certain sector of sartorialist, the adventure of hunting and gathering unidentifiable fashion is far more thrilling: the suede vest with three-inch fringe. A Mary Quant trapeze dress with patent leather piping. An oversized lizard envelope clutch with standout hardware. A studded leather Matrix-style coat. Outre glamour is, in fact, a hallmark of the truly stylish. Think about quirky/cool starlets like Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen, Kate Moss, Lana del Ray and Florence Welsch. Instead of snapping up "it" garments, these women stand out from the skinny jeans- and platform shoe-wearing crowd with inspired fashions that look nothing like ad campaigns or magazine editorial.
Often, these esoteric choices revolve around vintage clothing. Why? Because Nothing says "wow!" (as in, "OMG! That peasant blouse is amazing! Is it early YSL?") like a retro accent. Hunting down vintage treasures is an easy-to-develop talent. Search for the iconic inspirations that bold-faced designers routinely riff. Examples? Anything that Grace Kelly could have sported in Rear Window (round-toe pumps, houndstooth jackets, brooches, glamorous alligator, lizard totes with snap closure). The classic silhouettes of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany or Roman Holiday (fit and flare dresses, pencil skirts, crinoline skirts, cashmere twin sets) have enduring appeal. Edie Sedgewick staples (swingy leopard jacket, mod shift dresses, huge statement earrings), Slinky Studio 54 ensembles. And, of course, anything that smacks of Old Hollywood (silky blousons, gilded belts, Grecian gowns, fur jackets, sequined blazers).
Before heading out to shop, do some preparatory homework. Rip a page from the fashion editor playbook and create an "inspiration board." Whip through fashion magazines and tear-sheet the looks that you like. Take photos of these with your phone before you head out to hunt so you have a reference point. Many designers look to the past for inspiration. You may just find the boxy blazer or tweed lederhosen that sparked the vision of the recent Marc Jacobs collection. Where can the average woman score old school treasures? There are three levels of vintage acquisition which range drastically in price point.
Amp up your fashion cognition with these "fashion moment" TV shows and films: The Women, Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby, Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany, Katherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, Mia Farrow in Great Gatsby, Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, and Joan Crawford in Dynasty.
Granny's Closet: Free
Before shelling out your hard-earned cash, check out your granny's closet. Grannies notoriously sock away retro mementos that are manna for the vintage vixen; I suggest bringing a roasted chicken and apple pie to set the feel-good tone before you swan dive into her wardrobe. As you tell granny what an iconic matriarch she is, swoop as many eye-catching baubles into your tote as possible. Note: Great vintage does not have to be a bold-faced designer. A no-name satin-lined evening bag complete with mirror is classic cool. A mink boa with Aunt Mabel's name stitched on the lining is haute chic. Crazy beaded necklaces will yield gargantuan global glitz. Lucite heeled mules are pure luxe. The most collectible vintage designers are Courreges, Chanel, Geoffrey Beene, Ossie Clark, Thea Porter, Gucci, Halston, Pucci, Dior and Biba. These pieces were relatively inexpensive back in the day so, if you are lucky, Granny may have one tucked away in the back of her closet.
Hit List: June Cleaver style dresses, '70s silky blouses, fringed cashmere wraps, anything Pucci, Paisley scarves, anything fur, logo belts and glitzy Knot's Landing style jewelry, quirky medallions, old school chain belts, cameo brooches, Indian bangles, embroidered gloves, shawls, kitten heel mules, knuckle duster cocktail rings, wooden cuffs and massive beaded necklaces.
Thrift Stores: Cheap
It's disorganized. It's cluttered. It's where the vintage vixen puts her hunting and gathering skills into high gear. If you have the stamina to dig through piles of floral house dresses, thrift stores are the ultimate treasure trove. It's simple. Bags bulging with no longer thrilling (to the donor) designer duds are routinely dropped off by wealthy women and those managing the estates of wealthy women. This means that there is a strong possibility that Kenneth Jay Lane earrings or a Bottega Veneta woven hobo bag is nestled within the mounds of khaki pants. My motto: One woman's waste could be your wow. I have exited thrift with Oscar de la Renta blouses ($25), Judith Lieber bags ($75) Alaia dresses ($80) and Charles Jourdan power pumps ($30) and a classic Burberry boiled wool coat with horn toggle closures ($70). Thrift stores are always teeming with statement accessories. Flip through magazines to become acquainted with accessory trends. Then, hunt down the cheap no-name equivalent. Before buying anything, make sure to perform a "sniff" test on potential purchases. Bring the garment away from the racks and inhale deeply. If the garment is permeated with camphor or sweat, put it back. It is very hard to get rid of a decades' old stink.
Tip: Do not be intimidated by size 14s! An excellent tailor can effortlessly suck the sizes out and leave you with a like-new garment.
Hit List: Groovy blouses, leather jackets, cowboy boots, lariat necklaces, looks-like-Hermes leather bracelets, cocktail rings, velvet blazers, beaded evening bags.
Vintage Boutique: Pricey
Some vintage vixens are simply unwilling to sift through White Shoulders-scented dreck at Salvation Army. They prefer the salon feel of an exquisitely merchandised boutique. Here, owners act as editors, offering a highly curated smorgasbord of styles that reflect the splendor of a bygone era. I have a few favorites. At C.Madeleine's in Miami, the vibe is Desperately Seeking Susan meets Casino cool. Clothing is organized by mood: elegant, edgy, classic, bohemian. This being Miami, there is an entire section devoted to the accoutrements of the Urban Gypsy: flowy Halston caftans, goddess gowns and leather in every possible incarnation. New York's Resurrection pays homage to the freewheeling '60s and '70s. The racks groan with Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Bonnie Cashin and Vivienne Westwood. LA is all about glamour. And it oozes from every chandelier studded corner of Decades in West Hollywood. It is here that screen sirens flock for awards season. Owner Cameron Silver is known as a purveyor of the type of jaw-dropping frocks that create red-carpet magic. But, it's not all couture. Equally enticing is Decades' stash of ready-to-wear by top drawer designers like Courreges, Balmain, Lanvin, Giorgio Sant' Angelo, Gucci and Zandra Rhodes. An accessories wall laden with impossible to find Birkin bags and rare Chanel tidbits makes many a malnourished fashion gal weak at the knees. Thankfully, tufted wingback chairs are strategically placed throughout the premises for such emergencies.
Caveat: It ain't cheap. You will be paying top dollar for pristine vintage clothing. But, legions of covetous glances and requests for garment identification will make your investment well worth it. "Oh this old thing? It's vintage."
- Show stopping belts and jewelry Lacroix, Kenneth Jay Lane, Chanel
- Jackets & knits: colorful Zandra Rhodes jackets, Missoni lurex sweaters, Bob Mackie printed "wearable art" jacket, YSL tuxedo jackets
- Glam cocktail dresses and gowns
- Caftans: Thea Porter, Halson, Ossie Clark
- Bags: Hermes, Chanel, Bottega Veneta
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