NEW YORK CITY — If you're serious about fashion, vintage should account for at least 20 percent of your wardrobe.
But remember this: Vintage is not a style, it's a tool. If someone says to you, "Your outfit looks vintage," you're not being complimented. Also, it's important not to confuse vintage with thrift — or vintage couture with regular vintage, for that matter.
This past weekend, I headed to The Manhattan Vintage Show, my version of paradise, at Metropolitan Pavilion in Chelsea, where more than 90 vintage and textile dealers gathered. (The next Manhattan Vintage Show is April 19 and 20, and they host several more throughout the year.)
A show like this gives you an education. But the scope of vintage market can seem overwhelming, so here are some shopping techniques I've found to be quite helpful.
1. Have a Plan of Attack
The more organization and structure you apply to your search, the easier it will be for your eyes to hone in on a treasure. Before you go to a show, research. The dealers are listed, so spend an hour on 1st Dibs, Etsy, EBay, or the dealers' websites, familiarizing yourself with what they specialize in. It's easy to lose track of time at a show, so you want to force yourself to map the five you've lined up for yourself. You will have pleasant distractions along the way, but it will give you a geographical mission. This also introduces you to vintage shopping online, which is a must for getting to know the market.
2. Make a Mental List
You should have a running list of things you're looking for: categories, eras, designers and specific items. I'm always looking for the anything nautical, army, or safari; lambs wool coats; mini dresses from the 60s; Balenciaga from the '50s; Ossie Clark, crocodile clutches, little-girl looking dresses. I was over-the-moon to discover The Archives, a group of dealers with a stand-out ability to choose the kinds of American and heritage pieces that contemporary designers are copying for stores now. (They don't have a shop so look for them at the next Manhattan Vintage Show.) They had already organized their racks into nautical, fisherman's sweaters, madras, denim, 1930s sundresses, army jackets, early lace, and others. I bought a sailor suit from 1910 that is perfection.
3. Talk to the Dealer
The most efficient way to find what you're seeking is to talk to the dealer. Tell him what you're looking for and he will start pulling as you browse. Dealers are a huge source of information, and will give you a history lesson to boot. At the Rue St. Denis, which has a store on Avenue B in the East Village, I told the charming owner I was looking for mens wear in extra small sizes, and he pulled a pristine (never worn) 1970s Pierre Cardin velvet three-piece suit made for a 16-year-old boy. Pierre Cardin, he explained, was the first designer label for men.
4. Activate Your Eye and Your Nose
If you're browsing in a store and you're not sure what you're looking for, give yourself one organizing principle. It can be anything really — search by color, fabric, or occasion — it's just to give your eyes a bit of discipline. Many vintage stores will have been arranged according to color. Amarcord, which has both SoHo and Williamsburg locations, organizes by color, so I'll tell my eye to pay attention to the fabrics, and mostly I avoid synthetics. Make sure you sniff the frock before you purchase it — certain smells are wash resistant.
5. Always Buy Quality
If you're paying less for vintage than you're paying for new clothes, then you're probably buying junk. Vintage is not inexpensive. I loved browsing the 37th street store Paradox, which carries pieces from the 1800s up through the 1980s. At the show, I fell hard for a Victorian Beaded Cape, a fringed Valentino from the '60s, a beaded mini that was in a Frank Sinatra movie, and quite a few of their sheer flapper dresses — all around $1,000. This is not to say you can't find deals. A Christian Dior gown from the '50s will likely be less expensive than ones in stores now, and it will be better crafted. I feel less guilty spending money on vintage because the quality is there, and I'm wearing a piece of history.
6. "It's kind of ugly, but also sexy" is the right spirit for thrift
Thrift will give your outfit a sense of humor and irony. But don't overdo it. You'll need to keep the rest of what you're wearing simple and straightforward if you don't want to look shabby.
7. Know What's Wearable and Not Wearable
There are certain styles that will make you look like you're wearing a costume — full-skirted 1950s dresses (unless they are Balenciaga or Dior), over-sized 1980s, and fussy furs from the 1970s. Right now, 1970s Yves Saint Laurent blouses are easy, as are 1960s princess-line dresses, and chiffon floral dresses from the 30s.
8. Adjust and Update
You should pass on items that are ripped or discolored, but keep in mind you can take things to be altered, turn dresses into shirts, and replace buttons. At Recursive Chic, which is based in Louisville, Ky., I found the exact buttons I've been looking for to replace the ones I'd lost from my vintage Ferragamo sweater. Keep your eye out for extraordinary textiles. One of the great things about vintage is you can find colors that aren't out there anymore because dyes have changed, and hand-made lace, and craftsmanship from a slower time.
9. Know Your ABCs of Vintage Couture
Even if you can't afford it, you need to know what the copies — some of which are quite good — should look like. My favorite vintage couture dealer in New York is Rare Vintage, where celebrities get dresses for awards ceremonies. Juliana Cairone has extraordinary sources, and pieces you won't find any place else.
10. Don't be Timid
Spend time at your local shops and make friends. Once you have your first conversation about vintage, you'll be hooked.