What was your experience with sustainability while you were working in organic cotton production?
At that point, sustainability was not a “plus” — you would try to market it better, but you had to hit people over the head with the most amazing designs to actually sell your product. Organic was never a selling point. People were actually confused by it — “Organic? But you’re not going to eat it.” It was still in its cradle, at the beginning of things. We were very connected to the farms. The buttons came from Ecuador, they were made of sustainably harvested nuts. Eventually we would take all the scraps from the cutting table and send it to paper mills to make organic cotton paper to print our hangtags on. We really tried to push the question of “what can we do here?” In the midst of that, we all started thinking about our own consumer patterns. It started with a Christmas thing where we decided we would only give gifts that were used. More and more we started to make that decision for ourselves, to not consume new things. At that point, these were not catchphrases. But it really shaped a lot of my business principles.
How do you think these principles apply to people now?
Sometimes in my day-to-day business I can really be a bottleneck, especially in conversation with younger people who are used to going on Amazon and buying whatever it is they need. I wish more people could experience when you transform from being a consumer, where you expect to have everything at your fingertips, to the consumer who would take the innate, inherent quality we’ve had for millenia, this need to hunt and gather and scavenge. We have this. Some people love to go through their grandma’s closet. For some people it’s food right? There’s something really rewarding in not just consuming, but taking what you have and playing with it to make something that feels like you. When we are just consuming, we lose fashion and a sense of style. This is really key in how we got here. We learned to believe that in order to look good, you have to get new stuff all the time. Whereas style is all about how you feel in your garment and how you show off what you’re wearing. And there is a lot more to that.
How and when did you begin selling vintage?
I ended up back in New York and eventually in a place where I had to reinvent myself very fast. I had to come up with something to do. So I took all my clothes that were now vintage and began to sell them. My daughter was a ballet dancer so while I was waiting for her to get out of class, I would spend a lot of time going in thrift stores or vintage stores and I really learned to use my eye to see what I like. I didn’t buy a lot, but I bought unique, special things. I love things that have been made with care and with intention. I had no thought of owning a storefront, but at that time, flea markets had kind of just started in New York and I began selling there. Through that, I would meet designers and women who came and shopped with me and I thought, this is my goal in life - to be close and connected to people. So I started collecting and curating.
What do you think keeps you able to stay open after all these years?
I think what is different about me is that I don’t come from a background of loving “retro,” necessarily, or specific designers and fashion houses. I don’t really care so much about that. It’s interesting, but I come from a place of “look at this garment. Look at the quality. Look how it’s made. See how much integrity this has, how much intention.” To me, it’s about the connection between these garments and their owners. You can’t really say that about things that are made today — they’re not really meant to be anything more than money made. Except there are a lot of people making organic cotton or smaller designers with a lot of care in what they do, so I shouldn’t say everything. But what I stand for is that a huge part of sustainability is that we can’t consume our way to a better planet. That’s a fallacy. We are depleting our resources and basing it on greed and not human connection, care for each other and the planet.
When you go shopping, you might need a jacket. But if you really think about it, people a hundred years ago had one pair of shoes. A couple changes of clothes. So we don’t really need another jacket. But we’d like something. And part of shopping is experience. That I think you can only get with a smaller retailer. If you have that, then when you walk away, you had a great experience. And it is transferred to the clothing in the sense that you can say you really care about the things that belong to you. It’s inevitably how we exist in the world, what we pay attention to. People come to me and say “I got my favorite dress here,” and I wonder if there is something that happens when they come in and feel connected. The next time they put on that garment, they feel good.
What do you think should motivate people to buy secondhand?
The reason to buy secondhand I think is a cliché, but just the amount of water that goes into producing cotton. Or the amount of acreage that is needed to produce linen. And the lives that are taken and used in making fabrics like wool. All these resources. Which is what is so infuriating about fast fashion — that you took all those resources to make something, and there is no intention of even caring for it past wearing it once or twice. It’s sold to become trash, or it’s not even sold. It just becomes trash. To me, that’s violence. Existential violence. There should be every kind of motivation for that not to happen.
You are known for your shoes. Can you tell me a little about how you curate your shoe collections?
What I’ve learned over the years is that the quality of the shoes has everything to do with the parts and the craftsmanship that go into it. The leather that is used to make the shoes I sell is vegetable tanned leather. That process takes much longer than any process [the fashion industry] is using currently, except for maybe a few tanneries. The high end companies like Chanel buy up tanneries to secure access to high quality leather. They’re not doing that because they want to be in the tanning process. It’s because when we are mass consuming, buying shoes made from not such great leather and are not leather lined – which means that within a month or two you’re going to start seeing the shape of your foot through the outer leather. because it’s the inner leather that holds the shape of the shoe. You don’t wear your shoes from the outside. You wear your shoes from the inside. It’s the moisture and heat, AKA foot sweat, that wears your shoes out. You need a really high quality, strong leather to be up against your foot. Then you have another ply of leather that faces the elements. But it’s the inner leather that protects the outer leather. I used to buy shoes and would have them for years. Now if you buy a pair of new shoes, you’re lucky if they last you one season. I don’t understand where we agreed that that’s how we want to do it. I think it has something to do with the fact that people want to spend less. Before I bought vintage, shoes were the most expensive thing I would buy, because then you would have them for several years.
What else do you love about vintage?
For me, it was always about individualism. You will have something no one else has. That is where all that luxury branding came from — you would be the only one who has that luxury Chanel bag. But that’s not how they make money, right? You will be the only one who has that Chanel bag, with lots of other people having that Chanel bag, and you all know you spent $20,000 on it. And that’s how you feel that you’re special. But it isn’t special if everyone has it.
How do you curate your shop?
We can’t just say, “Buy used.” we have to do better than that. New York is very special in terms of vintage. It’s another facet of fashion. Whereas in many other parts of the U.S. it’s like, ‘50s dresses, or the Mad Men look. “Retro.” I don’t do a ‘60s dress and a random ‘70s dress. I come from working in fashion, so I wanted to curate my shop the same way any other shop is curated, and you can come to me and it will be just as trendy as anything, but they’re not made now. It’s in the way they’re curated. For instance, we’ve just gone through a period that was very ‘90s inspired. But the ’90s were ‘70s-inspired. And so if you then take ‘70s and ‘90s and mix it together, and maybe throw in something else from another era but with the same feel, you have a theme. I go out and search for things I like. I have a huge warehouse, so then I curate around what I think is the next season. More [vintage sellers] are doing that now, but when I started fifteen years ago, it was kind of unique. People would come in and say, “is this new or used?” They were confused because it wasn’t random.
I think shifting people’s minds back to repairing and caring for the things they do have, so that they last, is really key.
You don’t know how much business I get my cobbler. I bring all my shoes for the shop there so they are in perfect condition. And then I hand out his card to pretty much everyone who buys shoes with me. The way they are convinced to maintain a pair of quality vintage shoes is that they put them on and they just have this look on their face. Like they’ve been kissed the first time. [Laughs] The difference is that the shoes were constructed. It takes I think 130 steps to handmake a pair of shoes. So these shoes are all made, they’re all out there, and my job is to gather them and offer them.
How else are you seeing people change since your shop has been open?
The last few years, I think the last two years in particular, people started saying, “I don’t do fast fashion anymore.” I don’t think people want as much stuff. They want a jacket, a coat, three pairs of pants. They don’t feel like they need all the excess. That’s super interesting. And when you have fewer things, you need better quality stuff. You need to know a shoemaker, you need to know a tailor. A lot of people will try things on and say, “oh, it doesn’t fit.” But I don’t have a mirror in my dressing room because I want people to come out so I can show them: if you love it and it’s just a little big in the waist, that’s about $10 of alterations and you’ll have something that fits you perfectly. If you take something and make it fit you, especially if it was really well made, you have just not only invested in something, but you’ve also somehow done something for everyone, because you took care of something.
What do you think makes it hard to convince people to be more sustainably focused?
I think one of the reasons we are not changing and the world isn’t saving the planet — it’s not our main focus, is the early hopelessness people feel. When I say “early,” I mean we all carry some hopelessness of how things were hard when we were little, or we were hurt in a particular way, that we kind of gave up. It kind of hits us with this idea that “it doesn’t matter what I do. It’s not going to matter if I recycle. It doesn’t matter if I take this cup with me and find a place to put it.” There is something there we’re vulnerable to.
But the reality is that ultimately it is up to individuals.
Right. We have to say “I’m willing to give something up.” One of the ways I think about it is, I have a grandson. And if you said “would you give this up for him?” I would say, “of course.” But it’s very different where I’m from. Here we are so wrapped up in our individual rights. One of the things I find very useful with my business is that it supports me, it supports the people I employ. But really it’s also subversive — underneath is this idea that I have about all this that I’m able to communicate with people.
For instance, the bags I use in my shop don’t have my name on it. It’ll be a weird bag that says the name of some spa on it. They’re new though, they’re beautiful bags. But when the company comes to me and says “what kind of bag do you want us to print for you?” and I ask what they have that is misprinted or going to get thrown out. And they’ll say, “Oh yeah, we have all these misprinted bags from this company in Virginia.” So they know now to come to me and I’ll buy the stuff they’re gonna toss out. And then I get a chance to talk to people and say, “yeah, it’s a weird bag,” but then I get to tell them that story. There is stuff out there that no one needs that you might want. My staff will laugh about the fact that I have a really high end store, but then I’ll have these bags that say “kids store” on them. One had like polka dots and candies on them. [Laughs] I think it’s cool to have thought in everything you do.