- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Step into the Remix, a vintage clothing store in Alexandria, and be immediately carried back in time. Leather-fringed ponchos from the 1960s hang next to 1950s chiffon cocktail dresses. Geometric scarves from the ‘70s are strewn over tapestry and alligator purses that your grandmother might have carried. But if you’re thinking this is just used clothing, think again.

Vintage clothing is the hottest new trend in fashion these days. This is not your garden-variety thrift store merchandise. This is high-quality, designer or hand-tailored period clothing — not a “retro” reproduction, but the real McCoy, authentic, original, and one of a kind.

“I like to think of vintage clothing as you would a vintage car,” says Stacey DiTata, owner of the Remix. “It’s classic, quality designer clothing in excellent condition, and often collectible,” she says, placing a Whiting and Davis mesh clutch from the late 1950s on the counter.

“It’s like the difference between a junkyard car and a pristine 1967 Corvette.”

• • •

Once associated only with trendy shops in New York’s SoHo or in the antiques marts of San Francisco, vintage has taken Washington by storm.

Veteran shops are witnessing a resurgence in popularity while new shops are springing up in some of the trendiest areas in the city.

Many attribute the mainstream popularity of vintage clothing to Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw character in the HBO series, “Sex and the City,” but some fashion-conscious Washingtonians have been wearing it for years.

Ms. DiTata, who opened the Remix in 2002, has been donning vintage clothing since she was a teenager in the 1980s.

“I’m petite,” she says. “So it was either buy vintage or shop in the kids’ department. After a while, I began to recognize the intrinsic value of the pieces. Then I began to collect it.”

Takoma Park, a hotbed of vintage fashion, boasts four vintage stores within a city block. The oldest and largest, Takoma Underground, founded in 1997, markets items from the first half of the 20th century, and has provided authentic clothing for theatrical companies, Hollywood costumers and a cadre of swing dancers.

“We’re like a bakery with a wholesale and retail business,” says owner Nadine Rubenstein. “Vintage, especially items from the 1950s, is back. I think people are more appreciative of the detailing in vintage clothing: darts, pleats, gathering, double stitching, great buttons. You can’t find those in clothing today unless it’s in the expensive high-end fashions.”

At ReRun, a stone’s throw away, where a hint of incense and the sound of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar greet customers at the door, owner Ettie Seltzer says, “In 1993, when I opened the store, there were no bell bottoms in existence. I bought straight-leg Levis and widened them, sewing on flowers. I guess I never stopped being in the 1970s. I liked vintage clothes even when they weren’t fashionable.”

But they are today.

Debra Swan, shopping at Takoma Underground, teamed up a gold brocade coat, owned by one of the “Songbirds,” Ella Fitzgerald’s back-up singers, with a pair of jeans and boots. “I’m sure I’ll wear it this winter,” she says of the $40 purchase. “But even if it hangs in my closet until next year, it’s not as if it will go out of style,” she laughed.

“Vintage enables you to break out from the same ‘mall’ look everyone is wearing,” says Leann Trowbridge, who along with partner Danni Sharkey bought Meeps, at 14th and U streets NW, two years ago. “It’s cool to have something no one else has, and can’t run out and purchase at the Gap or Banana Republic.”

Meeps counts among its customer base many of the Howard University students studying fashion design.

“They have such flair,” Ms. Trowbridge says. “They pick up unique pieces, then mix them with current styles… Some will come in after watching an old movie, looking for an item they saw, like a hat to wear with something they already own.”

Karen Leeman of Moonshadow in Takoma Park holds up one of several Lucite purses she has been collecting for years. “I had so many, I finally decided to open a shop and sell some of them,” she says, twirling the small gold and black etched box with the original 1940s velvet bows. “Set this bag on the table during a dinner out, and it’s an instant conversation piece.”

Ms. DiTata seems intrigued by her customers.

“I find that the person who buys vintage, regardless of age, tends to be someone who enjoys the art of the piece, its history, and its beauty,” she says. “It’s almost as if a spiritual thing happens when they connect with a certain piece.”

• • •

Unlike mass-produced, “retro” clothing, vintage items are inspected, examined, and purchased individually and thoughtfully by the store buyer, usually the owner.

Rarely can one find more than one of an item in the shop. They truly are one of a kind.

“There is nothing worse than when someone cries because they saw an outrageous feather hat or Victorian cape on Tuesday, but when they came back on Friday, it was gone,” says Ms. Rubenstein.

Ms. DiTata buys mostly at estate sales, though she will occasionally take appointments. “Sometimes, it’s hard to deal directly with the seller,” she says. “Some people have too much of an emotional attachment. The best people to buy from see the intrinsic value of an item. They want to perpetuate its spirit, and will tell you, ‘My mother loved this. I want someone else to enjoy it too.’”

Ms. Leeman purchases many of her items from what she terms “her little old lady connection,” friends and neighbors who live in her mother’s apartment building. “One woman brought in a large plastic tub filled with beautiful, individually wrapped scarves that she had collected over the years. Most still had the price tag on them,” she says.

Ms. DiTata says that in buying, she looks for what she knows her clients want.

“Sometimes people will pressure you to buy,” says Ms. DiTata, “but I have an intuition as to what my clients are looking for. For some of my clients, like those from New York, ostrich feathers and mink trim are good. The local professional women like the 1940s tailored suits, but the teenagers are looking for anything from the 1980s.”

At that, Ms. DiTata shakes her head. “The 1980s are my generation, and I hate to admit it, but I’m vintage.”

Ms. Sharkey confirms that the ‘80s are in.

“Though we sell a lot of leather jackets to men, mostly those from the ‘70s, and some suede fringed ones from the 1960s,” she says, “the hot seller is anything from the 1980s.”

Aiming for a “Miami Vice” look, teen boys are also flocking to vintage stores in search of tux jackets, to wear with T-shirts in the Don Johnson style, and sunglasses, according to Ms. Trowbridge. The girls, she says, like bubble dresses and shirts off the shoulder, a la Cyndi Lauper and Madonna.

“Of course, they can find the clothes new at H&M;,” says Ms. Sharkey, “but here they pay half the price.”

• • •

It’s no surprise that vintage is popular: It’s affordable.A “retro” mini kilt from Abercrombie and Fitch runs $49.50, but the vintage original, complete with kilt pin, from ReRun, will set back its buyer only $15.

“It’s funny,” says Ms. DiTata, ruffling the fur on an $85 angora shrug, similar to a high-priced designer shrug modeled by Britney Spears in a recent fashion magazine, “the actual vintage item is more affordable than the remake.”

In Washington, where the power suit is still the norm, a pair of 1940s cufflinks or a rhinestone pin circa 1925 can be a subtle, yet creative, way to separate you from the rest of the pack.

“I have male customers who will come in and buy several sets of cufflinks, sometimes more than a dozen, at a time,” says Ms. Rubenstein. “Then they’ll tell their friends where they got them, and they’ll come in and purchase several different pairs. The inventory is always changing. It makes it more interesting for everyone.”

“You have to hunt for what you want,” says Ms. Sharkey, “but you won’t see it anywhere else, that’s for sure. Everything at Meeps is one of a kind. Of course, that’s what makes vintage so much fun: the opportunity to be creative and unique and not like everyone else.”

But perhaps these days, it goes deeper than that.

“During these uncertain times, I think there is a certain nostalgia for the past,” says Ms. DiTata. “I think a lot of the items here remind people of a simpler and happier time in their lives.”

Almost everything in Moonshadow is circa 1940-1950, even the owner.

“It’s no coincidence that I chose to focus on this time period,” says Ms. Leeman. “I think everyone longs for and is nostalgic for the era when they grew up.”

Mary Jack Steit, helping her teenage daughter select several outfits in ReRun that she, herself, might have worn in as a girl in the 1960s, says, “For someone my age, coming in here is like a time warp … in a good way.”

• • •

It’s no secret that most vintage is chic right now, but what’s not known is that the shops tend to be located in some of the trendiest neighborhoods.

“Part of the fun of shopping at Meeps is checking out the other boutiques nearby, and having lunch or dinner at one of the new restaurants that have opened up,” says Ms. Trowbridge.

The neighborhood around 14th and U streets features several stores that carry some form of vintage, whether it is a rack of vintage dresses at Wild Women Wear Red or a mixture of vintage and retro at Nana, a few stores down.

“We sell not only vintage, but clothing that has been remade from vintage items,” says Kristen Stehle, who works at Nana.

“See this sweater?” she asks, holding up a vivid orange boat-neck sweater. “It’s been turned upside down and re-sewn to look more modern.”

Before opening the Remix in Alexandria’s Del Ray area, Ms. DiTata surveyed friends.

“They told me the Del Ray area in Alexandria was an artsy area. I didn’t do a marketing survey or anything, but it’s been a great fit. The community sees the value in the merchandise here,” she says, “and the neighborhood actually reminds me of New York’s SoHo district … but in Virginia.”

Customers of the Remix can grab a latte at the nearby coffee shop or have lunch at any number of ethnic restaurants. That is, of course, after perusing a number of funky boutiques, including one that sells gourmet dog biscuits.

So what are you waiting for? Venture out in search of vintage. After all, the future of fashion…is in the past.

And Washington is where it’s at.

Where to find vintage clothes

Vintage clothing was once a glamour commodity found only in trendy SoHo shops in New York or in the antique marts of San Francisco. But as Washington’s residents have caught on and as vintage clothing itself has become more mainstream, the District and its suburbs have begun to sprout vintage clothing shops brimming with “retro” that’s the real deal. Here’s where to find them, but remember, often individual vintage clothing stores open on days and hours that differ from regular clothing stores. Call for store hours and days open.

The District

• Meeps: 1520 U St. NW. 202/265-6546, www.meepsonu.com

• Millennium: 1528 U St. NW. 202/438-1218, www.millenniumdecorativearts.com

• Nana: 1534 U St. NW. 202/667-6955, www.nanadc.com

• Rage Clothing: 1069 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/333-1069

• Wild Women Wear Red: 1512 U St. NW. 202/387-5700, www.wildwomenwearred.com

Maryland

• Moonshadow: 7000-C Carroll Ave., Takoma Park. 301/270-8775

• Polly Sue’s Vintage Shop: 6915 Laurel Ave., Takoma Park. 301/270-5511

• ReRun: 7001 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park. 301/270-0360

• Takoma Underground: 7000-B Carroll Ave., Takoma Park. 301/270-6380, https://takoma-underground.com

Virginia

• Funk ‘n’ Junk: 106 N. Columbus St., Alexandria. 703/836-0749

• The Remix:1906 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria. 703/549-4110: www.remixvintage.com


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