Recovered Memories

Spring '04 on the Cheap

There may be sleet in the forecast, there's nary a bud on a tree, but truckloads of flimsy frocks and flip-flops are arriving daily at stores great and small—a reminder that fashion is as indifferent to the calendar as Jimmy Choos are to comfy feet.

With all this gossamer merch flooding retailers, we thought you might need a reminder of what the fashion industry insists you'll be craving for spring 2004. Ready? OK, then: humongous prints. Lucite. Platform shoes. Gold. Bags with chain handles. Fifties circle skirts. Tie-dye. Trench coats. If some (OK, all) of this sounds a little familiar, that's because—it is. These shamelessly recycled trends have surfaced again and again over the last half-century, which means—good news—everything you need for the new season can be found at your local vintage shop for about a tenth of what it costs new.

To prove our point, we take a whirlwind trip through a quartet of East Village vintage shops in search of elephantine prints and nerdy purses. At our first stop, the exceedingly charming Past Out (238 East 6th Street), we immediately find platform shoes, though we doubt they're the kind the magazines are talking about: These super-high, silver-starred extravaganzas, a steal at $35, might have come from Gene Simmons's closet. (The shop owner hints that the shoes have in fact drifted over from Religious Sex, the punk-fetish store that, sadly, closed recently on St. Marks Place.) If the boots are exceptionally wacky, plenty of other stuff adheres more closely to spring '04 edicts, and many even manage the tricky feat of combining two trends: An '80s kimono-sleeved trench made of some sort of giant-print rubbery fabric is $80; similarly, a metallic gold evening purse sports a clanky handle ($35).

illustration: Yuko Shimizu

At Yona Lee (412 East 9th Street), where local designers' wares mix with an excellent collection of thrift, we find a floridly flowered wool challis dress ($29, marked down from $58) that might have been created by Tracy, the dress designer Diana Ross plays in the high-camp 1975 Mahogany; to make this garment still more timely, add a pair of gold heels, here in brocade ($30) or covered with sequins ($45).

Down the block at Atomic Passion (430 East 9th Street), a cavernous but in no sense haphazard place, the incredibly interesting and varied stock includes historically important Victorian flouncy petticoats and delicate 1930s day dresses. (Unfortunately neither of these is on the magazines' must-have lists this season—maybe next year?) We do, however, locate a pair of bejeweled, clear plastic sandals worthy of Palm Beach in its pre-Trump days, along with a truly spectacular gold leather biker jacket for $125.

It strikes us at this point that oddly enough—we are, after all, in the East Village—we have not seen the merest shred of tie-dye. So we visit Screaming Mimi's (382 Lafayette Street) and ask owner Laura Wills, who has been in the vintage business since 1978, what gives, and she excuses herself only to return a moment later with some of the most exquisite tie-dyed garments we've seen in decades: pure silk beaded camisoles and slips lovingly transformed with a watery rainbow of colors (around $150). "We keep these in the private area upstairs," Laura says.

But there are lots of fun things for the hoi polloi downstairs, including fully four polka-dot trenches, our favorite being the '60s rubberized model in black and white ($75), and scads of bright plastic earrings (Lucite-ish!) from the '80s for $8 to $15, and the promise of a bevy of '50s circle skirts, which Wills says she's in the process of moving into the store. Then she tells us something that might explain why so many clothes on the runways seem so achingly familiar: Famous designers (Dolce and Gabbana, Marc Jacobs) frequently troll her aisles in search of "inspiration." In fact, Wills was instrumental to Anna Sui when Sui was working on her spring 2003 collection, which had a groovy golf theme full of polos and faux-preppie flourishes. "I found great things for Anna in the Southwest," Wills, who these days does much of her buying far west of the Hudson, tells us. Then, sighing at the memory, she adds, "There was such a great old golf store in Arizona."

 
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