Can You Make a Living Selling Schmatas?

Braving the dangerous world of vintage clothing vendors

Once upon a time, many years ago, I attempted to sell vintage clothes at a now-defunct market in the schoolyard on Greenwich Avenue. I remember a very hot, very sad afternoon with my poor old rags hanging limply from the fence behind me—I didn't want them, and apparently neither did anyone else. Finally it started to rain, and I stuffed my merchandise into a red duffel and went home. When I unpacked, I saw that the bag had run all over the clothes, leaving bloody streaks on my faded Trixie Norton swing coats and moth-eaten Ethel Mertz muumuus.

That was the beginning and end of my adventure as an entrepreneur. But if I have abandoned selling, the same cannot not be said for my enthusiastic buying. Still, that humiliating experience, as vivid in my mind as if it were yesterday, has left me with a vast respect for people who have actually made a success of hawking faded Sandra Dee prom dresses and Davy Crockett jackets.

So when the thrice-yearly Metropolitan Vintage Clothing Show rolled into town earlier this month, I decided to ask the dealers in attendance how they got into the business in the first place, and how they actually make money at it. (This hard-hitting reportage, it must be admitted, isn't as scary as, say, cold-calling the Pentagon or being embedded in Basra, since I know most of these freaks, at least by sight, and after literal decades of looking at this stuff, they know me as well.)

Historic yarns: vintage vendors Heloise Williams (above) and Circa Now's Nicole Tondre (far left) and Lisa Fuller
Photographs by Kate Lacey
Historic yarns: vintage vendors Heloise Williams (above) and Circa Now's Nicole Tondre (far left) and Lisa Fuller

When I arrive at the opening bell, there's already a huge crush outside: throngs of steely-eyed design-house employees looking for ideas to pilfer; salivating retail customers wearing the nutty stuff they'd apparently bought at previous vintage shows. I cut the line—I'm a journalist!—and, blinding myself to the beaded cardigans and alligator purses all around me, home in on my first victim, Monica Seggos, who is nice enough to take a break from the brisk selling—these early shoppers are demons—and tell me an amazing story.

It seems that while I was searching in vain at the Busy Bee mall in Massa-pequa for something decent to wear, Seggos's family was in possession of a genuine 19th-century Worth gown. This spectacular frock sold at the Doyle auction house in 2001 and broke the auction record. The excitement whetted Seggos's appetite for the business, and now she sells, if not Worths, a collection of high-end vintage, mostly to designers for "inspiration" (also known as line-for-line copies).

While Seggos's family was working that Worth gown, Heloise Williams was working in what she calls "all the dirt-bag vintage stores" in her hometown of Middlebury, Vermont. Now a partner in Passement Ltd., when she's not selling Schiaperelli swan dresses she's performing with her band, Heloise and the Savoir Faire. (Like Abelard? Um, like "Hints from Heloise," she replies.) As we chat, I look discreetly around her booth for an art deco beaded jacket I tried on at the last show and was about to buy for several hundred dollars when the hand of God intervened and stopped me (but maybe God was wrong?). Williams tells me that she went to Middlebury College and has a degree in English, which has helped her in her current occupation not one whit. "Well, you have to know how to spell, right?" she says with a shrug.

I don't see any beaded deco jackets at Circa Now, but that's because the owners—Parsons grads Nicole Tondre and Lisa Fuller—have an entirely different take on the meaning of vintage than I do: While I see myself festooned à la Libby Holman, they are channeling Janis Joplin. "We're the go-to place for '70s vintage denim," says Tondre, whhas a large flame-and-star tattoo on her wrist. "We specialize in high-waisted jeans." These once-ubiquitous (and to me hideous) garments are not as easy to find as you might imagine—like Depression-era newsboy caps or Victorian work shoes, the more ordinary and well-worn the item, the less likely it is to turn up.

If I'm not much of a denim connoisseur, I apparently left a mark on Elizabeth Kolanski, who recalls that a few years ago I considered a swirlyhand-painted dress later snapped up by Karl Lagerfeld. Kolanski got into the business when her brownstone apartment collapsed. Renovations on the floor above were responsible, forcing Kolanski's family to flee to a country house and begin thrifting in earnest. "Basically, I'm not into the designer stuff—what I find is more plebian," she says, an assertion belied by the appearance of an Yves St. Laurent sweater—a white body with quirky red sleeves (something from the '70s that I like!) that I hastily try on but is, sadly, a tad too small. (Such is the agony of vintage shopping: Invariably, when you love it, it binds or it swims.)

Kolanksi's professional career was spurred by a building collapse; Katherine Manzini, who is from California and is doing the show for the first time, has an even more harrowing tale to tell. "A million years ago," she tells me, she sold furniture and high-end antique jewelry in the San Francisco Bay area until a devastating robbery forced her to look around for something not quite so dangerous. She settled on vintage clothes, which require burglars with needle skills, since many garments require substantial mending before they're ready for prime time. These old babies rapidly became the love of Manzini's life. "It's the vibration, the happy feeling—75 years ago, women had their happiest days in these dresses." The ardor has been returned: Manzini's thriving business, Trappings of Time, supplies period clothes to movies, including a ton of things for Across the Universe, although, she says, "the only thing I could ID was the crazy bus driver's fringed coat."

Some dealers come from even farther away than California. A guy who insists that he be identified as Angela Nechay's husband arrived from Ukraine 18 years ago with English skills, he says, limited to "yes and no, hi and bye." He sold general antiques at a flea market until his wife's enthusiasm for old clothes took over. "My wife likes to dress up," he says. "She likes beautiful things." A former teacher in Ukraine, he turned his scholarly attentions to costume history: "We bought books and studied. Little by little, we were only selling vintage clothing."

But not everyone comes to the business propelled by an affection for Talitha Getty caftans and Annette Funicello circle skirts. Jerome Wilson tells me that the only reason he segued into clothes from his original passion, table linens, is that the younger generation doesn't seem to care much about sitting down to formal dinners every Sunday or changing the draperies each spring the way his family did when he was growing up in Nutley, New Jersey.

"If Lindsay Lohan was blowing her nose on a linen napkin, or E! had a segment on old damask, maybe that would help," he sighs as a young woman trying on an 80-year-old lace dress flaps around his booth, happy as Zelda Fitzgerald on her way to the Biltmore bar.

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