By Rachel Hayden
The sun is shining, heat is beginning to creep into our days with the promise of summer. Perky sundresses and summer-ready high-waisted shorts fill closets around the world, waiting patiently for their turn to mingle at the vintage fair, farmers market, or leisurely park picnic. Despite the blue skies and scorching warmth of summer ahead, this year holds special challenges for the world due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which makes these platonic visions seem as aspirational as the glamour of Old Hollywood; as Americans and other citizens around the world shelter-in-place to protect their health, daily life has taken a drastic change. The impact of this pandemic is far-reaching, and yet to be fully understood, which has created a new normalcy in staying in, communicating primarily through the internet, and turning to online communities and apps for everything from ordering groceries to shopping small.
This is where the vintage community comes into focus. Around the globe, the Coronavirus is impacting the lives and incomes of billions of people, including those within the vintage marketplace. I recently spoke to several shop owners about how this pandemic is impacting their businesses, customers, and personal lives. As many vintage-enthusiasts already know, there’s a deeply knowledgeable and passionate base of collectors, sellers, pin-up models, burlesque dancers, and freelancers within Instagram. As a seller and collector myself, I’ve been amazed by the generous outpouring of support between sellers, customers, and brick-and-mortar small businesses during this time. Over the past few weeks, I interviewed several vintage sellers about the impact the lockdown has had on their businesses in hopes of highlighting why shopping small is so vital. Instead, I found these sellers to be as vibrant and resilient as the wonderful vintage community itself, making this less a story of “make do and mend” and more an account of “chin up, tits out.”
Why does this matter? When you choose to shop small, the impact of your purchase is far reaching; this is especially imperative in a time of social-distancing. The sellers behind these shops have varying backgrounds- some rely on selling vintage wares for their entire income, while others juggle multiple careers or raising a family with their shop responsibilities. Some still, have found vintage sales are suddenly their only income. While so many sellers use services such as Etsy or Instagram to sell their wares, as many vintage shops have had to temporarily close their brick-and-mortar stores or strategically restructure their business practices. In addition, vintage fairs, markets, and beloved events around the globe, such as Viva Las Vegas and the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show, have been cancelled or postponed, closing off another avenue of income for vintage retailers.
When I asked Lindsay, the owner of Frocks and Frills Vintage (Illinois), about changes in sales as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, she shared the challenges facing her as a storefront business: “My brick-and-mortar has been closed since early March and it has definitely seen a rapid decline in sales online as well. My income is less than a quarter of what it was.” Sarah of CarlaSue Vintage reports the same experience with her physical locations, “Covid 19… has robbed me of all local income. Both stores I sell in are closed indefinitely.” These shop owners, like many of the other vintage retailers I spoke with, have taken their online businesses to the next level in order to provide an income for their families. For example Katherine, owner of Vintage Katherine’s Boutique (California), is a queen of optimism who has taken to selling some of her personal collection since she can no longer source new stock. She describes the challenge in her own words, “I gave myself a pep talk (true story) “just gotta do what you gotta do.” And so far that has been keeping my shop afloat. I…believe that what you put in is what you’ll get out.”
Understandably, most vintage sellers don’t reveal the sources for their incredible wares, and yet sourcing has become one of the greatest issues facing their marketplace. Some sellers, including current and previous brick-and-mortar shop owners or those with typically high sales volume, are fortunately well stocked and ready to bring buyers new pieces. Miki and Steve of Trailer Park Flamingo Vintage (St. Louis) fall into this category. In response to my questions about backstock, Miki shared “We have hoarded a lot of inventory just in case something happened where we couldn’t travel, so we are well stocked. It has been rough not going out and hunting for pieces…but we are hanging in there.”
Mary of Little Bird Vintage (Pennsylvania) is in a similar position, but finds a different approach is best with her offerings: “I’ve been consistently purchasing vintage clothing over the last few years with in person buying appointments, so I’ve built up my inventory. I’m fortunate to have inventory, but I’m also…trying to spread out my items/listings so I do not run out of items to list in my Etsy shop.” Jacqueline, owner of Toadstool Farm Vintage, discusses how she’s dealing with this issue, “I’m lucky I have a large backstock and I’ve also decided now is a good time to re-photograph older items, and just generally update older pieces.”
Other sellers expressed a deep anxiety over keeping their shops well-stocked to maintain their customer base. Jamie of Big City Small Town Vintage (Ohio) shared, “It is a massive concern! I still find the amount of anxiety that comes from the inability to acquire new inventory a bit surprising. Like many, I’ve been largely relying on online sources, such as auction sites. The issue is that this can become quite expensive compared to an estate sale or a thrift outing, and there’s quite a bit more competition, especially now.” Other shops have even taken this as an opportunity to help support friends and loved ones who are suddenly unemployed. Molly of RetrogradeRcade, a California-based online shop, described the layers of meaning behind their current selection, “The pieces I’m offering now are so much more special and meaningful because they’re either pieces from my own personal collection that have sentimental value or because they’re being sold specifically to help folks in more dire situations . I feel grateful to be able to continue doing what I love while also helping the people in my community and friends I care about most. “
Caring. Compassion. Community. These are words we take for granted despite all of us vintage enthusiasts being “sentimental” at heart. While the pandemic spreads and retreats around the world, we’re still attempting that normalcy I mentioned earlier. And yet, positivity is connecting sellers and vintage enthusiasts like never before; almost unanimously, the sellers I spoke with mentioned the bolstering effect of kindness in their online community. Katherine gushes gratitude for this unity, “One may think that people would… be fending for themselves during these times but everyone, especially fellow vintage shops, have really come together and been really supportive.” Leah, owner of Veracious Vintage (Austin), describes the supportive environment enveloping the vintage community online, stating “I often like to think of the vintage community as a model for what I wish to see in our greater society. We are a global community: diverse, inclusive, and cooperative. It fills me with pride to see an increase in effective communication, genuine connectivity, and most importantly, compassion.” Mary echoes this need for a bright spot, understanding that not everyone online is there to purchase – “My goal is to create an environment that brings joy to all through visual storytelling.” Her feed is truly a romantic journey through fashion, curated to bring whimsy and happiness through her selection of thoughtfully paired items. Like Mary, Lindsay clearly values the connections made with her customers, “I used to have a lot of people that were regular visitors in my shop. These are people of all ages and walks of life. I wish I could communicate with some of them and tell them they still have me as a friend.”
In a world that is now even more reliant on the internet, the connections and investments you make when shopping small leave a substantial impact. Emily of Great Glen Vintage, a music teacher and seller from South Carolina articulated this imperative wonderfully: “I think it is important to support vintage, small brands, and slow fashion all the time – pandemic or not – for the sake of our planet, the environment, and individuals working hard to support their families.”
Justine, owner of Old Friends Vintage Co (Chicago), voiced a similar message in support of small businesses, “Behind every business is a person following their passions, the decision to purchase from a small business versus fast fashion…makes a huge difference in the ability for that shop to keep things running. Never has this been more important than now; your purchase goes much further in helping a small business than a larger store.” In regards to slow fashion, Jaqueline emphasizes the quality of vintage clothing, “In a time of crisis slow fashion is more important than ever. When you can’t get everything at any time, things that are built to last are far preferable.”
Bernice of Bobby Pin Boutique, located in the Netherlands, also underscores the importance of shopping small within the vintage community with a poignant rallying statement: “Please continue to shop online and support small businesses, we need it more than ever…Help all those small businesses survive this crisis and keep the vintage spirit alive!” Can’t shop at the moment? Sarah reminds us there are lots of ways to help support your favorite vintage retailers, such as “ kind words, purchases, and sharing…I have been truly touched by the genuine love and support across the globe!”
The online vintage community is buoyed by this uplifting spirit. It’s as if all those images of floral prints and cozy dressing gowns have messages all their own, as if that silk loungewear breathily whispers into your ear ‘Chin up, it’s going to be okay.’ Feeling lackluster? Reach for that extravagant marabou robe or stunning full-skirted novelty print! Miki describes the transformative power of stay-in style enthusing, “Isolation has actually… made us dress more boldly and outlandishly. Clothing is a great morale booster, and dressing up is always fun even if you have nowhere to go except to have a fashion show for [y]our cats.” Justine expresses her cheer at trends she’s seen recently “Cute sundresses and summery prints are in trend right now. Regardless of what is going on I think everyone is hopeful there will be a day really soon that they can step out and wear their cute new vintage dresses in the spring and summer sunshine!” As for me? I’m with Leah: “You can bet that on day one outside of isolation, I will be hitting all the [vintage] spots!”- while wearing a sundress.