The most glamorous store in America may be going public.
I don’t mean Neiman Marcus Inc. -- or Bergdorf Goodman, which it owns -- although the luxury retailer is glamorous to many people, and it did just file for an initial public offering.
I’m talking about Container Store Inc.
The retailer, which has 61 stores and two more opening this fall, is known as an exemplary employer, ranking high on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list for 14 years running. It avoided layoffs after the 2008 downturn. It talks a lot about values, and its executives regularly say things like, “We all know we’re doing more than selling a product.”
All those good feelings -- and the sales that topped $750 million last year -- depend on something every Container Store customer knows well: The store’s merchandising is amazingly seductive. Like a luxury retailer, the Container Store gets a premium price for its products and persuades people to buy more than is strictly necessary because, knowingly or not, it traffics in glamour.
Glamour is not a synonym for luxury, celebrity or fashion. It isn’t a style, like mirrored furniture or satin dresses. Like humor, it’s a form of communication that elicits a distinctive emotional response. Glamour lets us feel that the life we yearn for is almost within our grasp. It is a powerful form of nonverbal persuasion.
“We’re really selling not space as much as we are time,” says Chief Executive Officer Kip Tindell. Like the sight of chairs looking seaward on a white sandy beach or a model strutting down a runway in the latest fashions, a walk through a Container Store makes a customer imagine a better self in better circumstances. With the right equipment, it suggests, your life can be peaceful and orderly, giving you more time to relax and enjoy yourself.
Cameron Silver, the owner of the L.A. luxury vintage shop Decades, is known for dressing Hollywood stars for the red carpet, using a remarkable eye for seeing contemporary style in vintage clothing. With his book Decades: A Century of Fashion, he demonstrates the sophisticated knowledge of fashion history that undergirds his success as a retailer and stylist. A survey of 20th-century women’s fashion, the book is beautiful, but it’s also smart, recalling styles often written out of fashion chronicles. Its history of the 1970s, for instance, includes not just the sexy “satin-skinned beauties” of Studio 54 but also the “prairie-chic sensibility” of Laura Ashley's maxi dresses. Contrasting muses—Cheryl Tiegs versus Bianca Jagger, for example, or Joan Crawford's tough-minded “Consumer” versus Rita Hayworth's eye-candy “Consumed”—add further nuance, reminding readers that decades do not come with simple, one-note themes. (Google Books offers some limited previews of the book.)
Silver is also, inevitably, the co-star of a Bravo reality show called Dukes of Melrose, whose dramatic tension derives primarily from the conflict between his big-spending ways and his budget-conscious business partner Christos Garkinos. Silver thinks like a museum curator, justifying expensive purchase by their rarity and long-term potential, Garkinos like a merchant, wanting rapid stock turns. On shopping expeditions, Silver also indulges his somewhat outré personal style, picking up things like a mink sweatshirt as well as merchandise for the store. (For examples of his personal style, see Silver's Coveteur page.) I talked to Cameron Silver by phone in late February, shortly before the show's debut.
DG: What makes a garment vintage?
Cameron Silver: That's the million dollar question. Originally it was a garment that was at least 15 or 20 years old. But now with the change in fashion and designers retiring or dying or jumping ship, fashion becomes collectible much faster and can be considered vintage in a much shorter period of time.
DG: What is special about vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: I think vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have. And truthfully, almost everything modern is derived from the past.
DG: There is a very literal style divide: If you were in the 1930s, you couldn't have worn clothes that were 40 years old. It would have looked absurd. But someone today can wear anything from the '20s on.
Cameron Silver: It is true. In the 21st century, we are able to look at the 20th century in a very modern way, which is one of the points of the book. You can wear anything from the last 100 years and look contemporary with the way you style it. And that is a really interesting point that you make, that one could never have done that in the 1930s. I think that is a cool point.
DG: A dress or suit or jacket can be glamorous, but aside from the specifics of a given garment, is the idea of vintage glamorous itself?
Cameron Silver: I think it is in the eye of the beholder and it really depends on what you are attracted to. My personal aesthetic is that I believe in the democratization of glamour and I like everything glamorous day to evening, and that is really what we do in the store. But just because it is vintage doesn’t mean it's glamorous. There are plenty of things from the past that would be 180 degrees from glamour.
DG: I was getting not so much at the idea that anything old would be glamorous, but whether this sort of concept of “the vintage” has itself become glamorous, at least in the eyes of certain audiences.
Cameron Silver: I think that the notion of saying something is vintage as opposed to just used gives it a certain panache. I think that is one of the reasons why the period when something is called vintage keeps getting closer and closer to present day. There is a little extra validity in saying, “This is vintage” as opposed to just saying, “This is old” or “This is used.” It doesn't necessarily mean it is glamorous, but it makes people feel like it is glamorous.
DG: Why has the popularity or at least the visibility of vintage fashion—whether it is high-end very glamorous sort of couture gowns that you would find at Decades or the sort of more everyday clothes that somebody might sell on Etsy—increased so much? What is the appeal?
Cameron Silver: For lack of a better definition, it is just—it is cool. It makes you seem like an insider. People who wear vintage tend to be the fashion leaders, not the followers.
I think that is the reason why so many celebs were interested in vintage initially, especially like the late '90s, early 2000s. It separated them from the pack of generic, fashionable stars. They were the ones that found and discovered something one-of-a-kind and unique, with history. A celeb in vintage really owns her style as opposed to a celeb in something borrowed from a designer. It's like, “Where did she find that dress? Who is this designer? When was it made?” It becomes a much more, in a sense, glamorous story.
“Vintage is desirable because it is fashion with history. It is one of a kind and in a world where everything is ubiquitous, it gives you something that no one else can have."
DG: Do you have favorite examples of that?
Cameron Silver: I’d say specifically Nicole Kidman, because she was an early supporter of Decades and I had felt that she really defined her persona very effectively following her divorce from Tom Cruise by wearing vintage designer clothing. We dressed her, famously, for the New York premiere of Moulin Rouge and she word this great vintage white Azzaro jersey dress and it was a brand that people had not heard of in a long time. It really sparked interest in Nicole Kidman as not just a fashionista, but as an insider, as an icon. I think vintage is very successful in pushing people's credibility in the fashion world.
DG: Is that because if you go wrong with vintage, maybe you go more wrong? Is it riskier, so that when you pull it off, you look better?
Cameron Silver: I am going to say if it was right 50 years ago, it's right today. I mean, if you are looking at vintage in a modern way. I think there are more risks in wearing modern designer clothing. You rarely see a celeb ripped to shreds in something vintage. It happens way more often when it's someone trying too hard to wear something very editorial that is off the runway.
DG: So vintage has a kind of timeless quality. Is there a generational divide? Is wearing vintage more popular with younger people?
Cameron Silver: I think a lot of people initially get that assumption that it is for the kids. But our clientele is very broad, from teen to well into their 80s. I think that it knows no age barrier. I think the notion that if you wear something that you could have worn 40 years ago that it looks wrong, I don't think that is necessarily the case.
A stylish woman can wear something that has been in her closet 40 or 50 years. And quite often, we have customers who come into the store and they're like, "I had that 30 years ago!" And they like it again. They wish they had kept it or they'd had the money to buy it then. Obviously I don't want to see an 85-year old woman in a micro-mini Alaïa, but I would love to see her in an Alaïa trench coat. Just because it is an Alaïa trench coat from the '80s doesn't mean that she can't wear it. When we are looking at vintage clothing in a very modern way, it makes it easier for any generation to shop with us.
DG: You write in your book, “I participate in the creation of effortless seeming glamour, acknowledging that the illusion of perfection doesn't come naturally to everybody.” The idea of the effortless is very important to the idea of glamour. What is it that people don't see?
Cameron Silver: For example, I am, on Sunday, fitting an actress who is starting a new show on ABC and we are doing like a zillion different fittings. There is so much going on. We're going to try something like 200 dresses, I bet, for four or five appearances. Things will get altered, and we are going to use every secret weapon we have. Obviously your undergarments are more important than your outer garments. So today I was schlepping, picking up stuff from stores and showrooms. The process is not necessarily glamorous. The results can be. But it takes a lot of work.
That is also a very American approach to glamour. I always look at my Parisian friends who will go to a black-tie gala and they will just wear—like woman will wear a pair of black tux pants and a little tank top and a marabou-feathered jacket and put her hair back and some sexy heels and lipstick. We are a little bit regimented in America with our glamour.
DG: I wonder how much of that is worrying about things that are going to be recorded photographically.
Cameron Silver: Yes. I have a friend Sarah DeAnna who has got a book called, Supermodel YOU. She is a very successful model and the book is about using techniques that supermodels use in every walk of your life. As we were talking about ideas for when her book comes out and marketing, I said, "Everyone is a model now because everything gets documented" in the sense that Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. Everyone needs to know how to give their best face. Nothing is candid any more. It doesn't matter who you are. If you are getting photographed, it is going to end up in some social media.
So imagine what it is like when it is ending up on a social media with 2,000 or 3,000 photographers at the Oscars. It takes a lot of extra work to kind of enter the storm.
DG: Speaking of behind the scenes, you now have a reality show, Dukes of Melrose, on Bravo. What made you want to do the show?
Cameron Silver: I agreed to do it at a very vulnerable moment. [Chuckles]
I was super burnt out. I was like, “OK, I'll do it.” I still question why I agreed to do it, to be perfectly honest [chuckles]. But I am hopeful that the show will ultimately be a great example of infotainment, giving an insider's experience of the world of Decades and fashion, fashion history and also be entertaining. It is also the way the industry works now. I want to keep growing, I kind of have to do it. Michael Kors did his show, Rachel Zoe has done her show.
DG: Reality shows all thrive on conflict, as does any drama, which is the opposite of effortlessness. Have you had any concerns about whether revealing that behind-the-scenes stuff, or even playing it up, would damage the glamour of Decades and the looks that you create?
Cameron Silver: For sure I have reservations about it. I'm not a producer on the show. I won't watch any of the episodes. Whatever I did, I did authentically. I am sure there will be many, many moments where I am not seen in my best light. But I think true glamour reveals its underside. And I think that, as Marlene Dietrich said, “Want to buy some illusions?” It is all illusions.
Cameron Silver: And when you go behind the white swinging doors of Decades to the back office that is where sort of the Wizard of Oz bag of tricks gets revealed.
And I don't really mind that. I always liked the storm of being in the backroom. Or the fact that when you go behind the doors of Cartier, or where I used to work at Boucheron, it is not as perfect as it is on the sales floor. The beauty and magic of retail is that then you get on the floor everything is supposed to look seemingly perfect.
DG: Mystery is another key element of glamour. How does wearing vintage create mystery?
Cameron Silver: I think primarily because you just don't know what it is. The fashion pundits can't predict what you are wearing when you step out of that limo. It breeds individuality. I love the idea that all these fashion pundits at the Oscars have no idea what this actress is wearing. There is something rather intoxicating about not knowing the answers right away.
DG: In the book you tell a story about how once you were at one of these vintage shows full of, as you put it tactfully, “decidedly unspectacular merchandise” at the Santa Monica Convention Center and you found this perfect black velvet Halston gown. How often today do you find such buried treasures? Or now has the market gotten so developed that you do most of your scouting in closets of people you know have great taste?
Cameron Silver: I was at that same show at the Santa Monica Civic about two weeks ago. And I found the most gorgeous gold, sequined early '30s mermaid gown. I found the most amazing custom couture I. Magnin dress that was really like a bonded sample of Dior. I still have that eye that no one else has. So I may not find everything at that show, but I always find some gems that not everyone's eye might be accustomed to.
But I think that this gold sequined dress is the most amazing dress. It is so good. And we have a picture—it was purchased by the dealer--with the original owner, who was a radio personality, wearing it. It is so cool. And it was hanging on a hanger and I noticed it is actually extremely sexy and I couldn't believe that no one had picked up on the dress. But, you know, they just—not everyone can find the gem.
DG: So I was going to ask you whether the vintage market has developed so much that you can't find such treasures, but obviously you can.
Cameron Silver: You still can. I don't know if the layperson can do it as easily. It is not like you are going into a thrift store and finding the dress for $25. But it is still possible to find good things.
DG: Do you have to be really small to wear great vintage fashion?
Cameron Silver: Not at all. Again, I believe in the democratization of glamour. I also believe in democratization of being sexy. It is a little bit more difficult with older pieces because I think that if somebody was larger, that the clothes weren't really offered for a woman to wear of a broader size range. Nowadays it is completely different and there are so many options for a woman. I dressed Melissa McCarthy for the Oscars last year. We made a custom dress with Marina Rinaldi.
If you dress your decade, there are certain body types that work better for certain decades. Adele wears quite a bit of vintage and she is not a stick. She is deliciously curvy.
DG: You write that the '30s “made fashion unapologetically effortless” and you contrast them to the '20s. You write that “in the 1920s the rebels all looked alike,” which is interesting, but “in the 1930s, getting dressed became a mode of self-expression.” What was so special about the 1930s?
Cameron Silver: I think it's just '30s are really synonymous with the bias cut. The beauty of the bias cut is it has kind of no construction. That is one of the most effortless ways to dress. You just lift your arms in the air and let the dress slide down your body. Wear your hair up; wear your hair down. I love those '30s gowns. They are so modern looking.
DG: Do you have a favorite fashion period?
Cameron Silver: I'm very 1970s. I love it for several reasons. It is really the acceptance of American sportswear having an international audience after the great fashion showdown at Versailles 1973. American designers suddenly had an international forum to sell. I love the minimalism of the '70s. I'm a very Halston—that's very much my aesthetic. But at the same time I love Saint Laurent Russian collection. And it's really what everyone references still today, is all of those great '70s look.
DG: Is that the aesthetics of the clothes or something about their social and cultural meaning?
Cameron Silver: I love the fantasy of the '70s because it's kind of a return to Weimar, Germany. It is super decadent--you're thinking of the Studio 54 culture. It is sort of like people are acting like it is the end of the world. In a sense, to some degree, it was because the '80s came and AIDS and Reagan. Fashion in the '70s is really flamboyant yet it is often really pure.
If you look at American sportswear and in the early '70s you still have a lot of the countercultural effects of the past and then the late '70s start to be about the beginning of power dressing. I grew up in the '70s and I completely relate to them.
DG: At the conclusion of your book, you write, “As designers demonstrated over and over again via self-referential homage, they just don't make fashion the way they used to. Thank goodness they don't or I would be out of business.”
Cameron Silver: Very true.
DG: What do you mean by, “They don't make fashion like they used to”?
Cameron Silver: We live in a world of immediacy and disposable fashion, and the quality isn't there. The quality is so inconsistent. I am just amazed when I am wearing some expensive suit by an Italian or French brand and the button falls off the jacket the first time I’ve ever worn it. I think it is just crazy. So I think that quality is the main thing and also the exclusivity. It is just everything is everywhere. Every department store to me feels like I am shopping in a duty free. Shopping Barney’s in New York, the ground floor, looks no different to me than Terminal 4 at Heathrow.
DG: Is there anything that you would like to say about anything about glamour?
Cameron Silver: I have this philosophy that everyone should live their life like they are walking on a red carpet. That is not to say you need to be in a gown all the time, but there is just a certain confidence and certain—I’m trying to think—there is just a certain—I don’t know. I just think that glamour is democratic and everyone should have a little glamour in their life. It makes the world a little bit more beautiful.
Dita Von Teese is glamorous when she works out. It is possible to be glamorous all the time. You always—you will certainly attract attention if you live your life a little bit more glamorously.
Born in 1965, Liza D., the proprietor of the two-year-old online shop Better Dresses Vintage, grew up in the New York suburbs as the daughter of an advertising copywriter (“a real-life ‘Mad Man,’” she says). “Growing up,” she says, “the emphasis was on education, the arts, and manners. My mom was a very strong influence. She taught me about taste, and all aspects of etiquette.” An accomplished seamstress, her mother also taught Liza how to recognize and appreciate quality garments—knowledge that she now turns to hunting for vintage treasures. (Here she wears a 1950s sundress at home.)
DG: How did you get into the vintage business?
Liza: My lifelong appreciation of all things lovely, old-fashioned, and well-made led me to buy and wear vintage clothing. Not exclusively or every day, but enough to seek it out as both superior to, and more affordable than, most modern options.
After having my first child, I left my full-time position as a medical journalist at WebMD, and began doing part-time contract writing and editing from home. I'm also a ballet teacher, although I haven't taught for a while and miss it terribly. Anyway, as I continued to shop for and enjoy vintage clothing, I noticed the growing popular interest, and realized I could turn my longtime hobby into a business. I was fortunate enough to be able to reduce my contract work, and focus on researching all aspects of starting up an online shop. Of course, the best part of the process was acquiring the stock! Everybody loves treasure hunting. And I enjoy meeting people and hearing their stories.
DG: Who are your customers?
Liza: I'd say there are two main groups, with plenty of overlap: the youngsters who think vintage clothes are "cooler," and the oldsters (including me) who know vintage clothes are "better." The younger customer wants to be hip. The older customer wants to recapture a look and feel which they may, in fact, have never experienced firsthand. But they know there's a certain sense of elegance, of propriety, of beauty, that you cannot get from a "Real Housewives" dress. They are looking for glamour.
My customers range in age from tweens to retirees, with the bulk falling somewhere in the middle (college- to middle-age). What I find most wonderful is that they come from around the world, with half of my sold items heading to the UK, Scandinavia, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Liza: Good question! And one that generates heated debate among those of us who deal with, and in, vintage! I think we agree that the defining factor is the generational difference. Items from an earlier generation are vintage, items from the current one are not. But what's a generation? That depends which dictionary you consult. Sure, it's the span between parents and their children, but is that 20, 25, or 30 years? For me, it would be 35-40+ years!
Personally, I consider true vintage to be at least 25 years old. Online selling venues (eBay, Etsy, et al.) use a more liberal definition. Some venues, in an attempt to cash in on its recent surge in popularity, are suggesting vintage be defined as 10 years or older! But these venues are using the term as just another key word—a tag meant to generate search-engine hits and increase profits. The more they can lower the standard and expand the definition, the better for their bottom line. Sure, we sellers want to make money, but those of us who appreciate the difference between true vintage and old clothes are using the word "vintage" differently. For us, it's a meaningful descriptor, not merely a search term.
DG: Whom does wearing vintage appeal to?
Liza: 1) Those who appreciate quality. Most, if not all, garments produced a generation (or more) ago were of superior quality to those produced today. Even the most pedestrian items, intended for and marketed to working-class people, were made to last. If a dress or skirt or shirt has survived wearing and washing for 50 years, there's a very good chance it will survive a good while more, without too much effort or special care. If you have $60 to spend on an outfit, how should you spend it? You can buy the hot new trend at the mall or local big box, and wear it a few times until it falls apart, or starts to look weird because the seams have shifted or the fabric pilled in the wash. Or, you can take that money and buy yourself the vintage version—one that not only inspired the current trend, but will probably be around, looking just as good, the next time that trend rolls around.
2)Those who value individuality. It's everyone's fashion fear—showing up at an event in the same outfit as someone else. With vintage clothing, the chances of this happening are very slim, indeed. In a way, wearing vintage is like having your own unique, custom-made wardrobe—only much more affordable. And savvy vintage shoppers know that you can be "on-trend" in vintage as easily as you can in cheaply made, or prohibitively expensive, modern equivalents. Check out the Vintage Fashion Guild's Vintage Inspiration series to see how today's hottest trends are inspired by vintage.
3) Those who appreciate designer quality, but not designer prices. Most of us can't afford a couture gown or even a ready-to-wear designer outfit. But if it's style and quality, not conspicuous consumption, you're after, then vintage is a terrific option. Yes, it's true that label-conscious vintage shoppers have upped the demand for certain vintage brands to the point they are no longer affordable to the average buyer. But there is still plenty of top-notch vintage to go around. And if you're willing to look beyond a particular label, logo, or designer, you can get the quality and craftsmanship you seek at a fraction of the cost.
4) Those concerned about the environment and social justice. Vintage is the embodiment of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Why buy new, when you can get a better-quality, made-to-last garment that's uniquely yours (and, more often than not, was Union-made under fair labor laws right here in the U.S.A.)? Time and again we hear about the deplorable conditions in overseas garment factories. Who wants to wear something made by underpaid, overworked children? Not me. And not my customers. Vintage clothing is entirely guilt free.
DG: What inspired the name and logo for Better Dresses?
Liza: Oh, that's easy. The entire story is on my "About Us" page. Here’s the relevant portion [slightly edited because the photos were rearranged—vp]:
Wondering where the store got its name? Well, some of you may be too young to remember, but not that long ago, any fine store that sold a variety of goods had a Better Dresses department. A few still do. Here are mid-century photographs, peering into the better dresses department at two different stores. The one on the left is somewhere is in suburban New Jersey, the one on the right in the mid-west. Neither a location associated with the finer things in life. Yet each, to me, could be a glimpse into heaven.
Our logo was inspired by this photo of a fashionable young woman walking in front of the famous Barbizon Hotel in Manhattan (having stayed there myself I can tell you, you need a waistline that tiny to fit comfortably in their rooms)
I have no idea who she is, where she's headed, or why she's there. But she perfectly captured the mid-century look and feel I wanted for my shop, so I based my logo around her.
DG: Is wearing vintage more popular among younger people (however you want to define “younger”)? If so, why?
Liza: I’d say that the more recent decades are most popular with younger customers, probably because, as mentioned above, those years just before they were born are seen as "the good old days" and carry a certain cache or hipness as a result. And of course, popular TV series such as Mad Men (60s) and Downton Abbey(10s), and movies such as Titanic (10s) and The Great Gatsby(20s) have a strong influence on current trends. No one likes to be trendy more than young people, and the more adventurous, and savvy, among them want the real thing. So they seek out what could be called "trendy vintage."
DG: What do people who wear vintage fashion have in common (if anything)?
In general, I'd say that most people who wear vintage fashion have a respect for and curiosity about history beyond their own generation, and a desire to be different and stand out from the crowd (not necessarily in a "look at me" or outrageous sort of way). For example, the prom dress buyers. They might be looking for something a bit more modest than what's available at the mall, or they might want that extra bit of confidence from knowing that no classmate will show up in an identical dress.
DG: Beyond the character of any specific garment, is there something glamorous about the idea of “vintage”?
Liza: Absolutely. Vintage, particularly mid-century and earlier, connotes glamour—both real and imagined. Every generation romanticizes the past. And not just any past, but very specifically, the time just before we were born. Those years, we argue, were "the good old days." And while the idealized version of the 1950s, say, may not stand up to scrutiny when it comes to politics or social justice, the clothes actually were better. You'd be hard pressed to find a garment today, at any price, that compares in quality with a utilitarian mid-century garment from your hometown Sears. So when we see a 1950s advertisement of a wasp-waisted model impeccably dressed and impossibly poised, we may be misguided in romanticizing her mid-century life as glamorous, but we're dead on about the superiority of her clothes. They really were spectacular. They were glamorous. Today's offerings just don't compare.
DG: Whom do you consider glamorous?
The usual iconic old-Hollywood movie stars, of course. Greta Garbo, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant all come immediately to mind. But for me, my mom, with her elegance, poise, and style, has always been the embodiment of glamour.
Liza's glamorous mom
DG: Some people treat vintage as an overall fashion look, some as a lifestyle, and some as simply the characteristic of a given piece. What’s your approach?
Liza: Well, as I mention in this blog post, I caution against head-to-toe vintage. Sure, we're free to dress as we see fit, but personally, I do not want to look like an out-of-work actress seeking a role in a 40s film noir or a 70s Blaxploitation film. My simple solution? Mix vintage with modern, or wear all vintage but keep the grooming and accessories current. For example, if you're wearing a 1940s dress and shoes, I'd probably steer clear of bright red lipstick and a victory rolls hairstyle. People are consistently surprised when I tell them that the dress or skirt I'm wearing is vintage. When it's mixed with modern pieces and contemporary styling, they don't know it's vintage, they just know they like it.
As for a vintage lifestyle, I'm not sure what that means. If it's about graceful living and gracious manners, and an emphasis on analog over digital interactions, I'm all for it. If it's about eschewing equal rights or avoiding Novocaine, count me out. I have no great desire to wash my family's clothes on a washboard, nor am I ready to give up my remote control or my right to vote. I could easily live without my cell phone, but I'm not ready to isolate myself from modern society and popular culture, or to actually live in the 1950s.
DG: What’s your personal style?
Liza: I wish I had one! Truth is, I like several different looks, from flowy and feminine to traditional and tailored. I suppose that my overall goal is to look polished. I can usually pull it off when I dress up, taking the time to get things just so. But day-to-day, in jeans and a fitted t-shirt, it's tougher. And the older I get, the more challenging it becomes. I can no longer jump straight into enhancement. These day, I find I'm spending a good deal of time on triage.
I admire people who, regardless of the particular fashions they prefer, manage to always look appropriate, and somehow effortlessly “done.” My mom used to comment on this. Her favorite example was Johnny Carson, whom she described as looking as if he'd just been dry-cleaned.
The key, of course, is tailoring. If your body is reined in appropriately (think “foundation garments”), and your clothes fit perfectly, you’ll look pulled together. Price, labels, none of that matters. And never underestimate the power of good posture.
DG: You have a wall of customer photos on your site. What’s their purpose? How do you choose them?
Liza: The main purpose is to show potential customers that real people, living normal lives, can and do incorporate vintage clothing into their modern wardrobes with great success. But mostly, I just love to see the clothes on happy customers, and I think they like to see themselves there, as well. The only photos I don't post are ones that for whatever reason would be inappropriate in some manner, or potentially counterproductive. Here's a perfect example that didn't make the customer photos wall, but got its own blog post.
DG: What’s the biggest challenge to buying or wearing vintage clothes?
It's the same challenge we face in buying and wearing modern clothes—the fit. With vintage, you start at an advantage, as vintage clothing was made to flatter the body, not to present well on a hanger. But, you still need to know your measurements. Not the ones you wish you had, or think you have, but the ones you actually have.
Next, you must realize that unless you happen to have identical proportions to the manufacturer's fit model, nothing you buy off the rack—vintage or modern—will fit perfectly. It can happen, but it's unlikely. With certain garments—those with lots of stretch or meant to fit loosely—it's not an issue. But with anything tailored, a precision fit is key. It's the difference between you wearing the clothes, and the clothes wearing you. It's how you achieve that polished look.
You need to know your body—both the measurements and the proportions (long torso? narrow shoulders? wide hips?). And you need to know the basics of what can and can't be altered at reasonable cost by your local seamstress or tailor. This is crucial, because knowing that certain garments can be altered to fit you perfectly really changes the way you feel about shopping. Many of the things you might love, but wouldn't have bought because the measurements were slightly off, now become possibilities. And given the comparatively low cost of vintage clothing, even adding in some pricier alterations won't undo the savings.
I have nearly everything I buy (both vintage and modern) altered to fit me better. The difference it makes, for not much money, is incredible. Take my advice, and go have every dowdy, straight skirt in your closet pegged. It will set you back $5-$10 a pop, and you'll instantly look and feel like a million bucks. You can read about that here. Same goes for baggy jackets, or dresses with an unflattering hemline or sleeve length.
DG: What do you look for when you’re scouting for items for your shop?
Liza: I look for age, condition, quality, uniqueness, and desirability. I've become increasingly choosy over time, and I now can easily leave behind items I might have taken with me in the past. I buy lots of things that are not necessarily personal favorites, but that I can easily imagine on a friend or former customer. If it's interesting, fun, unusual, or just a great example of a particular era, I'll get it for the shops. If not, I'll leave it for someone else. I am not motivated by labels. Sometimes a label is a sure indicator of quality. More often, it's a sure indicator that you're paying too much, and are being taken advantage of. I know quality when I see it. It doesn't necessarily come with a particular label attached.
DG: Any stories of great finds?
Liza: Lots! But more than individual items, my stories are about the experiences I've had while on the hunt. Sure, I've found a true gem here and there—a well-known label or particularly desirable item. But I am much more enamored of the people I've encountered, and the stories I've heard, than of any individual item. I've blogged about a couple of these already, and intend to write more in the future. Here are a couple of the stories: Queen of the 60s Shift Dress and That's About It for the Clothes, Do You Want to See My Donkeys?
Still to come is the tale of my time spent with Mrs. H, the Woman With 400 Long-Sleeved Blouses, and my most recent encounter with a fun and wacky local vintage seller moving out of state and wanting to offload her mountains of stock. I bought 99 items from her, and barely made a dent.
DG: What are some of your favorite vintage garments?
DG: What’s your favorite era? Is that because of the styles, the history, the culture, or some combination?
Liza: I have two favorite fashion eras: 1) late 1870s to early 1880s, with the smooth, princess silhouette and minimal bustle:
2) the late 1940s to early 1960s (mid-century, from New Look to Mad Men):
As for culture, I’d welcome a return to a more mannered, and even a slower-paced way of life. And remember not having to worry that anything and everything we say and do can be made instantaneously and irretrievably public? Today, you have to be on guard in a way that's entirely new, and more than a little anxiety provoking. Everyone makes mistakes. We fall down, we say stupid things, we do foolish things in our youth (and beyond). But nowadays, these gaffes, which until fairly recently would simply vanish with the passage of time and lack of a permanent record, are eternal, and can easily end a career or ruin a life.
The notion that previous eras were culturally or historically superior, however, with no real problems of consequence, is pure fantasy. No, I don’t want to live in a time of slavery, or when women were considered chattel, or when it was a crime to be gay. This is just scratching the surface, of course, but the good old days weren’t all good. The clothes were great, yes, but I can still wear them. And if you can sew, you can make them. We needn’t go backward.
No, I’d rather stay in the present. I would, however, like it very much if these three things could be undone:
1) the new and misguided educational tenet that self-esteem is more important than service to and respect for others
2) the policy change that shifted network news from a public service to a revenue stream, resulting in “if it bleeds it leads” and creating the terrifying illusion that we live in constant danger, culminating in today’s over-supervised, perpetually dependent children and that most loathsome of all modern phrases: “play date”
That would be just about perfect.
DG: What’s your most glamorous place?
I love Bergdorf Goodman. It's elegant, sparkly, serene. It's luxurious, but not ostentatious. [In the photo to the right, Liza tries on an $8,000 gown at Bergdorf's, just for fun.] Much of Manhattan is glamorous. Even the grittier areas are made glamorous by the constant, purposeful bustle of industry. More places: The Waldorf Astoria. The Chrysler Building. The lobby of the Woolworth Building. Just exquisite. Oh, and the TWA terminal at JFK (if you can just imagine out the sweats-and-Crocs-clad modern travelers). These are places where you should feel uncomfortable if you're not nicely dressed. Oh, and Paris, of course.
On a personal note, the single most glamorous place I have ever been is the kitchen of a friend's parents' home, many years ago, in the late evening. Everything in the uncluttered, darkened space spoke of a life of incomparable glamour and privilege. The Lear Jet catalog on the otherwise empty counter. The pristine, sparklingly bright refrigerator, containing only a large, cut-crystal bowl of fruit salad, a bottle of champagne, a jar of capers, and waiting for the maid on the top shelf, a silver tray holding a bowl of raisin bran and a tiny pitcher of milk. With no other options, we were forced to drink the champagne.
My latest Bloomberg View column suggests some ways Amazon might overcome fashionista skepticism about its plans to move beyond its traditional apparel offerings into higher-end fashion. Here's the opening:
When I caught Jeff Bezos's eye at the press preview for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Costume Institute exhibit, which Amazon.com Inc. sponsored, his face burst into an enormous smile. I'd like to think this was because the Amazon chief executive officer likes me so much. (We see each other socially on rare occasions.)
But I suspect he was mostly glad to see anyone he recognized. We were probably the only two people in the room who could tell you who Linus Torvalds is, or Myron Scholes: two nerds, however grown-up and pulled together, in a crowd of fashionistas.
Amazon is an unlikely sponsor for a Costume Institute event, and Bezos an exceedingly unlikely fashion advocate. "Before we got involved, this event wasn't on my radar at all," he said of the museum's celebrity-filled annual gala.
But his company is trying to get into high-end fashion retailing, and sponsoring the Met exhibit and the fashion world's party of the year is a good way to get attention. If nothing else, it gets Bezos and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour speaking on a first-name basis.
A cultural gap remains, however. "It could never be cool to shop for fashion at Amazon.com. Geek cooties will come attached to your clothes," an early commenter said about Monday's New York Times story on Amazon's foray into fine fashion. Another wrote, "Do you want to be cool or pay the lowest price? Your decision." The Times story ended with a jab at Bezos for not knowing the brand of his own shirt or shoes -- and for letting a tacky ID badge dangle from his Prada jeans.
Net-a-Porter has already demonstrated that you don't have to be a flash-sale site to sell high fashion online. So have the websites of department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. In the specialized vintage market, so has 1stDibs. The problems of presentation and fit can be overcome.
The real question is the cultural one: How can a middle- brow company like Amazon become a credible source of fashion rather than merely apparel? Here are a few ideas the company might consider:
The yoga-pants crowd is apparently huffing and puffing (mindfully, I imagine) over the "Who Is John Galt?" shopping bags being handed out at Lululemon. (There's a good photo, with both sides of the bag, at the bottom of this blog post.)
“Galt would not likely have proclaimed, as Lululemon’s bags once did, that 'what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves,'” notes the NYT's Ian Austen--a deadpan understatement that demonstrates just how often (the right kind of) politics goes unnoted on shopping bags.
But, he reports, the company's website relates Ayn Rand's celebration of excellence to the company's philosophy: “Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity. We all have a John Galt inside of us, cheering us on. How are we going to live lives we love?”
Or, as Molly Worthen writes on Slate, “Yoga and Rand have both spawned subcultures of devotees not because Americans are either pantheistic mystics or objectivists but because they are individualists who belong to the church of self-improvement.”
Worthen's observation is borne out by another Rand sighting, this one in Bloomingdale's (click photo for larger view), where a Rand quote appears alongside similarly inspirational lines from Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Diana Vreeland, Betty Friedan, and Raquel Welch: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplacable spark....The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it is yours.” Oprah couldn't have said it better.
[Photo by Virginia Postrel. You are free to use it with a link back to this post.]
A small battle takes place each day at the dental office where I get my teeth cleaned. One dentist likes rock music, and if he gets there first, the radio is set to a oldies rock station for the day. If the other dentist gets there first, she sets the radio to a country-western station.
Last week, hearing the music, I assumed that she had gotten there first, but it turned out that on that day she had rebelled against the system. The radio had been on the rock station for several days, and deciding she could not take hearing Cher one more day in a row, she had changed the channel.
Because music often serves as a cultural marker, I assume that cosmetics companies think carefully before choosing singers as representatives. CoverGirl has chosen country singer Taylor Swift (seen above) as one of their current faces, and it would be fascinating to know the demographic considerations that were discussed when they were considering her.
Viva Glam has chosen Lady Gaga as a current representative. In this advertising photo for them she looks far less made-up than she usually does in public appearances. Nonetheless, it reveals a different approach to makeup—reflecting the more over-the-top notion of glamour that Lady Gaga favors. She already serves, for example, as do Cher and Madonna, as a favorite singer for drag queens to impersonate.
Carrie Underwood, another country singer, has a contract with Olay cosmetics, and she seems an apt choice to appeal to a demographic of slightly more mature women than would Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. It must be fascinating to hear the frank pros and cons that are brought up when cosmetic companies are discussing decisions about product representation. Appealing to their target customers is no doubt big business in terms of sales.
I'm a Christmas-shopping purist, which means that I don't really start until after Thanksgiving is over. Retailers, of course, start the season a little earlier—well before all the Halloween candy is gone. What this means at my house is that my mailbox is stuffed to the brim with gift-touting catalogs. Fancy food, educational toys, historically accurate tchotchkes from museum gift shops, lots of silver picture frames—I'm never quite sure what I'll find when I open my mailbox, but it's always exciting.
And I do mean exciting. I realize that not everyone feels as I do and no, catalogs are definitely not environmentally friendly, but I can't help it: I love them. I always have, ever since I was a little girl, when I spent hours poring over every magazine I could get my hands on. When I was a kid, during the mid-80s, my catalogs of choice came from Horchow and Neiman Marcus—apparently I liked what companies from Dallas had to offer (in 1988, Horchow became a part of Neiman Marcus). I spent hours with those books, reading descriptions, analyzing the products and playing a strange little game I called "marking."
When I was marking, I'd make a small check mark or asterix next to each item in a book that I wanted - not so much for myself, but for an imagined future me. I'd read through the catalogs over and over again, each time selecting different clothes, different bedding, and different furniture, as I dreamed of different lives I might lead (somewhat different, at least—in all of my lives, I was obviously able to afford whatever I wanted to buy). There's room to debate how healthy it was for me to define my imaginary futures by the cashmere sweaters and fake Ming dynasty bedroom accessories featured in the catalogs, but it was a fun pastime, I think I've escaped lasting damage, and the reality is that our material choices do play a role in communicating to others who we've chosen to be.
As a kid, I thought I was alone in my game, but I wasn't. Some time ago, I came across a post written by Square With Flair on the lifestyle blog Easy and Elegant Life. SWF wrote about vintage Tiffany catalogs, which he has been collecting since, well, since they weren't vintage. His experience with the catalogs gave me some additional perspective on my own game:
It started when I was a teenager in the 1970s, living in a small, remote, northern town and dreaming of New York sophistication and perfect taste. I’d save my allowance and send $2.00 to Tiffany’s in New York for their delicious little blue book catalog. It always seemed an eternity until they arrived, but they always did. How I pored over those charming little books for hours, days, weeks…for years! I collected one each year, and I studied them over and over. Boy, that was better than any fine arts course, and I’ve taken plenty of those.
Mid-80s Horchow books, with their big hair, Big Dallas looks, were a far cry from the carefully curated Tiffany books of SWF's youth, but they provided some of the same lessons for me—lessons about color, balance and trend.
Today, old Horchow and Neimans books might not be in high demand (though I wish I still had a few), but collectors recognize the value of those gorgeous Tiffany catalogs—right now, a collection of 14 vintage books from 1969-1981 is available on eBay for a "buy it now" price of $1,800. They do make a lovely collection— and an educational one, too.
At my house, the "marking" game continues with my son. He calls his game "titling" (I think it has something to do with car titles, but I'm not completely sure how his mind works). Right now, he spends most of his time with LEGO books and Halloween costume catalogs, imagining what he might do with a Harry Potter costume or a giant set of Indiana Jones LEGOs. Every once in a while, though, he picks up a "grown-up" catalog and starts paging through, stopping here and there to check out fireplace sets or high-end cookware. At four, he's quickly developing an understanding of how that stuff relates to the lives we lead and the choices we make—and he's already starting to make his own decisions about how he wants to fit into the material world we live in.
Kids may lament the end of summer vacation, but back-to-school season offers up a kind of excitement that's not available any other time of year. It's not just limited to the school-lovers, either. Back to school offers something for everybody—a fresh start, an opportunity to be something new. Each year is filled with so much potential, manifested in empty notebooks, unsharpened pencils, and shiny new first-day-of-school shoes.
Marketers know this, too, and aren't afraid to tap into those feelings. Mainstream retailers design elaborate campaigns around buying clothes that help kids fit into one niche or another. This year's JC Penney campaign, titled, "New look. New year. Who knew!" is the latest riff on this common theme, which capitalizes neatly on kids' desires to fit in and on their feelings of heightened anticipation around the start of school.
Of course, kids aren't the only people susceptible to early September stirrings. After spending twelve or more years heading back to school, with all the feelings that evokes, adults often find themselves longing for a new start just as the leaves start to change. Marketers know this, too, which is how we end up with commercials like this one, my new favorite from Target:
Kids get a new look. Grownups get a new hat. And we all get a new start.
To kick off the New Year—and because the shelves lining the walls are completely full and the floor has become an obstacle course of piled-up books and magazines—I am reorganizing my home office and adding more bookshelves in the closet. So I've been spending a lot of time exposed to the surprising but palpable glamour of The Container Store.
For those unfortunates who haven't experienced it, The Container Store is, in the words of Bernard-Henri Levi on his Tocquevillian visit to Dallas, un magasin des boÃ®tes: a big store devoted entirely to boxes (and folders, hangers, shelves, and other tools for wrangling your stuff).
With its open shelves, aproned staff, and fluorescent lights, the Container Store will never be mistaken for a luxury boutique. It features no movie stars, no sunny beaches, no sparkles or perfumed air. Although aesthetically appealing, it is not what people think of when they hear the word glamour.
But it creates a similar seductive effect. Like a glamorous travel ad, it heightens customers' longing for escape and transformation—in this case, to a more orderly home and, with it, a more peaceful life—while suggesting that this ideal can, in fact, be achieved. The “inspirational spaces” on its website do more than demonstrate how you might apply its tools. They encourage you to project yourself into a new, more graceful and desirable life.
The Container Store’s glamour is particularly paradoxical, because, by deliberate strategy, the store lacks mystery, distance, and exclusivity. It is friendly and accessible and down-to-earth. Even its carefully styled photo vignettes tend toward the overt. (If I were advising the company, I’d suggest adding more dimension—doorways, windows, and other suggestions of a life outside the frame—while playing up the use of translucent materials.) How can it create the same feeling as more recognizably glamorous icons or environments?
There are two reasons, I think. The first is that the promise it offers is of something that always remains slightly out of reach: an escape from entropy. And the second, as we know from Monty Hall, is that you never can be sure what's in the box.