There’s no question that fast fashion has turned the retail industry on its head, moving merchandise from the designer’s table to the retail sales floor so rapidly that consumers can only enjoy “the look of the moment.” Retailers like Forever 21 and H&M have turned fast fashion into big business with disposable apparel that consumers wear for a season or two and then discard.
But there’s something to be said for the vintage shops across the United States that have held steadfast in spite of this trend, serving a niche of fashion lovers, antique collectors, and even costume designers who are on the hunt for rarities.
Shops like Speakeasy Vintage in Montclair, New Jersey, which offer highly curated pieces from the 1920s to the 1980s, are part of this anti-fast fashion movement that treats its intricately beaded frocks, floor-length capes, tilt hats and men’s linen suits as the historical treasures that they are.
Johnny Petrozzino owns the tucked-away, second-floor shop with a small sign out front with a buzzer granting access to visitors. Speakeasy Vintage has a limited selection, only offering what he considers to have true aesthetic value.
“I bring in pieces from designers that most people have never heard of — designers from the 40s, 50s, 60s, that aren’t Chanel or Valentino with pieces that are beautifully designed,” said the lifelong entrepreneur, who is also a barber and an artist. “I don’t look at labels. I’m looking at it as a piece of art work.”
Set designers from television and films have noticed his style and talent for curation. A few of the dresses and hats in his store were featured prominently on “Boardwalk Empire” characters– he acquired them during a private sale after the show ended. Set designers from the television series “Pan Am” have purchased cigarette cases and purses from him, as have designers from “The Sopranos.” His pieces have been featured in a number of advertisements for print and television, including a Mini Cooper commercial. Famed vintage bloggers, including Natalie Joos of Tales of Endearment, have blogged about his collection. Models have come to his shop to sift through his finds.
While most of his pieces are pristine, after Petrozzino’s meticulous restoration processes, there are certain pieces that he prefers to remain imperfect. He loves the “deconstruction” of the shredded bottom of a dress that appeared on “Boardwalk Empire.” He’ll never repair that. And there’s a few things he’ll never sell, including a long women’s coat with fur around the collar from the ‘20s, which has Egyptian-influenced beading on the pockets. “I like the feeling I get from this, and I often think about who might have been wearing it,” he says as he touches the fabric.
An eccentric art aficionado who has lived in Montclair and neighboring town Bloomfield, N.J. his whole life, Petrozzino’s passion for the intersection of fashion, art and history is obvious.
More often than not, Petrozzino has found himself giving history lessons to customers since he opened the shop 5 years ago.
“I don’t think most people have an understanding of how people dressed,” he said. “A flapper has many different looks, not just one look, and the ‘60s took from the ‘20s, for example. And the ‘20s looks were heavily influenced by Egyptian styles”
But if coming into his shop “awakens them to learning about a different period of time, whether it’s fashion, art or architecture, that’s always good.”
His job becomes especially rewarding when a customer comes in seeking a styling for a costume or when students from the Fashion Institute of Technology visit to his shop and express their passion for vintage.
“It’s a really good day when you see a 19-year-old get really excited to see the clothing that their mother and grandmother used to wear,” he said.
Challenges for Vintage Entrepreneurs
The vintage business is tough for a single entrepreneur like Petrozzino, especially in an artsy, cultural town like Montclair, where rents have risen quickly and high-end retailers like Lululemon and Anthropologie have a growing presence. Then there’s the second hand chains such as Buffalo Exchange and Goodwill, which don’t sell curated vintage items like Speakeasy Vintage’s but have similar pricing and operate the same way fast fashion retailers do, buying a lot of inventory from sellers and reselling it quickly.
This doesn’t mean that vintage shops are a dying breed, but it does mean brick-and-mortar alone often isn’t always sustainable for a shop like Speakeasy Vintage. Rather, online resale is one of the fastest-growing sectors of retail and online apparel sales. A report from eMarketer predicts the market will grow at a rate of 16.4 percent through the year 2016.
Venture capital firms have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into fashion resale in 2015; total funding over the past five years has blown past the $400 million mark, according to Bloomberg. In January, online consignment shop Tradesy raised $30 million. By the end of April, vintage luxury reseller RealReal had raised $40 million and social commerce site Poshmark had taken in $25 million. European resale shop Vestiaire Collective scored a $37 million round in September. Then there was ThredUp’s $81 million from Goldman Sachs.
Petrozzino, who prefers phone calls to text messages and in-person to online interactions, laments this reality.
“You’re just not getting the same experience online as you are in person. You’re not seeing the details of the piece or getting the history of the piece the same way you would if you were here,” he said.
People mostly find out about Speakeasy Vintage through word of mouth, and Petrozzino has his charm and distinct style to thank for that. The shop doesn’t have much of an online presence beyond a Facebook and Instagram account, and Petrozzino doesn’t attend the big vintage collector’s shows for the sake of exposure. But he’s in the process of exploring e-commerce, with plans to open an Etsy shop.
However, there’s far more competition online for vintage businesses.
LoAlbo, who founded her shop in 1991, had early success selling online on eBay and Incogneeto.com (which now redirects users to her Etsy shop) back in 1999. But now that she has much more competition from private sellers online over Etsy and other websites, it’s not as easy to be profitable.
“There have been times in mid-February where what I sell online supplements my rent for the month because I’m not selling in the store,” she said.
LoAlbo plans on ramping up her online presence and keeping her 1,800-square foot store, whereas Petrozzino is transitioning his business to online only. He will still keep his storefront, along with a few of his favorite pieces to maintain the exclusive, luxury speakeasy vibe, but his shop will become a hairdressing studio. An Etsy shop and online presence comes with time, because of Petrozzino’s obsessive attention to detail.
“If I’m doing anything, it’s full force,” he said. “It will be nice when someone in another part of the world gets joy out of the pieces I find. Modern pieces are just not made to last like vintage is.”