Wanted: a winter coat. Material: wool or cashmere in tatty tweed or beatnik black. Fit: about five sizes too big, with enough extra cloth to double as a blanket. Detail: a collar that stands up James Dean-style, sleeves that cover your hands so you don't need gloves. Designer label: not necessary; perhaps a small moth hole or mildew stain on the lining instead. Cost: $100 or less.
If that doesn't sound like the ultimate garment, you obviously don't know about the hippest way to stay hot, circa 1985. Teenagers, young professionals and even movie stars are taking to the streets in the kind of clothes most people sent to the Salvation Army 20 years ago. Mom wouldn't let you out of the house in such a shmatte during the polyester '70s or the preppy early '80s. But what did Mom know? Nowadays trendy pre-teens have taken to wearing Dad's old overcoat to school. And to folks who missed thin lapels and silky linings the first time around, the old styles have twice the pizzazz of a brand-new down parka—at half the price.
As all those young consumers empty their wallets for old coats, they have discovered other thrift shop bargains—cardigans, prom dresses, pegged pants—and used clothing has been selling like it's going out of style. But it's not. Though hippies actually created the boom in the late '60s ("Hey man, let's get dressed up in old clothes and drop some acid!"), a more conventional and much larger crowd than ever rules the rag pile today. "People buy them not as a costume but for everyday use," says Buddy Scarbrough, owner of Houston's Flashback.
Unlike the traditional thrift shops jammed with unsorted, unsized clothes, the hottest old-clothes shops have a brand-new look these days. They are spit-shined boutiques with neon lights, blaring rock music and old clothes dry-cleaned and color-coordinated. The words "used" or "thrift" are banned from such spots. Instead they label their rags "antique" or "vintage." For those who hesitate to put themselves in someone else's shoes (or pants or coats), the stores often carry unworn clothes that have been sitting in warehouses for 30 years or so.
In the past few years vintage clothing stores have multiplied coast-to-coast. New York City, San Francisco and L.A. each have more than 25. Chicago's Flashy Trash moved to a larger store last June and sales have quadrupled. Harvey Schefren, who owns the largest vintage-clothing chain in the world, The Antique Boutique, says his New York store survived when it opened in 1981 by attracting students, artists and gays. "They feel fashion first and shed the stigma that old clothing was only worn by poor people," says Schefren. But now vintage clothes are being bought by the ultimate consumer: the yuppie. "When we captured that market," says Schefren, "we had it made."
Delivering a one-two punch—low prices and clothes that last for decades—the vintage clothing stores taught an unexpected lesson to the giants of retailing. Macy's, Bullock's and Burdine's have already entered or plan to enter the antique-clothing ring with departments stocked from The Antique Boutique warehouse. The trend is catching on in Middle America as well. A Madison, Wis. department store is opening an Antique Boutique outlet this week, and Schefren is also negotiating with a Nebraska store.
Watch five minutes of MTV and it becomes obvious just where the old clothes biz got its biggest boost: rock videos. Fun girl Cyndi Lauper buys nearly all her exotic outfits secondhand at Manhattan's Screaming Mimi's, a store where she once worked as a clerk. A visit from the queen of antique chic is always an event. She helps other customers while dreaming up outrageous combinations for herself. "Cyndi knows what's in fashion and defies it," says Screaming Mimi's owner Laura Wills. "For her, too much is never enough." Rocker Daryl Hall finds his wild dancing shoes at the same place. He also browses at Hollywood Legend in downtown Manhattan, where he bought a silver-and-blue striped topcoat for $200. Mick Jagger outfitted himself from head to toe on a recent visit to Hollywood Legend: a 1954 smoking jacket, ties, a suit, even cuff links.
Always on the lookout for a one-of-a-kind outfit to wear out on the town, movie stars and models discovered vintage clothing even before the rockers. New York City's Gene London rents and sells vintage gowns to hundreds of Hollywood types for the Tonys, Oscars and private dinners. Rentals begin at $150 a day and can reach into the thousands for an elaborate outfit. Several stars have traded in their old clothes for some of the other vintage outfits in London's collection. "It's like playing marbles," says London. "Even though they're rich enough to afford new clothes, they get pleasure out of getting rid of something they don't want in trade for something they want."
Antique-clothing addict Andrea Marcovicci, star of ABC's Berrenger's, explains her passion for used goods: "I can't justify spending $1,500 on a dress when I can get a perfectly gorgeous original cocktail dress for $90." Others can't resist a bargain either. Brooke Shields
sometimes buys tweed jackets for a few bucks at New York's Canal Jeans.
While some old-clothing stores make their product look fancy by imitating designer boutiques, the designers appear to get plenty in return. During the past few years the titans of fashion have stalked antique-clothing stores to glean ideas for their collections. Calvin Klein shops at The Junk Store in L.A. "Antique clothing does have an influence on fashion," says Klein. "It always did and it always will—whether it be a color, a shape or a small detail." Italian designer Elio Fiorucci agrees: "All fashion is reinvention. In Italy, with so many private television stations showing old movies from the '30s, '40s and '50s, you can imagine where a lot of their ideas are coming from."
Buyers for the old-clothing stores have a whole new set of criteria for purchasing their wares. Says Barbara Stout of New York City's Alice Underground, "When I train people as buyers, I teach them how to distinguish between ugly-ugly and ugly-fantastic. When a garment is so tremendously ugly that it makes you want to laugh, then it's salable."
Though small towns tend to be more conservative, a list of city sellers proves Stout's point. Wool or nylon stretch ski pants with stirrups on the bottom—extremely out since the mid-'60s—now sell briskly at Andy's CheePee's in Manhattan for $20 or so and for as much as $53 at Macy's Vintage '84 shop in San Francisco. Other hot items: satin smoking jackets, beaded dresses, pointy lace-up boots, 1950s football jackets, Hawaiian shirts, and patterned skinny ties.
Prices, of course, have kept pace with demand. One New York retailer says overcoats that sold for $40 in 1980 are now going for twice that amount. As old clothes become a better investment, the competition for inventory becomes cutthroat. Few—if any—store owners reveal their sources. Some purchase huge bales of clothes wrapped in burlap at rag warehouses. Smaller dealers buy directly from people's closets. Or they shop around at thrift shops in smaller cities in the South or Midwest, where they can find bargains. The Antique Boutique's Schefren, who predicts that old clothes will become a $300 million industry within a decade, bought thousands of Nehru jackets and paisley shirts for next to nothing when no one wanted them; he just put the jackets on sale for $50 each; the shirts start at $15.
On a Sunday afternoon Lisette Fuhs, 23, stands just down the stairs from the Nehru jackets in The Antique Boutique bargain basement where Diana Ross bought a Michael Jackson-style band jacket just a few weeks earlier. Fuhs sorts through a rack of tweed overcoats, looking to replace the 30-year-old camel-hair job she inherited from her mother. "I need something more respectable," says Lisette, a manager at a video-monitoring company and a typical vintage-clothing convert. Earlier in the day she tried the department stores but found nothing. So when a young man returns a black-and-white tweed to the rack after trying it on, Lisette grabs it. "See how heavy it is?" she asks. "And look at the lining!" But she doesn't like the $85 price tag, so she decides to move on. At a smaller place called Zoot two doors up the street, Fuhs pulls out a $55 black-and-green number with the right baggy look. "It matches my green Roy Orbison sunglasses," says Lisette, posing coyly before the mirror. She pays with her MasterCard.
Obviously Fuhs didn't want to heed the advice given moments earlier by a stranger. But shoppers with more patience will find some value in this expert's timeless words of wisdom. "Don't go to Canal Jeans," he told her. "It's too preppy, too trendy. And The Antique Boutique tends to be expensive. You could go to Andy's CheePee's, but it's too much of a hassle to sort through all that stuff. You should really go to the Salvation Army. I bought a coat there for $7. It's really nice."