Vintage Vogue

September 30, 1990|By A.M. Chaplin

She wasn't even going to go, says Johanna Hoch, but she got a tip.

Usually she avoids auctions in her search for perfect vintage clothes to sell in the Federal Hill shop that's named after her, and she was planning to avoid this auction, too. Till she got that phone call, that tip.

(You don't want to ask from whom; vintage people get edgy when you start asking questions like from whom, from where or for how much.)

What was being sold was the estate of an opera singer who had lived in Bolton Hill. Often estate auctions don't include clothes, Ms. Hoch says, but this one did -- and what clothes! A vintage-seller's dream: Everything in mint condition and a lot of things in duplicate. Several lame and velvet coats from the '20s. Several beaded dresses from the same period. A dozen embroidered Spanish shawls. And the labels! Labels to die for: Chanel, Worth, Balenciaga.

As if this weren't enough, Ms. Hoch says, only one person was bidding against her, and that person dropped out at a fairly low level (never mind which fairly low level). "It was my lucky day," she says.

And even though this lucky day happened some years ago, you can still hear that note in Ms. Hoch's voice, the special note of mingled awe and joy that you hear only in the voices of those who've just won a lottery or narrowly escaped from grave bodily danger -- or found some really neat old clothes at a great (don't ask how great) price.

THE IDEA THAT OLD CLOTHES CAN be really neat probably began with the counterculture and its wholesale rejection of the status quo: To the rebellious souls of the '60s, any era looked better -- and better-dressed -- than the one they were in.

Some observers say vintage experienced a decline during the dressed-for-success '80s, when peacock-garbed hippies turned into business-suited yuppies, but other vintage-watchers insist that it held its own and has actually grown in influence. They point to the extraordinary success of designers like Ralph Lauren, with his evocative re-creations of vintage styles, and they foresee a vintage boom in the '90s.

"Women don't wear those gray flannel suits with bow ties anymore," Johanna Hoch says, predicting a turn to a more individual look. And a unique look is exactly what well-aged clothes can provide, its fans will tell you at the drop of a hat -- preferably by Hattie Carnegie.

In addition, says Carolyn Cook, managing editor of Vintage Fashions magazine, vintage clothing looks like the coming thing for collectors, those driven habitues of antique shows and flea markets. These compulsive acquisitors are beginning to buy old clothes not necessarily to wear, but to have, the way other collectors buy bisque dolls or Renaissance triptychs, and they have already driven up the cost of some vintage clothing items.

Certainly on the local front, vintage seems to be flourishing. Although some vintage shops have closed -- notably the one owned by Dolores Deluxe, one of the first Baltimoreans to show the chic in old clothes -- several new ones have opened in the last few years.

"There used to be about four," says Susan Justice, owner of the Fells Point vintage shop Oh! Susanna, but now a quick and casual count turns up at least eight or nine. It seems in this city selling vintage is enjoying a certain vogue -- or at least a vogue-let.

JUST WHO ARE THE PEOPLE WHO man this industry of castoffs? They're lot a like their customers -- only more so. Like those who buy vintage to wear or to collect, vintage retailers are addicts to the thrill of the hunt -- but addicts who have managed to turn their addiction into a business.

"I still get a rush of adrenalin when I cross the threshold of a thrift store," says Hank Greenberg, the owner of Motif, a vintage shop on Maryland Avenue. (His favorite hit to date was a woman's blouse with bowling pins all over it. "Fabulous," he says. "I found it in a Value Village thrift store.")

What happens to these vintage addicts is that their friends start asking to buy the clothes off their backs. And "your closet gets too small," says Susan Justice. "Eventually you've got to have an outlet." Thus closets turn into stores, collectors into dealers, beaded sweaters into business loans.

But -- and this is a major but -- the person who makes a successful transition from collector to seller has to have more on the ball than a heavy vintage habit. One essential is a good eye, and so perhaps it's not surprising that many collector-sellers have an arts background.

Ms. Justice, for example, went to the Maryland Institute. So did Elsie Ferguson of the Mount Washington boutique Something Else, which has had a rack of vintage clothing since 1968. And so did Ms. Hoch's assistant-partner, Vanessa White. Ms. Hoch herself went to the Pratt Institute in New York and the Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York. (Mr. Greenberg, though, trained as a dental technician.)

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