Women's Fashion

Vintage top gear

From mint couture to fun secondhand finds, California’s vintage boutiques always deliver. Words and pictures by Lucie Greene.

September 19 2009
Lucie Greene

It all started eight years ago. While studying in Vermont, I visited my friend Anita in San Francisco for Spring Break. I barely saw the bridge, the tourist points, the Bay – what Bay? It all faded into the background because of the shopping, or more to the point, the vintage shopping.

We spent hours scouring in the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury, swooping up pillbox hats and 1940s tea dresses, before driving down the coast and stopping at small towns discovering boutiques, thrift stores and vintage shops. I returned with trunk-loads of circle-cut skirts, 1960s cardigans and lizard clutch bags, all sourced at bargain prices and in perfect condition.

Recently, as a fashion journalist living on London’s Portobello Road, I’d grown disillusioned by vintage. Market stalls line the street every weekend with retro T-shirts marked up 90 per cent and jeans from last year rebranded as “vintage” – and priced accordingly. Vintage has lost its innocence here – any hint of retro being exploited to the max. Meanwhile, designer vintage pieces are few and far between, and of varying quality.

I yearned for California again. How blithely I’d skimmed the racks there! Forget trunks, I should have bought truckloads. On an impulsive afternoon I booked a flight, this time planning to cover the whole coast, starting at Los Angeles, on a vintage-shopping road trip.

Vintage, in every interpretation, is abundant in Los Angeles. On street level, it’s cheaper and much better quality than you’ll find in Europe or on the East Coast of the US. Meanwhile, at the higher end, no other city can match it for its wealth of rare, certified, mint-condition pieces.

I start with the very top of the pile: Lily et Cie in Beverly Hills. Lily et Cie isn’t one of the stores that most people have heard of, but that’s how owner Rita Watnick likes it. “Ultimately they find out,” she says airily, while guiding me through the racks of jaw-dropping designer pieces that range from hundreds to several thousands of dollars.

Watnick has been in business for 30 years and is the go-to for virtually any starlet in search of a red-carpet outfit. Recall a major Oscar vintage gown from the past 20 years, and it’s probably from here – Penélope Cruz’s vintage white 1950s Balmain for the 2009 Academy Awards and Renée Zellweger’s pivotal lemon yellow Jean Dessès in 2001, for starters. And Demi Moore, Winona Ryder and Kate Moss are all loyal customers.

At the same time, for designers her store is a key resource for research and inspiration. “Valentino says this is the only vintage store he comes to. He sees pieces of his from years ago. Every company comes to us. All our clients are fabulous,” Watnick quips. Indeed, Lily et Cie’s credentials are formidable. The store is said to stock the largest selection of museum-quality pieces in the US, the world’s largest collection of Rudi Gernreich, archive pieces by Norell, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga, in addition to Madame Grès original samples.

Watnick presides over the store from a mirrored deco-inspired desk with a vast antique tiger rug behind her and the air of a true fashion doyenne. Even when I arrive she’s taking a call from US Vogue luminary André Leon Talley, while a rack of unworn vintage Lacroix and Yves Saint Laurent sits casually waiting to be catalogued.

On my visit she shows me an original 1960 Yves Saint Laurent for Dior alligator and mink biker jacket – from his last collection for Dior, which she describes as “the most pivotal and controversial piece” – a range of fine estate Mario Buccellati jewellery, a never-worn 1960s Balenciaga couture ball gown and hundreds of Gianni Versace pieces.

Watnick doesn’t do favours. Actresses – even the starriest – pay for their gowns. The store doesn’t even have a website and Watnick will only reveal prices to shoppers once they are in the store, so as, she says, not to spoil the buying experience.

Lily et Cie is at the centre of a clutch of upscale LA boutiques patronised by high-profile stylists, designers and celebrities. Across town on South La Brea Avenue, I visit Zac Posen’s favourite haunt, The Way We Wore, owned by Doris Raymond. The store has a theatrical wardrobe feel with more accessible designer pieces (vintage ready-to-wear) at the front. I climb a flight of leopard-print steps to its mezzanine and discover the hard stuff: designer couture, rare pieces and collector’s items. Raymond also has an incredible private collection.

Like Lily et Cie, The Way We Wore is a haunt for designers, including Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela and Giles Deacon. Raymond even has a separate by-appointment “inspiration space” next door dedicated to designers, with ceiling-height shelves packed with sample prints, rare laces and fabric swatches from the past century.

Many who visit Los Angeles also flock to Cameron Silver’s boutique, Decades. Silver is somewhat of a vintage-fashion celebrity in Los Angeles. He has a slew of high-profile friends and consults for Azzaro and a number of other luxury brands. (During my stay he hosts a high-profile benefit vintage fashion show for Los Angeles Fashion Week with actress Rachel Griffiths.)

Decades is located in an airy space on Melrose Avenue, accessorised with a zebra-print rug, burning Diptyque candles, and George Michael on the stereo. The edit, meanwhile, includes everything from vintage Ossie Clark to Halston alongside Chanel, Pucci and Hermès accessories. “It’s living-room friendly,” says Silver.

Luxury vintage shopping is big business in Los Angeles. Pieces sell in the region of $200 upwards for designer ready-to-wear, while more prestigious gowns can run from $8,000 into the tens of thousands, despite sizing of high-quality pieces being extremely limiting. Average measurements run at 34in bust, 24in waist, 35in hips. “It’s very difficult unless you are thin,” explains Watnick.

The stores here influence both red-carpet and global vintage-buying trends. I soon garner, for example, that vintage Paco Rabanne is the next hot commodity. A gold chain-mail dress covered in domed sequins, I am told by Watnick, has been attracting envious looks from at least one Hollywood starlet with a red-carpet event to attend. And Zandra Rhodes vintage pieces are also in high demand. Meanwhile, in the spirit of protectionism, there’s also an emerging demand for American designers: Bill Blass, Norell, Claire McCardell, Anthony Price and Charles James.

It’s not all about high-end vintage, though. The city also has a host of more accessible boutiques. Hidden Treasures in nearby Topanga Canyon is a favourite of Kate Moss. The store is slightly tattered, playing to a pirate-ship theme with a giant wooden boat steering wheel on the front and a meandering front garden. It sells everything from vintage taxidermy to tablecloths and boasts a bargain bin of $10 cashmere.

Wasteland, a small chain of edited vintage and secondhand clothing, is a haunt for local hipsters in West Hollywood (I pick up a Halston III, Halston’s diffusion line for JC Penney, unworn print dress for $40). Branded quality-controlled thrift stores such as Buffalo Exchange – music blasting, fans spinning, racks and racks of jumble – are also hubs for creatives. In fact, the only problem with the city is that while vintage is everywhere, the culture is so evolved that everything you buy is at full market price.

With that in mind, I clamber into my white convertible (possibly ill advised, – it looks more Hawaii Five-O than the intended chic), and head north along the coast in search of bargains.

I visit former haunt Santa Cruz, a small hippie town two hours south of San Francisco, where I’d sourced a suitcase full of garb previously, and find that the place is still rife with great stores. There’s no designer or luxury clothing here. Its simply a haven for great-quality vintage staples – the sort that would be triple the price in Europe, the East Coast or, indeed, on Portobello Road. Pieces without any major provenance, but all beautifully made.

Shops vary from strict vintage to a hodge­podge of 1980s cocktail dresses mixed liberally with 1990s Levi’s, but they make for amazing browsing. I discover Moon Zoom on the main drag and swoop up several 1960s lined angora beaded cardigans, a snip at $24, and 1950s day dresses and circle skirts priced similarly. Nearby, I also visit Mr Goodie’s, a small antiques and collectables shop where I lay my hands on a 1940s alligator clutch bag priced at $90 and high-quality costume jewellery for between $40 and $100.

I cut myself off there, forcefully, and drive up to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury area. It still retains its hipster vibe from the 1960s, with telegraph posts plastered in flyers, bright murals and a charming shabbiness. I fall in love with Neda’s Flowers & Gifts, an artsy florist and vintage boutique (sounds odd, but somehow it works) and find a perfect-condition 1950s prom dress for $170. I also find Dollhouse Bettie, a vintage underwear boutique selling dead-stock pieces (unsold in their era and unworn) from the 1920s through to the 1960s. The store sells garter belts fresh from the box (from $30-$150), 1960s girdles (from $30-$300) and 1920s silk bras (from $30-250).

My final stop is the university town of Berkeley. It shares Haight-Ashbury’s boho collegiate atmosphere, with a strip of retro stores on Telegraph Avenue. Music blasts onto the pavement, while fortune-tellers and jewellery stalls line the pavements. I find Down at Lulu’s, a hair salon and vintage boutique, while driving home. It stands alone, candy pink, Motown on the stereo, and is covered in kitsch with antique hair salon chairs to sit in. I find a bright blue 1980s Christian Dior Mac for $60.

Vintage culture in California is rooted in a number of factors. At the thrift-store end, the concept emerged from the hippie movement of the 1960s, where secondhand clothing became desirable. “It used to be just in flea markets then,” says Raymond. “It was a non-spoken statement at that point. People just wore secondhand.” Meanwhile, the luxury vintage market in Los Angeles has emerged thanks to Hollywood. Collectors such as Watnick and Raymond began as facilitators to costume designers at the studios, and soon actresses evolved a taste for wearing vintage off-screen.

Today, the major boutiques in Los Angeles are approached by dealers the world over and the luxury vintage industry is booming. With this in mind, Watnick regularly invests in important contemporary pieces from collections. Recent acquisitions include an Alexander McQueen “tree” dress from autumn 2008. She also shows me a black lace empire-line gown designed by Galliano for Givenchy during his brief tenure there in the mid-1990s. Both are set to be worth a fortune in the future.

Vintage lust shows no sign of slowing, either. “Much of what is termed luxury these days, isn’t luxury any more. It’s not authentic,” relates Silver. “Vintage clothing is about real luxury. You used to buy fashion and keep it forever. Look at the vintage market, it’s still thriving and the prices are inflating.”

Watnick agrees: “There’s a recession but there’s still money out there. Consumers have realised that some of what they were buying was not so fabulous after all, and are turning to vintage.”

See also