by Leanne Delap, May 25, 2020
Over the next few weeks, we’re publishing stories that explore how retailers, salons and businesses are planning to reopen and the measures they’re taking to safely serve the public. As the pandemic shifts into this new phase, we’re tracking the latest developments in the worlds of fashion and beauty to keep you in the know.
Missing shopping right now is one thing. But missing vintage shopping (and thrifting) is a whole other thing. It’s like an itch we just can’t scratch. The thrill of the hunt, the pleasantly fulfilling hours of combing the racks, the serendipity, the one-of-a-kindness of it all: Every fashion girl has her tales.
Your finds are the continuation of someone else’s story, and they become woven into the fabric of your life. As for me, what resonates are the texture of the moments in which I’ve found my best scores, almost always with my good luck charm, my daughter—because every vintage maniac knows luck is part of the game. There were the fitted ’80s flannel shirts we bought together in the baking heat of a desert strip mall in Joshua Tree; and the ’70s flared Levi’s jeans and jacket combos we scooped one sunny Halloween afternoon in Nice with schoolkids running through the tiny alleys in costume; or the grail, the Barack Obama 2008 sweatshirt she nabbed in a flash hit one rainy night just as the shop was closing. It is hard to replicate that thrill with hitting click on an online auction.
Where can we indulge our rack-trawling habits right now? Last Tuesday, May 19, the Ontario government allowed retail services with separate street-front entrances (not within shopping malls) and measures in place for physical distancing, such as limiting the number of customers in the store at any one time and offering shopping by appointment, to open.
While we’re keen to acquire some new treasures, many of us also have been making room in our closets—I myself am driving around with seven bags of clothes I’ve edited from my wardrobe. All the bins are sealed and most intake centres are closed. But that hasn’t stopped the dumping: Kelly Drennan of Fashion Takes Action issued a plea on Instagram that we not drop our discards in front of independent shops, thinking we are helping. “Most of what was donated to charities [in this time] was collected by municipalities and put into the garbage.”
This concern about decluttering responsibly is echoed by Sara Gaugl, director of communications for Value Village: “We’re anticipating an unprecedented volume of donations of clothing and household goods, particularly in the short term. We’ve kindly asked donors to hold on to the items they wish to drop off at our Community Donation Centres until we reopen their local store and are able to accept them on behalf of our nonprofit partners.” Meanwhile, she says individual Value Villages are opening “on a store-by-store basis as we consider local market conditions, follow guidance from local health and government officials, and ensure we’re operationally ready to reopen our doors with enhanced safety measures.” These will include enhanced cleaning, shortened store hours and additional space on the sales floor for social distancing.
If you are looking for a more curated experience, there are many special vintage and thrift boutiques in the city, and many have either reopened, or are about to. We take a look at how they are making safe adjustments to their businesses to get us back in the game.
John Christmann, one of three partners at Black Market, opened the brand’s shop in 1982 on Queen West. The goods here—great jeans, retro sweatshirts, rock tees and solid classic foundational wardrobe pieces—are more hipster than hippie: The massive space is a destination for art students and high school students, fashion editors, musicians and even Bay Street guys. The shop, which moved across the street from its original basement location last year, reopened last Tuesday and did “the same business that day as we did in a month online.” Social distancing is in place, racks have been spaced out to allow this. A metal misting can sprays Lysol onto the merch regularly. Change rooms are closed (anything that’s been tried on will be disinfected). The staff wear plastic visors and the public is offered sanitizer, gloves and masks upon arrival. The store’s sister location, Public Butter, has reopened with similar precautions in place.
Christmann says that he and his team (at press time 10 of 40 staff are back on payroll) used the downtime to sort loans and go through their huge inventory. “We streamlined the stock going back onto the racks,” he says, and eliminated the junk. In the end, he sees that this time, while difficult, will enable Black Market to come out the other side stronger. “When you are in business a long time,” he says, “you can get lazy. Entrepreneurs need to be prepared to pivot as conditions change.”
This higher-end consignment destination has been pushing as much product through its Instagram and website as possible, says owner Britt Rawlinson. “We are showcasing a larger variety of brands at different price points that our in-store boutique is known for.” The store is open for appointments (staff wear masks and clients are encouraged to do so as well) and the team has also been trying out virtual shopping with clients ahead of time to make things more efficient: “This allows the customer to pre-select items that are on the site that they are interested in. We work from that by hand-picking alternative options and brands and items. We can candidly discuss pros, cons, fit, measurements, condition and pricing. It’s been such a fun experience and a way to stay in touch with some of our favourite clients!”
“Prior to [the shutdown],” says Nick Marian, the owner of the new shop Expo Vintage on Dundas West, “our Instagram was underused, sort of a one-post-a-week-type thing. I wanted to build the business organically with foot traffic and word of mouth.” When that was no longer possible, “we basically moved the entire idea online to Instagram and eBay,” uploading 10 to 12 items a day with free local delivery.
Now open for one-on-one appointments, they have retrofit the shop to the best hygiene standards. The slots are filling fast, reports Marian. “Customers are itchy for a one-of-a-kind find, if you will.”
Looking to the future, for Expo and the city at large, Marian says, “One of the biggest things we are concerned with right now is acquiring material. All of our wholesalers are still currently closed with no way of knowing when they will reopen! Thankfully we have quite a bit of storage and back stock.” It’s hard to say what it will look like in two to three months, he says, if the wholesalers remain closed.
Set to reopen on May 29, Common Sort is a unique player on the secondhand scene: You can buy, sell and trade for items at its three locations. It’s known for a mix of vintage (which they define as 20-plus years) and secondhand contemporary labels. It “is an experience that is best in person,” says owner Nicole Babin.
Like many of the vintage gurus we’ve spoken with, Babin spent her time editing even more sharply. “My husband and I have been working hard cleaning and reorganizing,” she says. As for selling your own pieces? “We will have to be really careful on how much we buy,” she says, “but we will definitely be buying, just not with the frequency we’ve done in the past.” Buying will happen by appointments and PPE will be mandatory for staff and shoppers. The change rooms will be closed and returns will be accepted within two weeks.
NOUVEAU RICHE VINTAGE
Nouveau Riche had barely opened before COVID hit, but owner Andrea Lalonde still feels lucky. “I just launched a website in February—the timing was really fortunate.” With suppliers closed, and customers unable to sell forward their own special used pieces, she says, “I also have been selling pieces from my archives on Instagram stories.”
That meant learning how to do distanced photo shoots. “I have been dropping off selections from my collection to creatives in my community,” she says. “It’s a way to continue some of the image making I had been doing in our studio. It’s a way of staying engaged with my collaborators and developing new creative relationships.” She has been calling it “Nouveau chez vous” or “Nouveau to go.”
“I’m still very uncertain if I can weather this closure, but I am trying my best.” Before the announcement stores could open with safety measures in place, she was already anticipating that she would head toward an appointment model for selling. “This is slow fashion at its heart,” she says.
Rogerio De Souza has been in the game for about 25 years, much of that in Kensington, but now transplanted to Queen West. He waited until Wednesday this week to open the doors, and modified the premises to allow for social distancing, after weeks of going through his “huge, huge inventory,” he says. “I really edited things down.”
This is a man who walks the talk, wearing all vintage all the time. “My customers are serious about vintage, too. They won’t change. They will be just fine with any restrictions for the good of their health. They are committed to the idea of vintage, they love the whole experience and that commitment is stronger than the obstacles.”
Founder Zakary Ibrahim says that online sales for his Kensington-based shop have been “all right. But we’re not setting the world on fire.” The shop sells through Instagram stories, online, on Etsy and on high-end resale platform Grailed.
Normally, Kensington Market is a heavily tourist-driven area, so, says Ibrahim, “we expect to see a heavy impact in sales this summer.” He was keeping busy in the lockdown doing door-to-door contact-less drop-offs by bicycle, because, he says, “it kept me active and people involved.” Lost Boys was back in business as of last Tuesday with strict safety precautions. You can try things on here, and the change room gets cleaned between fitting, and the merchandise held for 24 hours after it has been tried on.
69 VINTAGE AND LEMONADE
Since the days of her landmark Queen West shops (which operated from 2004 to 2016 in various iterations), Kealan Sullivan has been exploring different ways to sell vintage. She stays tightly focused on “real” vintage, as in, at least 25 years old, and tends to, but is not limited by, a fierce ’70s aesthetic. After a successful run of pop-ups around town in recent years, Sullivan and partner Alistair Kyte founded Hippie Market for makers and collectors: On deck for 2020 were 13 markets and a planned pop-up in London, England, in June. All are of course off the books now. It will live online, and return when appropriate.
In isolation, Sullivan began sorting through her “personal” collection, which is actually a massive storage locker full of goodies. That morphed into Instagram Live sessions in her bedroom, set up with curated pieces for her to discuss over champagne, which turned into DM exchanges. “I see more virtual fittings, customized experiences and personally selected vintage haul sessions in my future,” she says. Sullivan is also selling pieces on her website.
She is an old hand at upcycling and has been using lockdown time to repair and create old pieces out of old. From this, a new business idea was born. Lemonade, her new label, is a response the current mood “when life gives you lemons.” Ascribing to the waste-not-want-not ethos, it is a collection of “whimsical statement pieces.” She is resurrecting and reworking very special pieces and putting in so many hours they become art. Finished Lemonade pieces will come with a needle and thread attached: “Mending will be a more visible part of my brand moving forward as it is such a huge part of what we do as professional recyclers, yet it is so uncelebrated.” Denim has always been Sullivan’s “thing,” and she has joined forces with Kyte to customize jeans with his patchwork art. “I am repurposing my time to resurrect clothing,” she says.
Sustainable, safe and special pieces only: Sullivan and Kyte have devised the right kind of virtual lemonade stand for this moment.