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Vintage Clothing Entrepreneur

From bellbottoms to Victoriana, old clothes are hip. Catering to this trend are vintage clothing devotees. Vintage clothing retailers can make a living while indulging themselves in their favorite pastime -- searching for the fabulous outfits of yesteryear.

The people who sell vintage clothing have one thing in common: for years they bought and wore vintage clothing themselves. "I've always worn vintage clothing, ever since junior high school," says Caroline Galbraith, owner of Vintage Buzz in southern California. "But I didn't like the stores I was going to. The people didn't know about the different eras. I figured I could do better."

From Passion to Profit

Like many people now running vintage clothing businesses, Galbraith eased into it a little bit at a time. "I started at swap meets and built up a clientele. Then I started with a tiny little store of 700 square feet. Now I just moved again and have 2,400 square feet."

Anne Mcnamee tells a similar story. She runs The Next Store in Wilmington, Vermont. "I've been buying vintage clothes since I was 14 years old. My parents moved up here to Vermont and opened an army-navy store. It had this teeny tiny side room, and I started putting some vintage clothes in there and they sold. Luckily for me, there was no overhead."

That overhead -- paying for retail space in a good location -- can get pretty expensive. Entrepreneurs have to start small like Galbraith or get lucky like Mcnamee.

Jill Podany is the virtual proprietor of Ms. Jill's Vintage, a clothing store that only sells online. "I'd been wearing vintage clothing for the last 15 years," she says.

"I'd been helping out a friend who opened up a general resale shop learn more about vintage fashions. There was only one vintage shop on the Net at the time, so I began talking to her about the possibility of my putting up a site for her. She didn't have the money to invest in it, so I decided to take a shot at it myself. Several months later, Ms. Jill's Vintage was born."

Podany's website features pictures of clothes, grouped by era. Local sales are not essential -- people from all over the world can visit her site, browse the wares, and order the goods they like.

The web is also a key marketing vehicle for Resource Rags of Toronto, Ontario. It's a wholesale company, which sells lots of clothing -- like 1,000 1970s disco shirts or 1,000 varsity jackets -- at a time.

While the company has a catalog, it can publish many more photographs on the web. This means customers can browse and order at any time. The company will also "source" vintage clothing. That is, if they don't have it, they'll get it for you!

Trends in the Business

There's nothing more fickle than fashion, and that goes double for vintage fashion. Bellbottoms are hot, but they may be passe tomorrow. For vintage clothing entrepreneurs, it's important to spot the trends as they happen.

"What people don't really say about this business is that you're putting your taste on the line," says Mcnamee. "Sometimes the things I like best just sit there. I bought this satin dress like Jean Harlow wore in the '30s and it's gorgeous, but it's just sitting there."

Some vintage clothiers thrive on the uncertainty of fashion trends.

"Vintage clothing in particular -- and the clothing business in general -- can be very exciting because it demands extrapolation of trends," says Josh Wiwcharyk of Resource Rags. "You must be able to read the direction in order to profit from it, much in the same way a stockbroker must decide which stocks to invest in."

So what sells? "Jackets," she says. "Old jackets. This jacket thing just never stops. I buy dresses -- little Jackie O. dresses -- and throw away the dress and keep the jacket."

The Life of a Vintage Clothing Entrepreneur

While some vintage shops buy wholesale, others may find the clothes on their own. It's hard work.

"I drive around and go to auctions, tax sales, rummage sales, thrift shops -- you name it," says Mcnamee. She hands business cards out to everybody in hopes they'll fall across some great old clothes in an attic somewhere.

"Clothes are everywhere," says Podany. "Estate sales, my friends' mothers and grandmothers' closets, thrift shops, garage sales and -- I bet this sounds gross -- in people's trash.

"A lot of what you pay vintage dealers [for] is the enormous amount of time that they put in locating clothes. It's extremely time-consuming to sell a unique product. Even when a person loves to shop, it becomes tiring very fast when you spend eight hours on the hunt and come home with six saleable items."

Once they have the clothes, owners have to actually be in the shop selling the things. "Sometimes it's a drag being stuck in a store seven days a week," says Mcnamee.

For Podany, the drag is staring at her computer for hours on end. "There's a great deal of work involved that has me sitting in my basement by myself, trying to stay focused. There are days when I begin to feel totally isolated."

But at least they're making money, right?

Well, a little. Mcnamee supported herself as a waitress for a while as she waited for sales to go up. Podany quit her day job, but is still working 30 hours a week on the side. "I don't make enough in the business to support myself yet," she says. "I tell all my old co-workers that now that I've quit my job I work all the time!"

For these enthusiasts, making lots of money isn't the issue. "You can't be too greedy and expect to make a lot of money," says Mcnamee. "Just do it because you enjoy it."

"It's easier to do something you like," agrees Galbraith. "I used to work in an office, and I just couldn't do it any more. Now I really like being my own boss and I love the clothes."

Advice From the Experts

"Do as much as you can yourself," advises Mcnamee. "Don't spend money unnecessarily. I can do things cheaply and still have it look elegant. Do things that hearken back to the old eras, and don't necessarily think you have to spend a fortune to do it."

Mcnamee also suggest you don't do what she did. "I made the mistake of not advertising. Let me just say that advertising is very important. Advertising on the web is much cheaper than advertising in my local paper. And it reaches a much broader audience."

What does she think about the future of vintage clothing sales? "I think it's going to be the wave of the future. It's really a passion. I wish I'd started doing it years ago instead of wasting my time in jobs I didn't like. So go with your passion -- whatever it is."


The Rusty Zipper
The web's first vintage clothing store

Resource Rags
Vintage clothing sales with a twist -- a wholesale Internet company

National Association of Resale Professionals
Not a sales association, but a "resale" association

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