Two Vintage Shopping Experts Reveal Their Top-Secret Tips

There are three things that tend to make me very sweaty: SoulCycle, dentist appointments and vintage shopping. I don’t think I need to justify the first two, because cardiovascular exercise and sharp metal objects in my mouth are pretty universal triggers for swampy armpits. As for vintage shopping? It just overwhelms me. I always end up biting off more than I can chew, whether I’m trying to cram too many stores into one shopping trip or I bringing an exorbitant number of clothes into an inevitably tiny dressing room with way-too-hot overheard lighting and no mirror. And then I don’t end up buying anything because I’m frustrated or tired or in a rush to get home to press cool compresses against my vintage-fevered forehead whilst clicking through the soothing, familiar portals of my favorite online commercial retailers. Anyone else?

Needless to say, I leapt at the opportunity to pepper Marlene Wetherell (vintage shop owner) and Felicity Sargent (vintage shopping aficionado) with questions. These two women really know their stuff, and I was fully prepared to plug my brain into theirs with a two-pronged USB cord and download all their hard-earned knowledge, but they actually gave it up voluntarily and Felicity styled some of her best scores upon her very own, very cool self. Thanks to their insider tips, I’m now practically a vintage whiz. I can probably even forgo deodorant next time I venture forth. Click through the eye feast above, bask in their wisdom below, and you, too, can join my sweat-free vintage shopping extravaganza.

If you fall in love with a vintage piece that’s not the right size, is it still worth buying? 

Felicity Sargent: If something is a few sizes too big, you can wear it oversize, belted, cuffed, tied, etc. But if you need to reconstruct the garment to make it wearable, that’s probably more of a hassle than it’s worth (or worse still, you might never get around to it!). There are, of course, exceptions — and I’m totally guilty of indulging in things “with potential” just because I love the pattern or the cut.

Marlene Wetherell: I think it’s always worth it if you love it — too big or too small — vintage pieces have so much versatility. You can get creative by wearing something back to front, removing shoulder pads…don’t be too literal! Vintage items are often more “timeless” than “trendy,” so you have more flexibility with how you interpret them, as long as you use your imagination.

Emanuel Ungaro late ’70s wool, patterned, belted jacket; Dolce & Gabbana ’90s pantsYves Saint Laurent ’80s pendant and chainManolo Blahnik shoes

What about shoes?

FS: Vintage shoes are tricky. It’s hard finding a good pair that isn’t too worn out, not to mention actually pulling them off (those who can deserve a PhD in empathy because they’re *literally* putting themselves in other people’s shoes — ha). If you do happen upon a great pair, I recommend taking them to a cobbler to get the soles reinforced before wearing them. I once found a fabulous pair of ’90s Moschino striped, heeled loafers, and within five minutes of wearing them, the heel fell off.

MW: Vintage shoes can be tricky. I wore a wonderful pair of Prada velvet platform sandals in the rain, and they completely fell apart because the glue disintegrated. I had to walk home barefoot on New York City sidewalks!

Is there such a thing as “too much” money to spend on a vintage item? Or should you actually be willing to spend more than you normally would?

FS: It depends. Similar to antiques. there’s vintage and then there’s “rare/collectible” vintage. Just like with regular shopping, it makes sense to “splurge” on either statement-making, iconic pieces that hold their value or something you know you’ll wear all the time. I always luck out with ’70s to ’80s high-waist trousers from YSL. They aren’t cheap, but you can still get a better deal buying them vintage than you would hunting for an equivalent on the present-day market. Plus, the vintage ones are timeless, and the quality is incredible.

MW: When you see an iconic piece, such as a YSL 1968 Safari Tunic (Saharienne), or a YSL Mondrian dress, the higher cost is justified. Middle-range pieces should be reasonable, though — even ones with designer labels. That said, when you compare the quality of designer vintage pieces and how well they are made, $550 to $750 is not too much to spend on something like a blazer, let’s say. Vintage shopping and investment shopping shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

Unknown ’50s couture tiered cocktail dress, Chanel shoes, The Brave Collection anklet

If you’re someone who gets intimidated or overwhelmed by vintage shopping, what’s the best place to start? Do you have a strategy for beginners?

FS: Go shopping with an “experienced” vintage lover, because she or he will probably take you to the best stores — or, if you’re at a fair, the best booths. I personally think outerwear and jackets are a great place to start. A jacket is easy to try on, and there are so many interesting silhouettes. Also, don’t get anxious about the fact that everything is one-of-a-kind; I’ve seen beginner vintage shoppers rush into buying something because they’re so worried it will get snatched up, but I truly believe that if it’s meant to be, it will be. If only I could apply such zen wisdom to other areas of my life…

MW: My advice to beginners is always, “do your research.” Look through old issues of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar to educate yourself about different designers and dog-ear pages with looks that appeal to you. Visiting vintage websites is also helpful to familiarize yourself with pricing, as is buying from shops with “reputable” and knowledgeable dealers. It may take a bit of time, but it’s worth it. When you start to feel like you know what you’re looking at, venture out to flea markets and thrift shops. You can find some really good bargains, but it requires a lot of patience…and rifling through some pretty gruesome things.

Is it okay to bargain?

FS: I usually start by asking, “Is this the best you can do?” while plastering the human equivalent of that “toothy grin” emoji across my face. Oh, and ask for a “volume discount” if you shop in groups — that way when you’re with a bunch of friends and you all want something from the same vendor, you can say something like, “could you cut us a deal for all three items?” When that works, it truly feels like an all-around win. But my #1 rule is always be polite.

MW: Yes, you can always ask politely. There is usually room for negotiation.

Best thing you’ve ever scored?

FS: Tough one! I recently acquired a three-piece, raw silk, “millennial pink” Chanel suit from the ’90s that fit perfectly and was priced under $400. That felt like a pretty solid score.

MW: Several…a YSL couture day dress and a 1968 “Saharienne” a la Veruschka.

Favorite vintage spots in NYC? Online?

FS: Marlene’s — and I’m not just saying that. I’ve been going to her store since I moved to New York seven years ago because her curation is unrivaled. Plus, she has an encyclopedic knowledge of every period, designer, etc., and she’s a great storyteller, so you can shop and learn at the same time. I also love Amarcord in Williamsburg, Maeven vintage online, and the Na Nin Vintage Instagram always has pretty things. I occasionally enjoy searching on Etsy and eBay, though I rarely buy anything online. I also usually go to the fairs, like Manhattan Vintage and A Current Affair — but be forewarned: They are overwhelming. Bring water and cash; wear comfy shoes and something you can easily try things on over. (Ed note: Is she speaking directly to my soul!?!?)

MW: My Shop! Marlene Wetherell Vintage Fashion. I also love Edith Machinist, and La Double J in Milan has a great online store.

Anything else you want people to know?

FS: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” George Eliot said that, and I totally think she was talking about wearing vintage clothes.

MW: Never wear vintage head-to-toe!

Photos by Edith Young. 

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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