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.)
The other essential quality for vintage dealing is drive -- the drive to keep on finding vintage items, whether you feel like it or not, enough of them to stock a store. This means work, not just an occasional leisurely visit to Veterans Warehouse or the Edmondson Drive-in flea market.
"You never have a day off, because your weekends are always tied up at flea markets or estate sales," Ms. Justice says. "Nights you can shop the thrift stores, days you can have house calls. It's pretty competitive."
This competitiveness over a constantly dwindling supply is why nobody will tell you where they get their stuff. They'll tell you the generalities -- thrift shops, flea markets, house calls, auctions, whatever -- but not the specifics of which, where, who and when. Tim Potee of the Read Street vintage store Dreamland, for example, fields the from where question with a joke.
"I date little old women and then they give me their clothing," he says. "That's how I make this store work. I'm a heartbreaker."
Other than that, he concedes, he trades in bulk with a European dealer, and he goes on a regular basis to warehouses in this country and Canada where old clothes are sold by the bale.
By the bale? Warehouses? Where? What are their names?
He pauses, then says, "It would be cutting my own throat to tell you that."
SUCH WAREHOUSES ARE CALLED RAG warehouses, and there are about 300 of them in the United States, says Reuven Bloch, the owner of one that happens to be located in Northwest Baltimore. It is called Row Clothing Enterprises Inc., and it's huge. Seventy-five thousand square feet, Mr. Bloch says, and most of it is filled with bales of clothing.
Yes, bales just like bales of hay, ranks and rows and files of bales, ranging from 100 to 1,200 pounds each and each containing hundreds of castoffs and hand-me-downs and back-of-the-closet orphans. These rejected togs have been bought from institutions like the Salvation Army; they are what the thrift shops can't sell. "We are landfills for institutions," Mr. Bloch says proudly.
The largest percentage of the clothing in Mr. Bloch's warehouse will be exported. (Rag warehouses, he claims, were the nation's second largest exporter, "behind the military," during the '80s). Abroad, these old clothes will be cut up and respun into "new" fabric, or sold to the poor of Third World countries.
Another large percentage will be sold to rag manufacturers, who will cut Mr. Bloch's garments up into little pieces and sell them to janitorial services and similar enterprises. And the remaining fraction of a percent, a tiny sliver of the vast masses of clothing that are trucked into this warehouse each week, will go to a very different destination.
In a room separated from the rest of the warehouse, this clothing undergoes a transformation -- a rebirth, if you will, back into the world of stylish garments. It becomes -- it already was, but no one until this point has recognized it as such -- vintage.
From here it will be bought by vintage retailers, especially those with larger stores who need more than a few items. Sometimes they come in person and sift through the many stacks in the vintage room -- stacks of baseball jackets, of tuxedos, of '60s hippie gauze skirts, of wool jackets -- and select the individual garments they think will sell in their stores.
Other times retailers buy by the bale. Vintage bales weigh about 150 pounds, and their price varies, averaging around $1.50 to $2 per pound, says Donna Jenkins, Row Clothing's doyenne of vintage. (Ms. Jenkins is also the owner of the Mount Vernon vintage store the Zone.) After the bale has been bought, it is sorted by the vintage store owner into stuff he or she can sell in the shop and stuff that will have to be unloaded at a flea market or elsewhere.
Although Ms. Jenkins does deal with "a couple" of local vintage merchants, most of her customers are from out of state. Her really big customers are from abroad. Like the Japanese. The Japanese love vintage, all kinds of vintage. Even old Lee jeans.
There is, Ms. Jenkins says, a customer for everything.
AND, FOR EVERY CUSTOMER, THERE is a seller. "If you have the stuff there, then a certain clientele finds out and gravitates toward you," says Barbara Lutz, owner of the Karmic Connection in Fells Point.
But not all vintage dealers have the same kind of "stuff," mind you: They are all over the map when it comes to what they like and don't like to sell.
Johanna Hoch, for example: "I hate funky vintage clothing. I hate bowling shirts," she says. That kind of merchandise "is cheaper, you can aim for a younger group, [but] I concentrate more on people who can spend money on something special rather than someone who wants a bargain on a housedress from the '50s."
Ms. Hoch expresses the collector's philosophy -- a philosophy that values the oldest, rarest, most perfect and, inevitably, the most expensive items, items such as the '20s beaded dresses and Victorian garments for which she is best known.
Other dealers, though, take a more relaxed stance and favor newer, less serious, less expensive garments -- '60s minis, say, or '50s bowling shirts and housedresses -- amusing clothes, not investment dressing.
"I try to buy items that are unusual but very wearable, because I don't want to have a museum here with a bunch of stuff that's all Victorian but no one would buy it," Ms. Justice says. "I couldn't make a living like that. Prices would be so high, and pieces would be so scarce that it would be hard to make the connection with dealers."
Many of her customers are young people, and "to some kids, perfection isn't important -- price is a big deal," she says. These young customers can't afford a mint condition '20s beaded dress, and quite possibly they wouldn't want it.
"They wear [vintage] as an everyday thing," not as special-occasion gear, says Mrs. Ferguson of Something Else, "and it doesn't have to be in good condition." In fact, she adds wryly, sometimes it seems that the raggedy look is preferred.
THE SCHISM HERE MIRRORS THE schism in the hardgoods world between "antique" and "collectible." "Antique" is a Louis XIV boule desk; "collectible" is an old McCormick spice container. The one is serious and aristocratic and expensive; the other is fun and pop culture and $4 on Pennsylvania's flea-market strip.
Some collectibles, though, mature into antiques: Art deco furniture, for example, was junk in the '50s, collectible in the '60s and '70s, and now they write 3-pound coffee-table books about it. The field of vintage clothing may be in the middle of the same kind of shift.
In the not-so-distant past, "I don't think it crossed people's mind to collect clothing that belonged to someone who wasn't famous," says Ms. Cook, the editor of Vintage Fashions magazine, which is published by Hobby House Press in Cumberland. "You would have museums collecting George Washington's vest, or kings' and queens' garments," she continues, but it wasn't the clothes themselves that were thought to be of value, but their association with the person who had worn them.
Gradually, though, interest from the public, combined with clothing shows such as those put on by former Vogue Editor Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, began to change these attitudes. And now vintage clothing is seen as a fertile province for collectors, Ms. Cook believes, not just as a source for an inexpensively stylish wardrobe. Vintage, she says, is "one of those things whose time has come."
The existence of Ms. Cook's glossy magazine -- new since January -- is one piece of evidence for her point of view, and so is the growing number of major yearly antique shows devoted exclusively to vintage clothing. There was only one of these in the mid-'80s, says Ann Marie Lago, owner of a Connecticut vintage boutique who brings her merchandise to many such shows, but she counts 18 of them today. (And the promoter for one of these shows is so enthusiastic about vintage, Ms. Lago adds, that she took a complete period wardrobe with her on a vacation on the Orient Express.)
Of course the distinction between collecting vintage clothes and wearing them is anything but hard and fast, and most of the people who shop Ms. Lago's booths are looking for something to put on their backs, not in a showcase. Still, the more people want to wear a particular kind of garment, the rarer and more expensive -- the more collectible -- it becomes.
Thus beaded sweaters started out as cheap glitz for the funky set, but now they're getting expensive enough to be taken seriously, and the fashion-setting funksters have moved on to other, cheaper kinds of finds -- which may in their turn become valuable. Cheaper, in the vintage world, often means newer, and indeed, "As the earlier things become harder to get," Ms. Cook says, "later and later clothing will become popular."
This is a prospect that horrifies those who like their antiques well-seasoned, but for the moment these conservatives are safe: Most vintage dealers say clothes from the '50s and early '60s are as recent as they get. Still, the '70s can't be far behind: Mr. Greenberg picks up the occasional pair of platform shoes for his store, and out in California somebody has opened a museum for polyester body shirts. Vintage, it seems, is gaining on us.
APPEALING TO BOTH YOUNG AND OLDER CUSTOMERS
THE YOUNG CUSTOMERS who go to Oh! Susanna in FellPoint are "not going for a total '30s or '40s look, that's for sure," says owner Susan Justice. "They're just buying an individual piece that they're crazy about and mixing it in" with their other clothes.
Up Broadway at Karmic Connection, though, where used ethnic clothes are sold as well as regular vintage, "People mix together all kinds of periods and all kinds of countries, and everything goes," says owner Barbara Lutz. "I've never seen such varied styles before."
On the opposite side of Broadway, the customers at Retro Vintage Clothing tend to go for yet another vintage look -- a complete period look with, say, '40s shoes and jewelry to go with their '40s dress or suit, says manager Deborah Fetters. Hats, the ultimate accessory, are particularly strong, she adds.
"Different shopkeepers sell different things," says Vanessa White, assistant-partner at the Federal Hill vintage shop Johanna, and "whatever you sell, that's what you think is in." In other words, it seems that in vintage as in contemporary fashion there are trends and there are countertrends, all operating at the same time.
The young customers of Ms. Justice and Ms. Lutz, for example, may well be influenced by the postmodern style of the late '80s, with its eclectic juxtapositions of seemingly discordant elements. This hyper, mix-it-up attitude is also seen in the clothes of couturier Christian Lacroix.) To people born after 1970, old clothes are old clothes, so why not put a '50s motorcycle jacket with a '60s Indian gauze skirt?
On the other hand, Ms. Fetters' more mature customers -- "basically women between 35 and 45," she says -- tend to remember how the original look was put together -- this kind of hat goes with that kind of dress. They also may be influenced by movies such as "Dick Tracy," with their religiously careful period clothes, or by designers such as Ralph Lauren, with his $l head-to-toe re-creations of retro-but-grown-up glamour. ("He's always copied the vintage clothing business, and we copy him," says Johanna Hoch of Johanna.)
Another influence on those older customers who like the head-to-toe, one-period look may be the availability of such a look. Recently more vintage stores have begun to carry a full line of vintage items, says Elsie Ferguson, who has seen vintage wax and wane many times since she first put a rack of it in her ethnic-clothes boutique Something Else 22 years ago. Although this trend may be more pronounced in other Eastern cities, it is felt here in Baltimore, too, and in shops like Retro Vintage Clothing, customers now can find period-appropriate accessories to go with their vintage dresses, suits and skirts.
Mrs. Ferguson also says that recently she has seen more vintage for men than she used to -- though sometimes it's worn by women. Sports coats and overcoats have been especially strong, she adds. Old furs, on the other hand, are "absolutely dead," thanks to the anti-fur sentiment brought about by the animal-rights movement.
No particular period seems to be hot right now -- or, more exactly, every period from the '30s to the '70s has its ardent devotees. But in general, "We're getting away from that harsh business look," says Ann Marie Lago, a Connecticut vintage dealer who participates in many antique shows on the East Coast, including a recent one at Towson State University.
"I have no trouble selling Marilyn Monroe-type dresses," she adds. "Everybody wants to look feminine again. The ERA is out."