Twenty years ago, Jan Wittenbach and her partners opened The Clearing House, a fine furniture, household wares and jewelry consignment shop in Timonium. Little did Wittenbach realize she would be part of the gently-used revolution, educating customers on the beauty and economy of buying recycled and well-crafted goods, be they mahogany sideboards or exquisite St. John knits.
"My partners and I really had to introduce Baltimore to this idea of buying resale," says Wittenbach, an avid tennis player and former elementary school teacher.
Wittenbach, 56, is reluctant to name one favorite clothing shop over another. "That wouldn't be fair," she says. But the Baltimore County resident readily allows, "I do shop consignment. It's in my blood. Once you pay those kinds of prices for resale, it's awfully hard to pay retail."
Working with old heavy furniture doesn't beg for dressing up.
It is physical and a lot of times it's dirty. So all the girls in the shop wear aprons, including myself, to protect our clothing. I would say we dress "smart casual." I don't allow jeans, but on Saturdays, they can wear khakis.
What do you wear when you make house calls to examine possible consignment items?
I do dress up. I may wear a suit.I just try to look professional, to give that rapport to my consignors, to make them feel confident.The rest of the time, it's skirts, sweaters, blouses.
What kind of shoes are best for this profession?
Comfortable ones! I have a pair on now I just love. They're La Plume from Nordstrom. They come in different colors and they're sturdy, a requirement. We're on our feet all day.As a former teacher, what are your thoughts on school uniforms?
I think it's marvelous. Our daughters went to Maryvale, where uniforms were required. It eliminates having to make those decisions, and peer pressure that there's so much of.
What is your defining fashion trait?
I like accessories. I'm the kind of person who makes an outfit with a scarf, or a big, funky pin or necklace. My employees know that and have given me some of my best pieces. Two Christmases ago, they had a 14-karat gold Clearing House pin made for me. It's gorgeous.
Has your eye for vintage accessories improved with your eye for vintage furniture?
The consignment business has taught me to appreciate quality things. For example, jewelry; I have grown to love it. I appreciate the quality of older costume pieces by Miriam Haskell. It's just unsurpassable. If I had a weakness that developed through my business, it would be heirloom jewelry.
You must always find surprises in people's attics!
It happens weekly. You would be amazed at what couples bring in in their grocery bags.
Do you know any snappy dressers? Let us know. Write to Stephanie Shapiro, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.