Vintage Shopping Secrets Straight From The Experts

The secret’s out: The DMV has one of the most happening vintage scenes around. Washingtonians' insatiable appetite for sharp duds and gorgeous homes means that local boutiques, antique shops, and thrift stores are chock-full of one-of-a-kind pieces that can (usually) be had for a song.
If only you had a personal coach on hand as you contemplate those pretty china plates or that fur-trimmed swing coat, right? Your wish has been granted: We've got insider intel from six local vintage pros on how to spot amazing finds, no matter where you're browsing — or what you're hunting. So, as you peruse flea markets and end-of-season yard sales, keep this handy little cheat sheet within reach. Now, to do some stylish scavenging!
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
The Expert: Annie Lee, owner of Pretty People Vintage

What’s popular at Pretty People right now?
"What’s on trend right now is '90s [fashion], which is something I don’t like to collect. When you live through a decade, it’s so hard to consider it collectable. I’ve kind of gone back to anything '40s to '70s as true vintage. Any kind of floral, [especially] that calico-type print. Customers really like wearing the feminine with the rocker — like a leather jacket over a really pretty lace dress."

What makes a great leather vintage jacket — and how do you spot one?
"It depends on your body style. A lot of girls love the fitted jackets and that brown color that looks really broken-in. It kind of has a distressed look. Sixties and '70s leathers are the best. Eighties jackets have too much shoulder padding. The tighter cuts from the '60s are cute. And anything that’s a camel or wine color is really great."

Any tips for scouring garage sales for vintage scores?
"I have so many. I find a lot that people don’t pay attention to. I found an Emilio Pucci scarf top once. It was in the scarf bin and whoever put it out must have thought was a scarf. It was the real deal — silk and the psychedelic print. I remember selling it for $500 and I got it for like $3.99. I find a lot of good Helmut Lang or Karl Lagerfeld. They make those very kind of conservative cuts, like those secretary blouses with the bow. I’ve scored so many great pieces that way, because most people aren’t looking inside the shirts for the tags."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
It can be hard to make a judgment call on vintage pieces. What kind of pieces are salvageable and what should we pass up?
"I go by smell. Anything that has a very strong smell, it doesn’t matter how cool it looks — to me, it’s far gone. And then, obviously, a stain. Especially if it’s right in the front chest area. Same thing. It doesn’t matter how cute it is, what designer it is, what fabric it is — it’s not worth it. But, if it’s on the back of the dress or something like that, you can salvage it. Then, there are moth holes. One moth hole you can deal with; if it’s a lot of moth holes, that’s just too far gone."

If we’re going to get one vintage piece, what should we add to amp up our wardrobe this season?
"Just one? A little black dress. The black dress is coming back. Because all the statement necklaces are so big and colorful, now you need that black high-cut dress to wear it against. The last couple years have been very Mad Men. This past season was so about the mint green. Girls are so mint green and coral-ed out, that [now] it’s back to black."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
The Expert: Susan Collins, owner of PollySue's Vintage

How do you know when a piece is true vintage?
"Colors. Definitely look for certain colors that don’t exist any more — saturated oranges, poppy reds. The colors [in vintage clothes] are different than you’re used to seeing in regular clothes. Also, look for sewn-in labels — usually [sewn] by hand. A vintage piece won’t have washing instructions. Machine wash, tumble dry — that’s not a vintage thing. Most vintage clothes, until the '50s or '60s, had no material content."

Are there materials that are uniquely vintage?
"One sure sign between a vintage and a non-vintage piece is much finer fabric. More pure silks, tweed, cashmere, linens. You won’t find poly-blends, Lycra, etc. (Well, that’s until you hit the '60s and '70s, then you find a lot of polyester.) The fit, too — more of a waist, darts at the top. Check the garment for metal zippers; most vintage pieces have a side zip."

How far is too far gone for a vintage dress? Are certain things fixable, or should we just move on?
"Obviously, if you put it on and hear it crunching, that’s not good. The older it is, the more fragile the garment. Forties and '30s pieces are iffy — very few of those pieces can be worn. Beware of underarm rotting and shredding, too. Broken zippers are replaceable. Even if it’s coming apart at the seams, that’s not as bad as it looks. You can always just get that re-enforced."

What’s your golden rule for keeping your duds in ship-shape?
"Knowing what to dry clean and what not to wash at all. For the older stuff — '20s and '30s — you may not want to wash it at all. Maybe hang and steam it to get the smells out. A lot of vintage clothes can actually be hand-washed. Just never put them in the dryer. Always hang them to dry."

As a vintage pro, is there anything you’re on the hunt for this season?
"A great '70s Diane von Furstenberg wrap dress. They look great on everyone."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
The Expert: Isabelle Polles, owner of Via Gypset

What are the most popular vintage accessories you're seeing right now?
"Last year, we saw a lot of bright, vibrant-colored jewelry. Right now, we’re seeing a lot of people going towards softer, less dramatic colors. Pastels, definitely. I also love brooches. We’ve seen a lot of our customers do really cool things with brooches."

We’re heading into fall now — do you have any tips for using vintage pieces to liven up our wardrobes?
"I’m all about the pins. I put pins on my boots. Like the Doc Martens-esque, industrial-looking boots. I like to kind of mix up more masculine pieces and add a touch of femininity. In the fall, you’re going to focus more on your outerwear pieces, so those should be highlighted. Pastel winter coats will be really on trend this fall and winter. Working vintage pins on your coat is a great way to go."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
Can you give us some insider tips on how to tell a vintage piece of jewelry from a knock-off?
"The easiest way to tell if the piece is valuable is the weight. If something’s heavier, that’s a higher-quality material. On a lot of the older pieces, there are often really cool, unique clasps or like a little clasp-chain. Always look for extra details. A more ornate clasp is a vintage mark. Some pieces will have stamps: Vintage Trifari costume jewelry will have that signature stamp. You’ll find that out and about. It’s not the most expensive, but it’s well-made and really fun."

Okay, Trifari, got it. Any other vintage designers we should be on the lookout for?
"Miriam Haskell. She’s very Washingtonian. She does a lot of pearls with floral details. She’s kind of [the Chanel of] costume jewelry. We have some Hattie Carnegie in the store. She’s a popular designer here, too."

What are the repair ground rules for vintage jewelry? Missing a few rhinestones, a broken clasp — is that okay?
"Obviously, there’s going to be decline with natural wear and tear, but if it’s missing a bunch of rhinestones, I would probably suggest not getting it. It’s important to try and find a piece in good shape. It’s not always an easy repair. To find a stone that’s going to match — that’s not going to be an easy fit."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
The Experts: Marcia Hall, owner, and Amber Johnson, store manager, Diamonds & Rust

Let’s do a little trend forecasting — is there anything we should be looking to nab this fall?
Amber: "Chunky. Our customers love chunk. Lots of costume rings, bracelets, necklaces. Very chunky."
Marcia: "Because of The Great Gatsby and Downton Abbey, a lot of people are coming in looking for '20s and '30s looks."

Any tips for telling if a piece of jewelry is going to fall apart after one wear?
Amber: "My best advice is hands-on comparison. You’ll be able to feel the difference between a good piece, which is usually heavier."
Marcia: "For costume jewelry that has rhinestones, always look for prongs that are holding on to the stones. That will last longer than something that is glued in. For a true vintage pin, for example, it’ll have a c-clasp. That’s how we identify that a piece is really old and not a reproduction."

What about jewels? Any tricks for telling if something’s the real thing?
Amber: "There’s tons of different tricks. For real pearls, if you bite down on it, it should be gritty like sand. If it’s a faux pearl, it would be perfectly smooth, like plastic. For real Bakelite, if you rub it, it gives off a certain sulfur odor. Jade is typically cooler to the touch. For fine jewelry, you can ask if the piece has been appraised and ask for the appraisal, if so. For gold and silver, you always want to look for what we call the ‘hallmarks.' On gold, you want to look for the numbers. Same with silver. Some hallmarks are symbols, like little lions. In the early 1900s, it wasn’t required for fine pieces to be marked, so some real pieces may not necessarily be marked. You can always test it, too."

Are there any common traps?
Amber: "When you’re at a flea market, beware of pieces that say 'gold-filled' or 'gold-plated.' I was at a flea market and was looking at a piece that had a ‘K’ for gold on it and a little ‘p’ next to it, which means gold-plated. You have to watch out. They try to fool you sometimes."
Marcia: "For a popular designer like Miriam Haskell, for example, some sellers will get a piece that’s in bad shape and just take off the clasp and attach it to another piece. In those situations, with designers like Miriam Haskell, there are very strong characteristics to identify that it’s truly a Haskell. You just have to know those characteristics."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
The Expert: Stephanie George, owner of Finders Keepers

Let’s start with the basics. What’s on trend for vintage furniture right now?
"We just got in a midcentury dresser set, which are really big right now. Asian-inspired pieces are really big, too. Informal, modern furniture is popular with our customers right now. We have a unique advantage because in the area where we live, so many people travel. We get things from all over the world because we have so many government contractors, diplomats, and people in the Foreign Service. We get things from every corner of the globe."

Besides Finder Keepers, any top spots we should check out for vintage gems?
"Auctions. Individuals, as opposed to storeowners, who go to auctions can get a good price. There are a few in the DMV area. The one that we occasionally go to is Quinn’s Auction in Falls Church. It’s a mix of dealers and patrons. Kind of a crapshoot as to what you’re going to get, but they have some interesting pieces — a lot of Asian and midcentury pieces. The Fort Myer thrift shop is also an interesting place. It’s on the military base, and it's another hidden gem because most people don’t think they can go there. You don’t have to be military to go on base. Because they have people that travel all over the world, you can find really unique things there."

What are your insider tips for spotting a good find? Are there certain materials or colors we should look for?
"The more you go, the more you know. First thing: Anything that is pressed-wood is not valuable. At least, not to me. I try not to buy pressed-wood pieces. Anything that is real wood will be more valuable — it can be stripped easier; it can be painted. Also, look at how a piece is made. The dovetailing, especially. Check out smaller details like the screws. If it’s a Phillips head screw, it’s not antique, unless it was replaced or repaired. If you’re looking to resell things, stick to small- and medium-sized items. Larger pieces are more of a commitment and they’re harder to sell."

Any designers or particular design trends we should pay attention to?
"Mission-style furniture can actually be a hidden gem. It can look like Stickley furniture, which is usually a really expensive brand. You can tell them apart because some of the furniture, if you examine it, will have a stamp on the bottom. A lot of times, you can feel and see quality. Quality pieces are a little bit heavier — especially the wood pieces. Knock on them and you can tell they’re a bit more dense."

For those of us who just graduated from IKEA, what should we work into our space?
"I love red. It’s good luck to have one piece of red furniture in the house. Something with a pop of color, too. Small cabinets are really useful in the bathroom, hallways, etc. Little pieces can go anywhere with you."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
The Expert: Pixie Windsor, owner of Miss Pixie's

We love your shop! What’s popular right now?
"Industrial is still big. People like big, chunky, useful things. All bright, puffy colors, like lime green, Kelly green, pink, and orange. Everyone is collecting portraiture, the older the better. Original artwork of any kind is all the rage now, too"

Can you walk us through how you spot a good piece of furniture?
"Anything like a chair or drawer, make sure you give it a good wiggle. Functionality is the most important thing. Even if it’s a mirror, you want it to be already wired and ready to hang up. For pieces that are painted, I usually just look for fun colors. Even if it’s scraped, I kind of like things that are a little beat up."

Are there any furniture designers we should be on the look out for?
"As far as vintage, I love anything that’s Russel Wright. He’s got a lot of pieces with clean, midcentury, straight lines. We’ve had a couple cool Plexi-Craft pieces, too. The company is still making furniture. We got this amazing bright orange lucite desk recently by Plexi-Craft. It’s a company I didn’t know that much about, and it does some really cool stuff. Anything Heywood-Wakefield. I’m a fan of that. I also love Hollywood Regency, Billy Baldwin, Tony Duquette, and all that fab '70s over-the-top glam."
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Photographed by Audrey Melton.
How can you tell when a piece needs a little love, and when you should just walk away?
"If the drawers are a little sticky, you might be able to sand it or wax the drawer. Knobs can be replaced. They’re expensive, but it’s easy to do. If a piece is wobbly or if the leg on a sofa or chair has just been repaired, I don’t care what materials they used for it, it’s always going to be a weak point. If a piece has been repaired, I stay far away from it unless it’s completely ornamental, like wrought iron in the garden."

For anyone who's just getting started with collecting, any tips on how to incorporate a vintage piece?
"A fun thing that a lot of people look for here is bar carts. It’s not a huge commitment. It might cost you $100 to $300, and it can actually be used as something else. Vintage dressers, too. They are so much more well-made than anything else out there today. A piece with midcentury, clean lines is ideal. You can mix it with pretty much anything."