How To Shop Vintage–Secrets From The Pros!

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UPDATE: Feeling like a bit of shopping today? Browse these helpful tips from the best vintage pros in Chicago. This story was originally published on June 11.

Love the feeling you get when you snatch a super-sweet vintage score? Us, too. Hate all the legwork involved? Oh, yeah. Let’s face it, sometimes the thrill of the hunt can be less than thrilling when you find yourself empty handed. Between digging through overcrowded racks at thrift stores, driving from yard sale to yard sale, and wondering where all those secret estate sales are going down, successful secondhand shopping can be exhausting. That’s why we’ve teamed up with some of Chicago’s top vintage vendors and asked them for suggestions to help you shop like an expert. With the advice of these seasoned vets you’ll be well on your way to building an arsenal of one-of-a-kind finds. Who's the pro now?

ShantiClark2

Shanti Clark, owner of Very Best Vintage

What are your favorite spots to score great vintage finds?
"After being in the vintage business for so many years, I’ve found that the really great stuff sort of finds me, rather than the other way around. My store, Very Best Vintage, offers consignment, buys, and trades, which brings in a lot of stellar items, often unique and in great condition. That said, I still love shopping for myself at other vintage stores. You just never know what you’ll find! One tip I would absolutely offer to vintage newbies is that they should subscribe to EstateSales.net. It’s an invaluable resource because items in the best condition are always the gems stowed away in a closet for a few (possibly several) decades."

What are your personal vintage shopping guidelines?
"It’s easy to get caught up in the moment. When I shop for myself, I try to only buy things that are comfortable and fit well. They’re simple rules, but it’s deceptively easy to be tempted to break them because of a beautiful fabric or something that almost fits...if only the entire dress were reconstructed. Small alterations are worth it if you love the garment, but you have to be realistic or you’ll end up with a pile of clothes for the tailor and nothing to actually wear.

A personal fashion rule that I follow pretty closely (in vintage and shopping in general) is to buy timeless pieces that don’t drastically change the body silhouette. I’m talking about shoulder pads and harem pants here. They can be fun and trendy, but are unlikely to be a solid wardrobe investment. I also always stay true to the things I know I love and will always wear. For example, I adore 1960s nighties. I think they’re really fun and sexy, and have a big collection at home. A lot of my regular customers already know about my preoccupation with vintage sleepwear because there’s always a substantial collection at the store."

Any words of advice for those new to vintage shopping?
"If you see something you love, buy it! You’ll almost certainly never find it again. I’d also remind everyone buying vintage that many of these pieces are at least 20- years-old. You’ll likely find a flaw if you look hard enough. Seams will come undone, buttons will fall off, but the maintenance on a vintage garment is absolutely worth it because you have the privilege of wearing–and showing off–a unique and amazing piece of history."

Tell us about your favorite vintage shopping experience.
"I saw this perfect tiny champagne bucket charm with a tiny bottle emerging from a tiny mountain of jeweled ice. It was so charming and perfect and I really wanted to wear it as a necklace pendant. I was weeks away from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan, so I chose to save my cash for the trip and forget about the charm. Because of the collectability (and because it was perfect!), some other lucky charm collector scooped it up after I passed on it before my trip. The trip was amazing, but lo and behold, months go by and I was still thinking about the champagne charm. It took me five years, but I eventually found that particular charm for sale and I bought it immediately! It’s still one of my favorite pieces and was absolutely worth the chase."


Photos: Courtesy of Shanti Clark
Sasha-Hodges2

Sasha Hodges, owner of Kokorokoko

What are your favorite spots to score great vintage finds?
"At our vintage shop, Kokorokoko, we only sell clothing from the '80s and the early '90s. We are super specific, and a lot more recent than most vintage shops in Chicago. Our inventory comes from a lot of different sources, but I would have to say my favorite place to score interesting pieces are garage sales. Outside the city people are usually really surprised that we are looking for '80s and will kind of chuckle when we get excited about their Bart Simpson T-shirt or whatever."

What are you tips for incorporating vintage pieces into modern wardrobes?
"Because a lot of contemporary designers have been influenced by the '80s and early '90s lately, it's easy to wear head-to-toe vintage and look up to date. The key is the styling — be aware of the overall silhouette and proportions of your outfit. Even something as dated as shoulder pads can work if you have slim slacks, leggings or a pencil skirt to pair with it."

Any words of advice for those new to vintage shopping?
"When you're out shopping, it's important to be patient and enjoy the ride. Look through each item on the rack. You might not find the perfect blazer or designer piece you are searching for right away but remember it's a treasure hunt and you never know what you will find!"

Tell us about your favorite vintage shopping experience.
"We have an awesome poster from Marshall Fields that is up in our shop called 'Summer in the City,' it was something that probably sat in Marshall Fields in 1989 and now is part of our decor. One of our most amazing finds was a psychedelic '80s Lanvin gown that we originally thought was a poncho but turned out to be an off the shoulder stunner that sold right away! Right now we are loving these 'disco' Doc Martins we have in our webshop. HOT!"


Photos: Courtesy of Sasha Hodges, headshot by Isa Giallorenzo
Katherine-Raz2

Katherine Raz, co-founder of The Vintage Bazaar

What are your favorite spots to score great vintage finds?
"Hands down, estate sales. They feel the most to me like a treasure hunt. And I've consistently found great stuff at sales."

What are your personal vintage shopping guidelines?
"Because I re-sell most of the stuff I buy via BackGarage, I started a new rule for myself at the beginning of this year. I don't pay more than $100 for anything I can't flip in a month for at least three times that much. This basically means I haven't paid more than $100 for anything in six months. And I've been finding great stuff at thrift stores lately for cheap. I always buy teak bowls and silver-rimmed cocktail sets, Dansk plastic serving pieces designed by Gunnar Cyren, anything Heller, metal up lights in various colors and high intensity desk lamps, retro magazine racks and bar carts, and anything from the '70s that has the word of what it is written on the front of it in Helvetica."

What are you tips for incorporating vintage pieces into modern homes and wardrobes?
"I think whether you're decorating an apartment or creating an outfit with vintage pieces, the key is moderation. Mix different styles and eras so you don't look too same-y. Just as a living space doesn't look good all decked out in only 1950s retro atomic lamps. Turquoise sofas and kitsch paintings, people don't look great wearing only pieces from a certain era. If I wear vintage it's usually a jacket, footwear, handbag, jewelry, or other key accessories over my staple dark-colored cotton 'uniform.' It really makes the unique vintage items stand out versus if you're dressed like you're looking into a storefront window television display during the Kennedy presidency, cat-eye glasses, white gloves and all."

Any words of advice for those new to vintage shopping?
"Trust your own eye. When you're hardcore vintage shopping at thrift stores and estate sales, sometimes you see something in the wrong context and you'll pass it by, but it could be a fabulous piece. Sometimes it helps to shop with a partner so you can be like, 'I can't tell if this is cool or not. Is it?'"

Tell us about your favorite vintage shopping experience.
"I don't have one particular story, but lately I've been running into a lot of my favorite vintage dealers and collectors at estate sales. I'll be waiting outside a house and someone I know will come out carrying something I wanted to buy, or I'll be leaving with my arms filled with treasures and someone I know will be shaking their fist like 'Damn you!' But of course it's all in good fun and not actually competitive. I think we all respect what each other does and what we each bring to the scene. The best is when we see each other at sales and someone has just bought some huge piece they have to wrangle into a van or drag out of a basement. It's either, 'Ha! Glad that's not me today,' or, 'Okay, damn, I guess I will help you.' A couple weeks ago I was all the way up in one of my secret thrift stores in a tiny beach town in Michigan, and I ran into someone I knew there. She was like, 'Katherine?' and I'm like, 'Alright, this is ridiculous!' We're 120 miles from Chicago and we still are running into people we know. It's fun."


Photos: Courtesy of Katherine Raz
JulieGhatan2

Julie Ghatan, owner of Dovetail Chicago

What are your favorite spots to score great vintage finds?
"I love all the usual places but I’d have to say that flea markets and auctions are my favorite spots; they’re already semi-curated (unlike yardsales and thrift stores) so there is less digging involved. There’s a great flea market in my hometown in Southern Illinois that I visit when I’m visiting my family and always bring back great stuff from it, like this old clock cabinet I purchased for $5. The clock was removed from it but I saw a lot of potential in it. I installed shelves on the inside and use it as a little curio cabinet in my home now."

What are your personal vintage shopping guidelines?
"I won’t buy clothes I couldn’t style with my existing wardrobe because I know it would just sit in my closet, unworn. The clothes must fit and have all their buttons. I know I’m lazy and rarely take items in to the tailor for repairs or alterations. However, if I absolutely love an item that needs repairs or alterations, I will definitely buy it and take it to my alterationist the same week to make sure it gets done, like this yellow silk wide-leg jumpsuit I found in NYC. It was a little too big in the bust and a little tight in the waist but with a few adjustments, it fits perfectly and is one of my favorite items I’ll treasure forever. I also never say no to a good statement necklace. These come in handy on days when I don’t want to put a lot of effort in my wardrobe. I just put on a solid top, a pair of jeans, and a big, bold necklace and call it an outfit."

Any words of advice for those new to vintage shopping?
"I think moderation and smart pairing is really important when it comes to wearing vintage items. If you dress in vintage from head to toe, you could look like you just stepped out of a time capsule — which is cool if that’s your thing. But if you want to look fashion-forward, I suggest pairing vintage jewelry, belts, and bags with modern clothing and shoes. There has to be a balance between old and new. I like wearing a vintage silk Indian wedding dress with a denim jacket and ankle boots."

Tell us about your favorite vintage shopping item/experience.
"Six years ago, I went walking along Division Street in Wicker Park and came across a sidewalk sale, where I saw this cute kitchen cart. I had to have it, but it was $100 and I wasn’t really looking to drop $100 unexpectedly! I wasn’t planning on shopping that day. It was just supposed to be an innocent walk. But I just had to have it! So I asked the owner to hold it for me and I rushed across the street to an ATM and pulled out the cash. Since I didn’t live too far away, she helped me carry it to my apartment. Later the same year, my roommate at the time was studying art history and told me she saw the cart in one of her reference books. Turns out it’s an original piece by Arthur Umanoff and worth way more than the $100 I paid for it. It’s one of my most favorite pieces and I will take it with me wherever I go."


Photos: Courtesy of Julie Ghatan