Vintage turns a profit

Fashionista Vintage and Variety owners host parties to sell merchandise and satisfy the vintage clothing niche in New Haven.
Fashionista Vintage and Variety owners host parties to sell merchandise and satisfy the vintage clothing niche in New Haven. Photo by Lindsey Raymond.

At New Haven’s Fashionista Vintage and Variety, items come and go. A pair of lederhosen were snatched up by a burlesque dancer on her way to Los Angeles. An English suit was shipped to Ireland for the birthday of an Irish theater troupe leader.

Store owners Nancy Shea, 54, and Todd Lyon, 52, are not the average clothing entrepreneurs. They host parties at their 33 Church St. second-floor loft, serve champagne to customers and sell secondhand merchandise such as pirate hats and prom dresses. Although Shea and Lyon have sold vintage clothing since 2008 — with the motto “Vintage treasures, rarities, oddities, eclectic beauties, kooky one-of-a-kind wonders and nostalgia trips” — their special expertise is customer service, they said. At a time when many New Haven retailers are struggling, Town Green Special Services executive director Rena Leddy said last week, Fashionista continues to grow because it fills a niche: vintage clothing.

“We find the ideal pairing of wonderful old items with people who love them and take care of them,” Shea said. “It sounds silly, but it’s all just recycling.”

Shea, an environmental planner by day, and Lyon, a writer, are somewhat soulmates themselves. Lyon, a tall, lanky, platinum blonde woman, wears knee-high black boots, a tight black leather skirt, black sweater, huge silver hoops, black beret with a snowflake pin, and skull and crossbones cuff bracelet that emphasizes how her hands frequently flutter around as she speaks. Also in black, Shea is a shorter woman, with bouncy auburn hair, cowboy boots and a plastic left forearm with a burnished silver watch.

After first meeting at a New Year’s Eve party eight years ago, the pair immediately bonded. Lyon said her friendship with Shea is special because the pair imagines “all these crazy ideas,” she said. “But we actually do them — like open a vintage clothing shop.”

In late 2004, Shea and Lyon faced a dilemma with their overflowing closets. Neither could bear to throw out many of their one-of-a-kind clothes. So in December 2004, they decided to hold a Fashionista tag sale in Shea’s apartment. Although Shea could not recall exactly how financially successful the first sale was, soon Shea and Lyon were organizing approximately eight tag sales each year. These tag sales, often spur-of-the-moment decisions, Shea said, snowballed into incredibly labor-intensive productions, requiring them to hang all the clothes on racks all across the room and then return all the clothes to their closets after each sale. Shea said she felt the clothes were slowly pushing her out of her apartment.

After almost three years of tag sales and 700 people on the “Fashionista Tag Sale” e-mail list, Lyon said, the pair decided to open a store. Shea and Lyon said they did not start the store with a formal business model or even a cash register. They still do not have either. Money is kept in a frayed black purse Shea wears around her shoulder while working in the store. Neither has any previous retail experience.

Still, Shea and Lyon were both self-professed “workaholics” they said. Nonetheless, both owners acknowledged that “if we entered this business to become millionaires, we failed miserably.”

Fashionista pays its bills, but Shea said she and Lyon are “not able to pay themselves salaries.” Shea said that during the recession last year, she did not notice an increase in foot traffic to her store. Her customers do not try to bargain hunt, she said. Rather, they try to find alternative clothing styles. A vintage piece is one-of-a-kind.

Leddy said the only two vintage stores in New Haven are Fashionista and English Building Market on 839 Chapel St. At English Building Market, Carol Orr, the owner, said she has noticed an increase in customers looking for vintage clothes. In the past, graduate students and faculty members were common customers, but now, she said, more undergraduates shop there too.

Orr’s store opened two years ago, and she has noticed that as a result of the downturn, the store’s business has improved. (About 5 percent of the store’s sales are from vintage clothing, Orr said.) Other retail stores, in contrast, have not been so lucky. Orr said nearby retail stores have been hurting.

“People now are looking for different funky things,” she added.

Compared to other stores, the two vintage shops in New Haven have been thriving during the economic downturn, Leddy said.

She added that while there has been no increase in demand to open thrift stores downtown, the economic malaise may change the concept of the downtown “traditional retailer.” For instance, she said, unconventional businesses, like architecture firms, have expressed interest in leasing retail spaces in the area.

Fashionista has an unconventional style and, because of it, has developed a base of loyal customers, such as Carys Johnson ’12. Johnson said she has purchased several costumes for parties and now wears them regularly.

Every piece of vintage clothing has a history, and each history adds to what Lyon calls the store’s “crazy vibe.” At Fashionista, each piece of clothing is accompanied by handwritten tags. Although some tags are straightforward in description (“1950s bustier”), others, such as “boring yet strangely chic grey cardigan” and “zee French maid apron. Tres bien!” are more opinionated. Shea says each piece at Fashionista is handpicked.

“There is nothing random,” she said. “We have to reject a lot of stuff.”

Lyon and Shea said they are knowledgeable about vintage fashion and eager to help customers. But they also like to have fun. They offer patrons complimentary champagne upon arrival. The owners also host dress-up karaoke parties, where guests play a variety of dress-up games, dance and often return the next morning “rav[ing] about how much fun they had,” Lyon said.

Customers are not reluctant to attend more than one Fashionista party as the selection of clothes constantly changes, with new additions arriving daily, Shea said. Lyon and Shea said they love imagining which customer will buy what piece. Sometimes, they can predict who will fall in love with a new addition, but sometimes, they said, they are completely taken by surprise.

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