There's just something about vintage clothing. Fabric feels more luxurious; skirts seem fuller; waist lines appear impossibly small. It's all so elegant in comparison to today's cheaply made casual Friday wear. For Claudine Villardito, owner of the Phoenix-based online vintage clothing retailer Black Cat Vintage, vintage fashion is a "security blanket of nostalgia" with a "quality of materials and construction [that] surpasses all but the most exclusive modern clothing." Her covetable collection has been featured in museums, galleries and on period shows including "Mad Men." Meanwhile, her web shop boasts such vintage scores as Chanel suits, Yves Saint Laurent blouses and a deeply gorgeous 1960s, red Rudi Gernreich tube dress you'd have to pay me to get out of if I ever got my hands on it.
Which, much to my delight, could conceivably happen since Villardito has opened her first pop-up shop in Downtown Phoenix for the holidays. Located inside the lobby of the historic 111 Monroe building (which used to house a bank), the pop-up is sharing square footage with Villardito's husband's high-end audio store Esoteric Audio, as well as Hidden Track Bottle Shop.
Black Cat Vintage pop-up boutique is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through December 23.
We caught up with Villardito recently to discuss her love for vintage fashion and her motivation for selling in Downtown Phoenix.
How did you get started in the vintage fashion business?
I blame my mother for my vintage clothing addiction. As a child I would stand inside her gowns on Saturday mornings: she had inevitably been out with my father the night before, and the clothes still smelled like her perfume. I’d shimmy inside the dresses as they hung from the hangers and pretend I was the one wearing them. I did it for so long that their shapes, fabrics and designers became part of my muscle memory without my realizing it.
As a starving college student I frequently shopped thrift stores and became known as the person who “shops with her eyes closed”; that is, I would close my eyes and run my hands across the racks until I touched a fabric or shape that I remembered from Saturday morning. Inevitably, it was vintage. My mom only had the best, so I knew whatever I had found was special and I bought it whether it was my size, style, color or not.
By the time my husband and I bought our first house, my collection had outgrown all our closets and I had to rent a storage unit… but I still kept collecting. In 2000 I began researching fashion conservation and restoration, and for the next five years I took apart every piece I had saved— including entire beaded dresses from the 1920s— and put them back together by hand. I taught myself hand-sewing, beading, embroidery, knitting, dyeing, pluming, millinery and sequining; on pieces I couldn’t save I harvested fabric, zippers, buttons, jewels, findings and filed them by year and designer for use on other restorations. In 2005 I began selling on eBay and in 2009 launched my own web site based on the global base of customers I had cultivated.
Why a pop-up shop? What are the differences between (and benefits of) an online store and a brick & mortar?
Since I started Black Cat Vintage, my presence has been predominantly online because it affords me worldwide visibility and because many of my garments are unsuitable for a bricks-and-mortar retail environment. An online business model is ideal for rare, fragile and collectible items because it allows customers to take their time before they commit and gives me access to a global customer base including museums and costumers. The drawback is that shoppers outside institutional or professional environments prefer to see, feel and try on the garments before they buy.
The pop-up is strictly a response to demand. My headquarters in Downtown Phoenix was developed to be an online sales and archival storage facility only... When I took over the space, I decided to include a display window facing First Avenue to showcase prominent acquisitions and restorations; the result was that pedestrians began going in to neighboring businesses to find out how they could shop my collection, which was only online. So I installed the pop-up to feature less rare, more “browsable” pieces and holiday gifts. Depending on how its received, it might become a permanent fixture.
How have you found the Downtown Phoenix location in terms of foot traffic and potential sales?
That’s easy: I love being in Downtown Phoenix!
That said... thanks to the recent in-fill, repurposing and the growing appreciation for Phoenix's cultural history it feels like the ideal time to be a vintage entrepreneur in Downtown. The space is a mid-century treasure with a zig-zag roofline and 360 degrees of windows facing one of the busiest corners in the city, so it’s a perfect backdrop for my collection. We’re not there yet, but Downtown is on the cusp of a retail surge to complement its thriving dining and performance scene: my pop-up is the fourth independent retailer to locate at 111 Monroe, which has become a locus for businesses selling one-of-a-kind products unavailable anywhere else in the Valley, so the potential is rich. The challenge is getting people to associate Downtown with retail and not just nightlife.
Let's talk about fashion! Your website boasts some deeply beautiful clothing. Tell me about your love for vintage clothing over today's fashions, and why vintage clothing continues to hold our interests.
There is a growing consensus that fashion is as legitimate an art form as sculpture, painting or music: when done well it succinctly conveys emotion, reflects cultural attitudes, implements new technology and challenges the imagination. But fashion is intimate in a way the other arts are not; it is—literally—animated by the person who owns it. It is changed by its consumer, and unique in its invitation to both re-inhabit and manipulate history. Not to mention the security blanket of nostalgia; that the silhouettes represent the fashion canon from which modern designers draw inspiration; and that the quality of materials and construction surpasses all but the most exclusive modern clothing. It’s really important to me to keep this art alive, because they’re not making it any more.
Give us your top 3 tips when it comes to vintage shopping.
It goes without saying that when it comes to vintage, buy first and reason later because it won’t be around tomorrow. Beyond that:
1. Buy the finest you can afford. The classics are always in style and vintage was built to last, so your cost-per-wear on a well-made piece of vintage clothing is actually lower.
2. Shop the best era for your body type. Curvy gals shine in 50s and 70s pieces, while boyish ones do best in 20s and 60s styles. Athletic women own the 30s and 40s. You won’t be as overwhelmed by 100 years’ worth of fashion if you narrow your margins.
3. Don’t over-reference. The special sauce of vintage dressing is subtlety, so no more than two vintage pieces per outfit. Ideally you’ll leave people remembering your style, not your clothes.
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