When Marlene Selsman walked out of Decades, a Melrose designer vintage store, she wasn't carrying shopping bags full of purchases. The West Hollywood entertainment writer left with a check for $200.
"I was shocked," she said, when Decades owner Cameron Silver shelled out the money for old treasures from her closet: a brown glitter harem pants set, a wrap dress that Stevie Nicks could have worn and a sequined jacket from L.A's defunct Pleasure Dome that originally cost $450.
"She'd maybe get $20 for those at a garage sale," said Silver, as he paid $55 for another acquisition--a gold mesh Whiting & Davis purse from a dealer who bought it for $2. "Now I think people are getting hip to the fact that there is money to be made from the clothing," Silver said. He stands to make money himself with a new boutique opening later this month inside the Manhattan flagship of Barneys New York.
The word is out about designer vintage clothing--garments from 1930 forward: It's not just what passionate collectors and discerning fashionistas love to buy and wear. Now savvy sellers are cashing in on their fashion castoffs.
"People know that vintage piece could be as valuable as that dining room table they've lugged around for three generations," said Elizabeth Mason, owner of the Paper Bag Princess in West Hollywood, who is finding more competition for good finds.
"People are burnt out on giving away stuff," Silver explained. "Consequently, the market has gotten much more expensive."
A Gucci bag he sold recently for $650 to a Tokyo tourist might have commanded $450 in a top shop three years ago, he said. And five years ago, before logos hit the runways again, the purse might have been considered gauche and undesirable.
Just as TV shows such as "Antiques Roadshow" have helped America learn about treasures in the attic, sophisticated vintage stores, along with the Internet, are helping educate buyers and sellers alike about the value of vintage.
"Before, old clothing didn't have the same kind of cachet as furniture or pottery or glass," said Katie Rodriguez, owner of Resurrection, who is opening a Melrose Avenue branch of her New York shop in May. "I think that's changed. It's becoming more a part of people's consciousness that it's OK and it's not that you are wearing an old rag."
Finding good stuff is a complex treasure hunt for dealers, such as Tarzana's Barbara Ross, who looks for designer vintage at estate sales, online and in thrift shops.
"It's getting harder and harder," she said. "Sources where I've done well are drying up. So you have to find that next thing that is going to be different and wonderful."
In an ironic turn, vintage clothing in the last four years has become a status symbol to wear and collect, even among socialites who aim to look unique. Vintage used to be an anti-status symbol for teenagers and, decades ago, for hippies who rejected materialism.
"We are used to the idea of having art connoisseurs and collectors," said Valerie Steele, curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "Now fashion has created a new fashion connoisseur" who often feels part of fashion history by wearing their rare finds, she said.
As status replaces the stigma about wearing old clothing, auction houses also are seeing prices soar, particularly since New York's William Doyle Galleries began holding couture auctions in 1983. By 1997, Sotheby's began selling couture clothes for well over their price estimates, such as a 1948 Christian Dior "New Look" ensemble that sold for $17,250, more than eight times the top estimate. Put a Hollywood star's clothes on the block and prices explode. The Jean Louis dress Marilyn Monroe wore to sing "Happy Birthday" to President Kennedy sold for $1,267,500 at last October's Christie's auction, a new world record for a woman's dress.
Less stratospheric, but still pricey, are collectible designers, such as Ozzie Clark, whose colorful clothes fetch from $1,000 to $2,800 at Decades.
"Clothing is another asset," said Rita Watnick, owner of Lily et Cie in Beverly Hills, a large vintage couture store. Many women are clearing out their closets instead of waiting for their heirs to unload their clothes for low estate sale prices, she said.
"You don't want someone doing the wrong thing with it," Watnick said. "If it weren't for companies like ours, clothes would go into the Dumpster like they used to."
Detroit collector Sandy Schreier, author and owner one of the world's largest private vintage couture collections, said the vintage resurgence comes with pitfalls.
"I think as the masses come into this, and as dealers are just jumping on board, I'm seeing that nobody knows anything about any of these things," Schreier said. "They are giving out information that is nothing but lies. How can the public that basically doesn't know anything protect themselves? It's caveat emptor--buyer beware."