As a vintage clothing dealer, there are three basic questions that I get asked: How did I become interested in vintage clothing, where do I get my stuff, and (not this directly) how the hell do I know what I’m doing? This blog aims to answer the first question (future blogs will answer the others.) I usually say that I started collecting when I was a college student, in Manhattan, for financial reasons. But the truth is that I have always been fascinated with old things, which have history, impeccable workmanship, and soul.
My Spanish grandmother (Yaya) collected antiques beginning in the 1920s and had a fifteen room apartment (with maid’s quarters) in Madrid that was full of beautiful 17th and 18th century furniture, chandeliers and art. She had a great eye and used her talents to purchase undervalued items every Sunday at El Rastro, Madrid’s sprawling flea market (let me just state that European flea markets are nothing like the ones we attend in this country. I’m not an expert, but I have been to Portobello Road in London, Les Puces in Paris and my favorite, Porta Portese in Rome, and nothing in this country compares to the wide selection of truly antique items in Europe. I’ll go to my grave regretting those 18th century earrings I didn’t purchase in Rome.)
When Yaya passed away in 1997, I wished nothing more than to ship every item she owned and squeeze it all into my loft. But since I’m not a hoarder, I resigned myself to about 8 pieces that were important to me, including a 19th century Swiss music box, a 17th century Italian gilt mirror, her 1920s diamond engagement bracelet and a huge oil portrait of her from 1948 (my parents kept a lot, which made me feel better about auctioning off so much of her stuff.)
Like Yaya, I’ve also spent most of my Sundays at a flea market, on 6th Avenue and 26th Street. I learned so much by seeing, touching, talking about and later researching items I bought there. I’m always amused when customers ask how I KNOW a dress, for example, is actually from the 30s. When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, it becomes second nature. Yes, I could check the seams, the zipper, the workmanship and determine if the fabric is pre-war, but I don’t have to: I can date and value an item from a quick glance at a photo. I have a dealer friend who can “smell” sterling silver…that’s the sort of thing that happens to you after few years of obsessively collecting.
That said, I’ve never been a real “collector.” I don’t like a lot of useless stuff around: shelves full of tchotchkes repel me. But I do love beautiful things, and useful things, like clothing, jewelry, lighting, books, furniture and art. And because there’s always…ALWAYS…something new to see, and history to learn, while shopping for vintage clothing and antiques, it’s a pastime I will never tire of.
(if you’re interested in reading more about my fascinating grandmother’s life, see my past blog: Clara Orozco Barquin de Casas.)