The last decade has seen a different sort of Off-Broadway revival occur at the Metropolitan Pavilion. The stars of this show, however, are of the more tactile variety. Amid hundreds of booths, vendors display their winning numbers: a one-of-a-kind hat here, a pair of Chanel heels there, and a few antique brooches thrown in for good measure. At $20, admission costs less than tickets to whatever Tony Award winner you’ve been meaning to see. And unlike New York Fashion Week, which kicks off in only a few days, you won’t have to stand outside of the tents at Lincoln Center looking in—the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show welcomes industry insiders and vintage virgins alike to this five-star spectacle.
Held twice yearly during the fall and spring, the MVCS gathers more than 90 vintage clothing and antique textile dealers from across the country to share their passion for garments whose lives began long before you were born. You need not know the history of fashion like the back of your hand to enter, though. This event encourages visitors to face their fear of “mothballs” and “weird smells” in order to find a piece (or two) worthy of a place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gallery—or back on campus in your own closet.
Co-produced since 2001 by David Ornstein and Maureen McGill, 39-year vintage veterans themselves, the show highlights clothing from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. But Ornstein and McGill do not limit themselves to women’s wear. They also cater to the often underrepresented market of vintage menswear with their annual Gentlemen’s Vintage Show—the only one in Manhattan. The vendors who register to sell and display their wares at these shows are among the best in the business today. They hunt near and far in search of vintage treasures that unsuspecting eyes might consider trash, but the vendors and aficionados at the show understand the history and craftsmanship that make these pieces special.
The MVCS vendors’ penchant for vintage started early, in environments brimming with inspiration for their future careers: for Lenore Newman, in her parents’ dress shop; for Jean-Paul Buthier, in the streets of Paris; and for Jessie Matrullo, in her grandmother’s photography studio. Back then, they might not have known the historical significance of the clothing that surrounded them, but they sure do now.
Newman, one of the first vendors in attendance at the MVCS and the owner of Patina Vintage on Broome Street, recalls time spent in her parents’ shop as a young girl in 1975. After college, she worked there for a few years and started to gain a deeper regard for the fashion business.
“I really appreciated the way things were made back then,” Newman said. “During the ’70s, I started collecting vintage myself. I went back to school—I have a master in museum studies.
Then I wanted to do something on my own. I had a friend who was a commercial real estate agent downtown and I just stumbled upon this little place with her and on the spot. I said, ‘OK, that’s what I’ll do.’”
Newman opened her store in 1999. More than 10 years later, Newman’s vintage shop has held strong despite the uncertain economic climate. Her customers recognize the rare opportunity that these unique, high-quality vintage pieces provide to make a fashion statement.
“Clothing has become so standardized and people want to stand out,” Newman said. “There’s hardly a way to do it unless you have a fortune of money. This is one way to do it. Now, in the contemporary marketplace, people buy a piece and they incorporate it with contemporary clothing. It’s not costume-y anymore. It’s the value that they’re getting.”
The regular customers and curious passersby are not the only clientele who recognize the value of what the MVCS has to offer. In fact, spend an hour at the show and you might just find yourself brushing shoulders with Hamish Bowles, Vogue’s international editor at large, or shopping alongside film director Sofia Coppola—this writer did. Better yet, the show serves as a rich breeding ground of design inspiration. More than 20 percent of attendees include fashion and costume designers, according to producer Ornstein. Whether it is the buttons on a coat, the color of a gown, or the cut of a suit, they scour the space for details and unique perspectives to give shape to their forthcoming collections and productions. Longtime vendors such as Buthier, the owner and curator of Rue St. Denis on Avenue B, finds this the most meaningful aspect of selling “old clothes” for a living.
“The vintage clothing industry has been and will always be a major source of inspiration for the current fashion industry,” Buthier said. “Really, we depend on one another, because vintage both inspires and takes inspiration from the new trends.”
Before moving to New York 20 years ago, Buthier lived in Paris and loved to browse the thrift shops on the actual Rue Saint-Denis, the namesake of his shop. He recalls his surprise when, upon selling some of the clothing he had collected at a local flea market, people responded eagerly. Ever since turning his passion into a full-fledged business, he has come to realize the importance of preserving clothes with pieces of history hidden in the folds of their fabric. In a sense, the presence of these pieces from the past facilitates the constant churning out of “modern” designs on international stages today, which raises the question: How many of today’s trends do we owe to the past?
“There really is nothing new,” according to Matrullo, a stylist and the proprietress of a vintage company called Bohemian Royalty. “What I think should inspire people when they want to wear these clothes is that when they come to visit one of these shows, they’re in a museum. They’re visiting a museum where they can walk away with an amazing piece that they saw and bring it home—and if they take care of it, they can own it their whole lives.”
Treating her pieces with the utmost care is central to Matrullo’s philosophy on preserving their longevity. Within her own vast collection of both men’s and women’s vintage clothing and objets d’art, which she recently moved to a space at the YoHo Artist Studio—a former carpet millin Yonkers–you can hardly tell that the clothes were previously inhabited. She stresses the fact that we are moving away from a disposable age, in which new pieces are frequently purchased and tossed at the back of one’s closet a year later. The pieces you will undoubtedly encounter at the MVCS are far from department store finds, though. Each one has a story all of its own.
“A lot of these things were altered to fit the people that bought them originally,” Matrullo said. “But when a person walks into the booth and tries something on and it fits them … I have to keep my mouth closed. Because if they’re unsure, they think, ‘OK, well, she’s trying to get me to buy something.’ But when that happens, it’s a magical moment. When you don’t need to do a thing to it, and you’re wearing a vintage piece and it’s wonderful? You’re lucky.”
It is vintage dealers like Matrullo, and so many others at the MVCS, who encourage our generation to be more mindful of how we treat the clothes we buy, whether at the Vintage Show or at a J.Crew Factory Sale. If we remain mindful of where our clothes come from, then we can ensure that the future of fashion becomes as sustainable as any other industry.
“I hope that people start to get into investing in a great coat, or investing in a great pair of trousers, or a great suit,” Matrullo said. “If they could say, ‘Oh yeah, I bought this at the Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show from this amazing dealer who had mostly men’s things, and I always wanted a suit like this.’ People’s clothes were handed down and taken care of. That’s why they’re here, because someone took care of them, and they didn’t end up in the dump. And now you have them.”
To see this array of vintage clothing up close and mingle with vendors, visit the Metropolitan Pavilion (125 W. 18th St. between Sixth and Seventh avenues) on Friday, Feb. 1 from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday, Feb. 2 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door or $15 online. For more information, visit www.manhattanvintage.com and check out our slideshow here.