Written by: Victoria Gilber
Burning incense, rows of faded jeans, pink skulls, chunky jewelry, worn leather shoes; these are the funky, if not smelly, vintage clothing experiences of my memories.
But if you think “luxury” or “glam” when you think vintage, you are one hell of a clothing hunter and are part of a growing trend of savvy shoppers who choose to avoid the sameness, the fashion factories and the cycle of buying new by turning to clothing with a history. Vintage clothing is a trend that is building momentum and it’s going far past bins of bally sweaters.
In the red light of the underground lounge/club, Parlour in Toronto, Christina Cruise is a sight. A tall, blonde, ex-Playboy model, DJ and also boss of her own vintage clothing line: BLK Cinema (blkcinema.com). Cruise has class and sex appeal, which is embodied in her clothing. Originally from St. Catharines, she is now in Toronto directing a trio of models for her newest collection.
“I love this business so much because you get to purchase intricate pieces, crazy, detailed pieces that nobody has and I’ll go and I’ll hunt for this stuff and I’ll find maybe like one piece that you’ll never see again,” she says, peering over at a hat one of the models is trying on before an elaborate mirror.
Cruise describes her line as “dark glam, very haute couture but affordable haute couture” clothing and as far as I can see, the racks of one off pieces are as varied as the models themselves.
“Nowadays I find a lot of people are very ‘street style’, a lot of people are trying to do the same thing and I want to bring back the glam.”
Miss. Cruise is skilled at finding those ‘diamonds in the rough’ pieces, digging through bins in warehouses on the outskirts of Toronto, where tons of surplus, donated and discarded clothing ends up. “I ended up going to second hand warehouses and I’d literally hunt for clothes. I am versed in digging in bins, trying to find really cool stuff. I go on runs every so often and spend hours hunting and then I have to spend hours mending later.”
There’s certainly a lot of clothing to sift through: 85 per cent of cast off clothing goes to landfill, or about 10.5 million tons of clothing according to the popular thrift store, Value Village. Reclaiming the best of these clothes before they end up in a landfill is what Miss. Cruise does best.
“Some of the clothing I have is 60 years old and is in immaculate condition because it was taken care of. Recycling clothes, you are reusing clothing. Wearing and buying vintage is eco-friendly.”
It’s difficult to ponder the environmental impact of clothing when another awesome dress draped on a black-haired beauty passes by us and lounges seductively on the sofa. If this is saving the environment, count me in.
“The fashion business generates dreams,” says Dr. Christine Daigle, professor of philosophy and Director of Post Humanism Research Institute at Brock University when asked about vintage clothing.
“The ethical impact of the way we consume clothing is manifold; it’s environmentally bad, it’s bad how we exploit less well off populations and we’ve built a system to make us feel better about our overconsumption by then redirecting it to our own less well off populations.”
Kind of takes the thrill right out of one of my favourite pastimes, browsing the stores for the new looks and of course, selecting that new dress or sweater with the season’s trendiest cut.
“Nowadays with fast fashion, we are now familiar with the conditions of people working overseas in the fast fashion factories, it’s very poor. They’re just trying to push out as much as possible so people will buy and buy and buy,” says Cruise.
Documentaries like The True Cost and The Machinists on popular sites like Youtube and Netflix have increased our awareness of fast-fashion and headlines about factories in far-away places crashing or burning down on thousands of workers who are making our clothes may help with our buying decisions, but the numbers are still scary.
In North America, consumers are buying and discarding five times as much clothing as they did 25 years ago, reports Elizabeth Cline in her book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio, 2013) with chapters like “I Have Enough Clothing to Open a Store” and “Sewing is a Good Job, a Great Job.”
“Because of low prices, chasing trends is now a mass activity, accessible to anyone with a few bucks to spare,” writes Cline in her book “We are caught in a cycle of consumption and waste that is unsettling at best and unsatisfying at its’ core.”
OK, pretty bleak. What can an eco-conscious, fashion forward gal or boy do in this destructive fast fashion world?
“If we were just aiming to have good quality, not cheap, not super expensive, with classical cuts, not your funky ‘flavour of the day’ kind of thing. If we were aiming to design our wardrobes in a sustainable ways, that’s what it would mean – you buy a suit jacket that can last 15 years,” says Daigle. A sustainable wardrobe means many things. Fewer pieces, interchangeable classic styles that don’t fall out of fashion and more care taken to keep these clothes maintained year after year. “I remember visiting grandparents and seeing piles of clothing for fixing. Fewer people know how to sew so they don’t fix their clothing. It’s cheaper just to go to Old Navy or something. We need to acquire those skills that we’ve lost by fixing our clothing,” says Daigle.
The ornate pieces sold online or at BLK Cinema’s pop up stores do need a certain degree of TLC. Sewing does seem pretty simple but other than the odd button, I’m all thumbs with a needle and thread. Popular vintage clothing sites like ETSY.com often state whether or not the item being sold has been repaired or restored.
As Miss. Cruise gently zips up the back of a long fitted black dress she explains how she not only researches the history of every piece but also touches up any odd thread. “I know how to hand-sew, so I do it myself. It’s tedious and takes a long time, but I’d rather fix them and make them more durable before I sell any clothes. Bigger jobs, I send to a tailor. It’s a huge process but these clothes can last and last if you take care of them.”
The models at Parlour are up on the bar now, arching their backs and looking fierce in thigh-high boots and furs from the fifties. They smile and pose and stroke the material, which is older than they are but just as fresh looking.
“The great thing about vintage is because it’s so well made from back in the day, if it’s well kept, it can keep going and be reused over and over again. But if you are going to try and reuse a TopShop article of clothing, that won’t work,” says Christina.
“Some of the clothing I have is 60 years old. Pieces from the forties or the fifties; I love that era, to think that someone in that era wore this…wow. I think of pieces and I get flashbacks of people in the seventies wearing this piece to a disco. It’s cool when you think of the story behind it. Who wore it? Where’s it been?”
We know our grandparents kept their clothing in good condition. If yours are alive, just peek into their closet.
“There’s been such a change in our approach to clothing when you think of the evolutions of how many clothes people own,” says Daigle from her Brock office. “When I think of my parents or grandparents they didn’t have a wardrobe that exceeded 25 pieces of clothing. There’s been an acceleration in our acquisition of clothing partly because clothing has become so cheap. It’s easy for me to have two drawers full of t-shirts where maybe I wear one shirt in the summer because it’s only $15, I don’t hesitate to buy more.”
It’s clear not all vintage is created equal. The prices for vintage can vary radically depending on where you find it and how special the piece actually is. With the image of Christina Cruise jumping into bins of clothing floating before me, vintage enthusiasts can sit back and order secondhand luxury clothing through websites like etsy.com and let vintage junkies like Miss. Cruise do the dirty work of seeking out the best clothing for us.
But if you find yourself becoming interested in vintage and end up looking for that one-of-a-kind item at a second hand store, possibly consider these questions when selecting: It is lined? Is it made in Canada or the US or in Asia? Is it well taken care of? Is it classic or will it be unfashionable in less than three wears? Is it made of a lasting fabric like a silk or a wool instead of synthetic? Does it make you unbelievably happy to wear it? These are the questions we might ask ourselves when we shop to get the most out of our clothing.
The Wrap Up:
“For those of us who are more fortunate and can spend a little more on clothing, look at your preferred brands and be picky and make sure you buy clothes that come from ethical conditions and are ethically sourced,” says Daigle, who admits, her closet is as full as the next person’s but she is trying to stick to the “less than 25 rule” by giving a piece of clothing away if she purchases a new one.
As the girls come together for one last shot on the wide orange sofa, candles flickering on the brick walls behind, lithe bodies dripping in elegance and sparkly blue sequence, the scene is as high fashion as they come.
“Oh, I just love this dress – it’s so romantic,” says one model to the other as the woman settle into each other to pose for the camera. As they lounge, the stories of the clothes can almost be heard above the direction from the photographer. With the romanticism of a lost story, clothing made in safe conditions, a light environmental impact and sex appeal, what’s not to love? Sign me up for saving the planet, one second-hand sparkly sequined dress at a time.