By Rebecca Mordechai / The Jewish Press
“I’m sorry, but vintage shopping isn’t for me,” said one girl apologetically to the owners of The Pink Rack, a small vintage shop located in Midwood. The owners, sisters Chani Deutsch and Rivki Oppenheim, were faring their goods at Ohr Naava’s Brooklyn Market, a two-day shopping event that curated a group of sartorially-savvy Jewish vendors in Brooklyn and raised money for the famed women’s Torah center. Deutsch and Oppenheim wanted Orthodox-concentrated areas, like Flatbush, to embrace the vintage trend that other Brooklyn hotspots (e.g. Crown Heights, Williamsburg, and Park Slope) have enjoyed for years now. And with this in mind, they drove several racks of ‘70’s caftans and ‘50’s skirts to the Brooklyn Market.
Yet, like the girl mentioned above, there are still those who are reluctant to sink their fashion-hungry claws into these particular styles. “But this girl was only reluctant until a fabulous leather vest caught her eye,” said Rivki about the former vintage nay-sayer. “And then she ended up leaving with not one but six other vintage pieces!” concluded her sister, Chani. The Pink Rack owners, who started running their business from their house last August, sometimes experience a customer’s hesitance to abandon the predictability of Macy’s shopping for the quirky adventure that is vintage scouring. Nevertheless, with their no-nonsense styling tips (“we’re absolutely honest about which vintage cuts we think will flatter you and which ones won’t”), their collection of contemporary belts available to quickly modernize, say, a wide ‘80’s dress, and their pre-purchased dry cleaning services, Deutsch and Oppenheim take away much of the doubt that may surround vintage shopping in the Orthodox community.
Keep in mind, however, that Deutsch and Oppenheim are not the only sister entrepreneurs to proudly bear their style-conscious swag. Simi Polonsky and Chaya Chanin, co-owners of Frock Swap, a consignment store based in Crown Heights, are the very first Orthodox women to have kicked off the vintage craze. The sisters, who grew up in Australia, founded Frock Swap in September 2009. Armed with the nostalgia of their hometown’s unique style and beaches, they introduced an at once modest, creative, and “let’s-not-take-fashion-so-seriously” panache to Brooklyn’s female Orthodox community. They also, of course, shared their love for vintage: “When we were 15 years old, we begged our mum to drive us to the vintage shops every Sunday. We knew all the best ones around,” said Simi. And what, precisely, are the benefits to hunting vintage rack, I ask? “Well, vintage clothes tend to be much more modest than what they sell today. They didn’t have miniskirts in the ‘50s,” answers Simi. “Also,” adds Chaya, “vintage clothes allow Orthodox girls to look uniquely fashionable and individualistic.”
Indeed, anyone who favors vintage knows this is true; Frock Swap’s racks have everything from a refined, 40’s-chic Christian Dior coat to a long-sleeved 80’s party dress with a one-of-a-kind print. Surely one cannot find these pieces, at such reasonable prices, (Frock Swap’s clothes are marked down from $400-$1000 to $50-$400) at Saks or Neiman-Marcus. When asked how one can revamp vintage clothes, Simi responds that it’s smart to pair with them with contemporary items, like modern stilettos or a denim button up. “We wouldn’t tell you to wear a vintage dress with a vintage purse and a vintage pair of kitten heels. It’s definitely more aesthetically appealing and creatively engaging to mix the new with the old.” Chaya adds that one can also take off shoulder pads or fix the sleeve style to make a vintage item look more current. “When shopping for vintage, always pay attention to cut, fabric, and pattern,” she advises. In addition to vintage, Simi and Chaya buy and consign contemporary merchandise from high-end brands like Missoni, Chloe, and Prada. Frock Swap has what to offer for every sartorial taste and every fashionable inclination.
But as it turns out, mother-and-daughter teams can also spearhead this particular Brooklyn trend – not just sister duos. Eva Muller and her daughter, Shevy Goldman, have formed an inter-generational and artistic vision behind their popular Flatbush vintage shop, MyMothersArmoire. Opened in December 2013, it is the first to offer an actual vintage storefront to the Orthodox female community. As I sit down with Shevy, she starts to reminisce about the vintage shopping trips her mother used to take her on. “At first, I wasn’t very into it,” she says. “But then I found an absolutely gorgeous vintage dress when I was 15. And since then, I fell in love with vintage and started to wear it with pieces from mainstream stores like Zara and J.Crew.” Incidentally, Muller has not only influenced her daughter’s style, but also the name of the store. “My mother has a beautiful armoire with Hermes scarves hanging next to vintage YSL bangles and vintage Chanel-esque flower accessories. When my mother wasn’t there, my sister and I used to tiptoe around the armoire and play dress up.”
MyMothersArmoire has an exceptionally inviting feel to it. It is at once cozy and elegant with highly organized racks, chic chairs, and a table with magazines for fashion reference. Furthermore, the staff is friendly and accommodating. “How can this be more flattering to my figure?” and “How can this be tailored?” are questions I frequently overhear customers asking the saleswomen. Muller’s and Goldman’s helpful tips are further strengthened by their knowledge of high-fashion; they are very aware of trends and encourage stepping out of the proverbial box by, say, mixing one’s prints. They even tell customers to bring a blouse or skirt that’s otherwise collecting dust in a closet to MyMothersArmoire. With their trained eye, Muller and Goldman are able find the best “matching” piece for the formerly lonely blouse or skirt and create an inspired outfit.
It’s also interesting to note how each of these vintage trendsetters has her own modish flair and allows vintage to influence her in a different way. Frock Swap’s Simi likes a 1960’s Go-Go Girl style with boxy shift dresses while Chaya prefers the hip energy of the 1970s with its loose cuts and fringe detailing (regardless, both sisters were dressed fabulously when I met them). Unlike the preferred bohemian style of the Frock Swap owners, however, Shevy gravitates toward the structured femininity of the 1950s: “I am in awe of the dresses in classic movies like My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Although their fashion preferences may differ, all these vintage stores recognize one undeniable constant: the importance of social media and marketing. The Pink Rack, Frock Swap, and MyMothersArmoire regularly post pictures of their merchandise on Instagram; follow them and you’re guaranteed eye candy and sale updates.
Lastly, in addition to the above stores, there is a fourth Jewish-owned vintage gem in Brooklyn. Known as Life Vintage, this shop is a stand-out, not only because it culls a terrific collection of antiques, but it also donates all of its proceeds to Chai Lifeline! Walk into Life Vintage (they have three locations in the Park Slope and Prospect Heights areas) and shopping becomes the antithesis of the mundane; one can easily justify otherwise self-indulgent purchases because, “Hey, my dollars are going to an extremely worthy cause!” Moreover, the interior design and merchandise of Life Vintage offers a charmingly whimsical vibe. Pink Hoover floor polishers from the 1960s, antique lamps, a collection of classic vinyls and color-coordinated clothing racks will demand an appreciative sigh from hipsters and modern shoppers alike. Runway clothes (from the likes of Valentino and Burberry) are also offered to customers at a fraction of the retail price at Life Vintage.
As of late, vintage has definitely been in vogue in the Orthodox community. This reality has also motivated women to start their own home-based shops. “Orthodox women are realizing they can be very successful entrepreneurs. We have a lot of friends in this business and we’re supportive of them. It’s inspiring to see women do this and there’s a need for it,” says Chaya. There is undoubtedly a need for modest, affordable, fashionable clothes in the community, and fortunately for us, these four Brooklyn vintage shops are trying their best to close that gap. “You’re just happy when you wear vintage,” concludes Shevy simply. And, truthfully, who can argue with that statement? Vintage will always offer an intriguing story, a distinctive allure, and best of all, a creative outlet for Brooklyn’s budding fashionistas.