LOS ANGELES — Although the hunt for vintage clothing may be enticing to some people, others would rather bypass digging for buried treasure that, even when found, may consist of garments that are tattered or in a size best suited for the bird-boned women of the 1940s.
But the retro aesthetic is still a desirable one, particularly for the thriving rockabilly subculture of Southern California that favors 1940s- and 1950s-inspired dresses. Not to be excluded are the plus-sized women who love the look of vintage garments but are hard-pressed to find pieces that fit, especially since the average American woman is an inch taller and 24 pounds heavier than her counterpart in 1960, according to figures compiled by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Enter several local designers and retailers who are creating and selling new clothing crafted to look steeped in the past. Their wares include cocktail dresses and bathing suits reminiscent of a Vargas girl, and they sell to customers who seem to be taking cues from modern-day vintage vixens, such as burlesque star Dita Von Teese and singer Katy Perry.
The vintage-inspired and reproduction pieces tend to appeal to people who are consistent in their love of vintage and wear the look year-round regardless of whether it’s a current runway trend.
“No one’s throwing out last season’s ’30s clothes to get ready for this season’s ’30s clothes,” says Annamarie von Firley, co-founder of Revamp Vintage in downtown Los Angeles.
Von Firley’s designs focus on men’s and women’s clothing from 1910 to 1957, which she makes in new fabrics from vintage patterns. “These are period pieces, but they have a timeless quality to them. Also, the clothing of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s celebrates the body and are styles that are hugely accessible for people.”
She attributes her customers’ strong attraction to looks inspired by the past to a retro culture spawned by the swing dance craze of the 1990s and, more recently, to the popularity of “Mad Men.”
“There seems to be a desire to reach back to a time and period where everything seemed a little more simple,” she says. “There’s a safety and comfort to the past that people reach back to and embrace the beautiful bits of.”
Von Firley houses a ready-to-wear line of dresses, separates and accessories in her 12th floor studio and store and also works often with made-to-measure garments, primarily for brides who want that antique appeal on their wedding day. Prices range from $85 for a halter top to $3,000 for a wedding gown.
The designer is also something of a full-service time machine, offering all things associated with vintage style, including hair ornaments and monthly makeup classes for clients who want a face to match the retro clothes.
Clothing lines such as Stop Staring and Queen of Heartz have created their businesses around the allure of vintage-inspired clothing. Stop Staring founder-designer Alicia Estrada started her line 14 years ago, infusing a love of ’30s and ’40s film noir into a collection of dresses done in stretch fabrics.
“There was nobody out there doing this when I started,” Estrada says. “I would go shop at vintage stores that were selling the real deal, looking for a ’50s dress or ’40s pencil skirt. But being a plus-sized girl, you’re not finding those styles in your size.”
Estrada designs her own patterns but consistently incorporates vintage elements such as cap sleeves and box pleats, and she works a ’40s-inspired panel of stretchy fabric into the midsection of dresses to allow the wearer to move and breathe comfortably while the tummy area stays sleek.
She sells her clothing at boutiques all over the country and has a line for plus-size retailer Torrid. “I want to celebrate a woman’s figure and show off her curves in a sexy but classy way,” says Estrada, whose clothes run from size 4 to 26. Dresses range from $115 to $180.
Queen of Heartz creator and designer Letty Tennant began her vintage-inspired clothing business making custom dresses for her girlfriends who were a part of the Orange County rockabilly scene. The demand for her creations grew as many of her friends had trouble finding vintage pieces that fit, and Tennant expanded her line to include a ready-to-wear collection that is still popular with the rockabilly community as well as with prom-goers and brides-to-be.
“I focus on the ’40s and ’50s,” Tennant says. “I get inspired by my personal vintage collection, but we’re not a reproduction company. I make all the patterns myself.”
She adds that she tends to design with her own body type (she’s a size 14) in mind and creates clothing to flatter curvier figures. “I think about what cuts are more flattering and might use wider straps rather than spaghetti straps or implement a waistband that’s more forgiving,” she says.
Dresses, priced $130 to $260, are the big draw in Tennant’s collection, which comes in sizes 0 to 18, with anything larger custom-made. “We sell a lot of cocktail dresses,” she says. “Everybody has special events to go to, and we tend to sell them year-round.”
For the full-service vintage-inspired experience, retailers such as Unique Vintage in Burbank and My Baby Jo in West L.A. carry new clothing, accessories, undergarments and beauty products that all fall in line with the retro aesthetic.
Unique Vintage started as a Web store a decade ago with a bricks-and-mortar location going up in Burbank three years ago. Owner Katie Echeverry carries a wide array of vintage-inspired clothing for men and women in a variety of prices. Her wares include Stop Staring styles, Esther Williams swimsuits and rockabilly shirts that are a bestseller with male shoppers.
But the store is best known to some in the prom-going crowd, who flock to Unique Vintage every spring to look for dresses that will make them stand out in a crowd of girls dressed largely in styles offered at the local mall.
At My Baby Jo, there’s makeup, foundation garments, shoes and clothes that, displayed together, make you feel as if you’ve been transported right back to the ’50s.
Owner Darla Montoya started the business online 10 years ago and moved into her West L.A retail space eight years ago while she was in the swing-dancing scene and wore the ’40s-style clothes that went along with the lifestyle.
“People of all ages are drawn to” the look of vintage,” Montoya says. “The ladies’ clothes are very feminine, sexy and alluring without being revealing, and the men’s styles have a traditionally masculine look.”
Montoya also creates a line for the store based on a mix of vintage and new patterns but always maintains the vintage details. The line is made up primarily of dresses for women and vintage car-club jackets for the men.
Undergarments include garters and bullet bra pads for anyone who wants to go that far to get a retro shape under their clothes.
“No matter what size someone is, the foundation garments make everything hang better,” Monoya says. “Plus, we like to have everything someone might need to complete the look.”