Linda Mitchell-Storer has a sixth sense about clothing. When someone walks through the doors of her vintage and formalwear rental shop, Vintage Finery in Orrington , within minutes she has figured out what size they wear, what their measurements are, and even what eras of fashion they may or may not be attracted to.
“I just know. I can name someone’s size immediately. I don’t know how, but I’ve always been able to do it,” said Mitchell-Storer. “I’m a very intuitive person. I just know what’s going to look good on someone.”
For 33 years, Mitchell-Storer has delighted in dressing up all sorts of people, from brides picking out a vintage wedding gown, to Halloween revelers who want a costume with wow factor, to high school seniors getting ready for prom. April and May are among her busiest times of year, with prom and wedding season both rapidly approaching.
“My absolute favorite thing is making someone feel really good about what they are wearing. I don’t care what size you are, how old you are — I want you to feel good,” said Mitchell-Storer. “Men, too. Everybody’s a little insecure about their body. I don’t care. I have something for you.”
Her obsession with fashion started when she was a child, the oldest of seven siblings.
“I used to play dress up in my grandmother’s closet in South Dakota,” said Mitchell-Storer, who was born in Alaska and moved around the country with her military family before settling in Maine in the late 1960s. “I started collecting as a teenager. It was always antique fashion that I really loved — I have things from the 1790s, I have Civil War ball gowns, Victorian-era stuff. But I love everything, really.”
Mitchell-Storer amassed clothing for both men and women anywhere she went — estate sales, antique shops, flea markets, going-out-of-business sales, while traveling around the country with her husband, Tollef, and their three children, Aaron, Amelia and Emily. By the mid-1980s, she had so many clothes she didn’t quite know what to do with them all.
“I had to do something to make money. So I started a little shop at home,” she said. “We had the Tuxedo Room in the garage, and we rented out tuxes and dresses for proms and weddings… we just kept putting additions on the building and adding more and more to the inventory. It became what is now Vintage Finery. Now it’s 4,000 square feet.”
Though the array of clothing, jewelry, hats, shoes and accessories can seem overwhelming to the casual observer, Mitchell-Storer has an encyclopedic knowledge of her tens of thousands of items. Walking into the shop, you first see a rainbow of vintage dresses from the 1960s and 70s. In the coat room, there’s everything from ivory white rabbit fur capes to 25-pound buffalo coat made from the skin of a bison. There’s sections for costumes for kings and queens, pirates, cowboys, fairies, Santas and Easter Bunnies. Upstairs, there’s the wedding and prom dresses — more than 400 in total, from demure, lacy 1930s gowns to poofy, cloud-like, over-the-top 1980s dresses.
Mitchell-Storer’s youngest daughter, Emily, says she inherited her mother’s eye for fashion. She has not followed in her mother’s footsteps in terms of career choices, though she is often her mom’s preferred model for photo shoots.
“I can tell you what decade, what size something is, just like she can. I got that from her,” she said. “But Halloween was always a crazy time for us, growing up. My friends liked to come over and dress up. It’s a unique place to grow up in.”
Now 65, with three grown children, Linda Mitchell-Storer has finally decided that it’s time to retire. She’s not sure when, exactly, but Vintage Finery — what she calls her life’s work — isn’t something she can go on doing forever.
There are several challenges in her way, however. Though Mitchell-Storer knows her inventory intimately, most of her knowledge isn’t recorded in a database. Everything in the shop needs to be catalogued and priced, a process that would likely take many months, and requires people with an eye for fashion and knowledge of the vintage clothing market.
“My dream would be to open a museum for all my antique clothing, and to find people to buy everything else,” she said. “There’s no other place like us in Maine. It’s not your typical retirement scenario.”
There’s also a matter that’s even more pressing: last summer, Mitchell-Storer was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a terrifying diagnosis made doubly difficult for her by the fact that she cared for her own mother, also stricken with Alzheimer’s, until her death in December 2015.
Though Mitchell-Storer’s symptoms currently are fairly mild, she knows there’s a time limit on how long she can keep on seeing clients for dress and suit fittings.
“I know really well what my mother went through … it’s heartbreaking. It’s very scary. I don’t really know what to do, to be honest,” said Mitchell-Storer. “I feel the clock ticking, you know?”
Walking through the warren of rooms that houses her collection, Mitchell-Storer can’t help but find a story for nearly everything — big ticket items, like set jackets owned by Gilda Radner and Cher or tailored Italian suits, or smaller things, like the iguana skin cowboy boots she got out west, or the Carmen Miranda outfit she personally often puts on for Halloween.
“It kind of hurts to think about parting with anything,” she said. “I know I have to, but still … these are my babies. I’ll keep going as long as I can. I still love it. I still love dressing people up.”
Vintage Finery is open by appointment; call 207-356-9560 to set up a time for a fitting.
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