Three years ago, I was torn from the fashion capital of the world to find myself trapped in a world full of green, salmon pink, and seersucker. I was a chain-smoking, bitter New Yorker, turned suddenly into a disgruntled resident of D.C., the capital of the U.S., and Georgetown, the world’s biggest country club.
My after-school shopping retreats went from the thrift store Housing Works on East 23rd St. to chain stores like H&M and Zara. Not surprisingly, I didn’t want to look like everyone else. The megalithic fashion factories could not quench my sartorial thirst. With only the vintage boutique Annie Cream Cheese within proximity, I anxiously awaited the occasional weekend trip home to New York City where I would reserve at least an entire day to get thrifty. But being persistent as I am, I did frequent the District’s then-meager vintage shop circuit, and established a superficial relationship with a saleswoman who called me whenever something “good” came in.
Even so, it was nothing like New York, a candyland for any fashionista. I couldn’t walk down the street and find an oversized sherpa vest from the 1970s or casually come across a Mulberry Alexa designer bag for less than a fraction of the original price. I couldn’t pour my heart out to store owners about that one satchel that I had been yearning for, and have them empathize with me. But as a consummate “thrifter”—a patron of specialty discount thrift stores and vintage boutiques—and college student, I became too broke to indulge in frequent weekend trips to Manhattan, and I decided to give this city another chance. After all, D.C. had eventually become home. This past weekend, I took a special trip for this feature, back up to New York, and around the Washington D.C. thrifting scene I had reluctantly become acquainted with.
It had been a while since I made one of my usual downtown thrifting rounds, so I decided to revisit some old haunts. New York City boasts an unparalleled diversity when it comes to secondhand trade. It is home to a large number of thrift stores right in the heart of Manhattan, in addition to a network of vintage and consignment boutiques. And although the industry has been around much longer than it has in D.C., success remains unwavering. Even on a blustery day in February, with temperatures below freezing, every thrift and vintage shop on East 23rd St was bursting at the seams. Customers even had to be thrown out by management (including your intrepid writer who was caught indulging in some heavily discounted Helmut Lang) after closing time had passed.
Customers in the Big Apple are cutthroat. “We have not had one window for the past month that has not sold out. Individual objects go on sale every other week, and since the anticipation builds up, 10 a.m. on the day that it goes on sale, it sells out,” said Tatiana Smith, an employee at City Opera Thrift Shop on 23rd St. The same goes for Housing Works, another thrift store with outlets all over Manhattan. The items in the windows are only available for auction, and almost always sell out. There is such a quick turnover that you can stop by a few times in a week and you will see completely new sets of items.
A few purchases later I was back in the D.C. area, and decided to trek off the beaten path to discover what I had been missing. A friend who was similarly dissatisfied with the secondhand fare in the District told me to venture out, so I did.
On Monday morning, I walked into a vast warehouse: a bustling, noisy space with 30-foot high ceilings and a seemingly infinite number of overflowing aisles. Everything from second-hand underwear to floppy disk holders and rare vinyls took up temporary residence here, like a humane society for knick-knacks. As I waded through the musty sea of sweaters and old soccer cleats, I almost crashed into young shirtless boy tearing through the store. His mother soon caught up and handed him a pile of worn, oversized t-shirts to try on. I had arrived at a traditional thrifting epicenter.
Located in a strip mall about 14 miles outside of D.C., Unique Thrift runs solely on donated items. “If we have donations, then only our business will go up,” said Kamala, who declined to give a last name, a store manager at Unique Thrift. In exchange for donations, customers are awarded points that can go toward their future purchases. This system, along with a tax write-off, and the knowledge that profits are going toward charitable causes, serve as incentives for customers to donate their belongings. All of Unique Thrift’s profits go to the Lupus Foundation of America, American Veterans, and the National Children’s Center.
However, traditional charity thrift stores, as I came to discover, are rare in the District. “Because the rent is so high here you can’t be a charitable organization and have a superstore-sized Goodwill in the District and be able to pay for it … Around here you pay between I’d say $85 and $115 per square foot for retail rent, so you just can’t afford to be a charitable organization and be inside the city,” said Megan Gay, Manager of Junction Vintage & Resale Boutique on U St.
This is quite the opposite in Manhattan, where there is a plethora of thrift shops in all five boroughs. Just on the single 23rd St block between 2nd and 3rd Ave., there are five thrift stores, each one donating their profits to a unique cause.
In the District proper, however, there are only two thrift stores; Martha’s Table on 14th and V St., which benefits Food for Friends, and a Salvation Army way up above Howard University, almost at the D.C.-Maryland border.
Gay spelled out the distinction between thrift, vintage, and consignment. “Thrift [stores] accept donations and usually it benefits a specific charity in some … form, so either all of your profits or a portion of your profits have to go to charity. Whereas some place that’s like us that’s a vintage store, we go out and we do all of our own buying. We own all of the inventor … we clean it, we repair it, we bring it in.
“If some place is a consignment store, that means that individual clients bring their clothes in, and the brick-and-mortar consignment store resells it for them. The inventory actually belongs to the clients and the store sells it for them and then they split the profits,” said Gay. She explained that vintage stores each tend to have a focus, whereas consignment stores are essentially a physically present form of Ebay.
Thankfully, within the District, a more urban phenomenon is on the rise, one that is beginning to resemble the thrifting scene at home. Small, independent vintage and consignment boutiques have begun to crowd neighborhoods including the U St. Corridor, Adams Morgan, and Dupont Circle, forming a new camaraderie in the city’s growing neighborhoods.
“Up until three years ago it was us, Meeps, Annie Cream Cheese, and Remix [that] were the only four vintage stores in the District. Now, in this neighborhood there’s about 15,” said Gay.
Today, the District has become so saturated with vintage shops that Gay and her colleagues have stopped buying locally. “There’s such a glut of shops that are doing vintage, that we actually go far field … we go all the way up to New England, all the way down to Florida. We don’t shop in town anymore,” she said.
Gay attributes the surge of vintage in the District to a host of factors. The resilience of the economy in D.C. gives owners opportunities to open new shops. In addition to financial stability, “vintage and resale, and especially consignment, have become more popular because people realize that they have money in their closets.”
She also noted that “there was a definite difference when [Barack] Obama came into office. Style in D.C. just completely changed and people were willing to mix vintage into their wardrobes and do stuff with it.” Upon the President’s first inauguration, more and more people settled in the District. According to Gay, “It was who was working for him. It was younger. It’s not just Republican versus Democrat, it’s just the youth of the people that came to work for the administration.” D.C.’s changing demographic had a profound effect on the vintage business.
Another member of the vintage store community, Salvatore, concurs. Salvatore inherited the business now named Rock it Again from his mother. He migrated 3 years ago from New York to D.C. to join the District’s budding vintage industry. He placed particular emphasis on what he calls the new epicenter of thrifting: the U St. Corridor.
“I look at D.C. as what I would call the pond. If you throw a stone into a pond, that’s where the first ripple starts. It’s the biggest ripple, D.C. is the capital. I often tell people, look, this is where the money is,” said Salvatore.
He thinks U St. is going to follow in—and perhaps surpass—Georgetown’s footsteps as a major shopping district. “Stores don’t have a long shelf life in Georgetown,” he said. Rent is exorbitant, goods are overpriced, and the dearth of parking spots makes shopping difficult. Of U St., he said, “You have [the restaurant] Busboys and Poets up the street, and there is a ton of construction. This is becoming the new megacenter.”
Store owner Salvatore brings his own vintage philosophy to U St. He looks back at old Hollywood icons whose fame was bolstered through their trendsetting fashion choices, such as Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. “The good classic American pieces are the older pieces,” he claims. They do not exist in current retail outfitters. “So why not go for it again? That’s why it’s called Rock It Again.
“All the craftsmen actually created stuff for the human form,” Salvatore continued. “Older stuff was tapered to fit the contour of your body. Today everything is mass produced. You could get really tapered pieces, however you would have to pay a lot more.” Instead of succumbing to what he calls the “carbon copy syndrome” and buying what everyone else is, there is a growing desire to be unique. “With the advent of social media, for some reason, you see individualism coming out more.” Vintage gives you that something unique, as no two pieces are alike.
Salvatore’s philosophy became evident as I walked through his artfully constructed showroom. Old Ferragamo ties and shoes peak out of antique wooden armoires, thick tweeds and structured jackets hang alongside silk wrap dresses and slacks, and pearl earrings from the ‘50s shimmer atop the teak dresser.
A few blocks down in Adams Morgan, Cathy Chung, the manager of Meeps, has recently renovated her vintage boutique, which now caters to the young professional demographic of D.C. With reasonably priced fare, including vintage college t-shirts and sweatshirts, she hopes to “attract … people who live and go to school in the city.”
“There are a lot of great locally-owned boutiques in the area that people might not realize. It’s a great neighborhood to walk through.” She too has seen the increase in vintage shops in recent years and claims that “with the change in administration there was a demographic shift.” According to Chung, there are more young people “in tune with the urban lifestyle, and because of that there are more people who are interested in fashion and different types of fashion.”
All three managers are members of a supportive, tight-knit business community. Although they are all lumped into a monolithic vintage category, they each have their own niche, focus, or speciality. “For us it’s more important that people frequent our shops and neighborhoods versus going to big chain shops,” said Chung. Owners even send their customers to a neighboring shop to find something that they don’t have.
Such a spirit of camaraderie is unheard of in the Big Apple. New York City certainly boasts an unparalleled selection of secondhand fare, dispersed throughout a large number of thrift stores in the heart of Manhattan. The high turnover rate in merchandise—you can walk into a completely different store Friday than you visited Monday—ensures there is truly something for everyone. But this means it’s competitive. This means that if I call back on Thursday evening to ask about a bag I saw at Tokyo Joe on the Lower East Side on Tuesday afternoon, the woman scoffs at me on the phone. How silly of me, this is New York City.
However, New York has seen long-lived success, whereas the District has only recently launched its thrift/vintage/consignment endeavor. It simply does not have the resources to fill its streets with traditional charity thrift stores, so it’s making up for it with independent vintage boutiques. It is a numbers game, and D.C. is just going to have to catch up. Nonetheless, after a financially exhausting weekend, I found that we don’t have too far to go.
As I wandered through Salvatore’s store, my eye was immediately drawn to a Harley Davidson motorcycle leather jacket. Weighing at least 6 pounds, it carried with it the biker tales of its previous owner. Worn in from black to a deep charcoal gray, the jacket was embellished with a Harley logo and heavily lined with sheep’s wool. I would have never found this three years ago in D.C. Perhaps I will give this city another chance …