ONCE WORN: BLACK CAT VINTAGE

Vintage fashion collector Claudine Villardito has been actively collecting, restoring and selling historical fashions for over a decade. From Jacques Fath to John Galliano, Claudine has amassed a museum worthy collection of garments that she currently houses in her boutique, Black Cat Vintage, located in Tucson, Arizona. ITA took a trip to Tucson to explore her goldmine of vintage goods and this is what we saw and learned...

How did you come up with the name of your store

The name "Black Cat Vintage" comes from the other love of my life: animals, and specifically cats.  I have a soft spot for rehabilitating things others have discarded (see #8), and in 1993 I adopted an orphaned black kitten whom I named "Bear."  Bear was probably the closest I'll ever come to having a daughter, my best friend and my constant companion for 17 years, so I named Black Cat Vintage in her honor.  I also consider myself a bit of a misfit toy, so the name appealed to me in a "black sheep" kind of way.

How did you get involved with vintage collecting and dealing

I blame my mother for getting me hooked on vintage clothing.  She came from a very poor family but had immaculate taste and incredible discipline.  In the 1950s when she began earning her own money, she would put away $1 a week for a dress (or china or flatware or…) she admired, and before long she had acquired an astounding collection of Dior, Balenciaga, de la Renta and other designer gowns.  I grew up watching her wear those gowns to events and parties and would spend the entire following day standing inside her dresses in the closet, smelling her perfume and pretending I was her.  The weight of certain fabrics, the detail in a simple buttonhole and the cold teeth of minuscule metal zippers became hallmarks I could recognize with my eyes closed.  Whenever I encountered a piece of clothing with those hallmarks I did whatever I could to acquire it, whether or not it was my size, color or personal style.  Soon the quantity of vintage pieces--many of which I could or would never wear--outnumbered my own and my husband threatened to move out if I didn't stop stealing his closet space.  And Black Cat Vintage was born.

What is the most interesting item you've sold or purchased

 The most interesting piece I've purchased is probably a silk moire gown attributed to Jacques Fath.  It belonged to a French heiress who knew Fath personally and asked him to make her one after having seen it in a French magazine.  He refused, stating the gown was bespoke and couldn't be reproduced.  The heiress pressed him and he finally agreed on the condition that he not sew his label to the inside at the risk of angering the gown's owner; instead it has a couture ribbon with the gown's style name and what I believe is the original price, which equals about $40,000 in today's money.  I now have the gown, but have been unable to find the French magazine clipping that proves the provenance of its doppleganger.  As juicy as the story behind the gown is, it would be much juicier with that magazine clipping!

 How do you authenticate the pieces in your collection

When items come from other collectors or museum deaccessions authenticity has typically already been determined, and when I acquire pieces from the original owners I take the time to get a history of the garment, where it was worn, purchased and if possible a photo of the owner in it.  In those rare cases when the designers are still alive I correspond with them for additional authentication.  However, sometimes labels are missing or treasures turn up in odd places; in those cases I rely on a vast (and still growing) collection of resource materials, a firm knowledge of fashion history and other experts for help.  Every vintage garment is an experiment in forensic anthropology because each construction element--from the type of thread to the stitch used to the button or zipper manufacturer--is a clue.  It's just a matter of putting clues together correctly and knowing what to look for.

 How has the vintage fashion industry changed over the last decade

The biggest change in the vintage fashion industry over the last decade is the influence of the Internet. Period films and TV dramas have exposed new audiences to vintage fashion, and exhibits like the Met's "Savage Beauty" have raised awareness of fashion as art; these are undoubtedly positive developments.  However, high demand has led to an explosion in the number of online vintage vendors with questionable product, knowledge and business ethics, and virtual shopping makes it difficult for consumers to separate vendors who collect, admire and sell vintage because of what it stands for from those who are in it to make a buck while it's hot.  

 What is your most requested item from clients

I can always tell what's trending in popular culture by the requests I receive.  When "Atonement" was in theaters, everyone wanted a Nile green 1930s gown; when "Impossible Conversations" debuted at the Met, interest in Schiaparelli soared.  After William and Katherine's wedding, requests for wedding gowns with sleeves outnumbered sleeveless or strapless gowns for the first time in years.  People are always looking for that piece that makes them feel exceptional, and whenever they are exposed to a garment that has the potential to do that they seek it out for themselves.  The wonderful thing about vintage is that even if the piece they were originally looking for isn't a "home run," vintage fashion offers an era for every body type so they can typically find their own exceptional item with a little guidance.  And because everything eventually comes back into style, chances are their garment will be the next big thing given a little time.

 What are some of the challenges you face with selling vintage clothing

 In my business model, the biggest challenge is educating consumers on the difference between vintage and costume.  October is my least favorite month because of the number of calls I receive from people looking for flapper gowns or Marilyn Monroe dresses to wear to Halloween parties.  Trying to explain why my 1920s gowns cost what they do when you can find one for $25 online is a diplomatic minefield.  

 What do you enjoy most about owning a vintage boutique

My biggest joy comes from resurrecting pieces that others have written off as unsalvageable.  For better or worse I tend to anthropomorphize my clothes, and nothing gets my game face on like an underdog.  I restore all my pieces using period materials and employ period techniques whenever possible, so restorations usually take a minimum of 6-8 months but the finished products are worth every minute.  It's like discovering an unknown work of art or being present at the birth of a new life.

What is your absolute dream piece that you’d like to add to your collection

(We're dreaming, right?)  An Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dress from 1966.  A Vionnet evening gown with a thumbprint label.  A Fortuny gown with Gallenga stenciling.  A Poiret lampshade ensemble from the Ballets Russes collection.  A Schiaparelli lobster dress or shoe hat.  A Paco Rabanne chain metal dress from 1967.  A 1965 Pucci/Braniff Airlines flight uniform complete with perspex helmet.  Absolutely anything Dior Paris, 1947 - 1955 or Chanel, 1919-1939.  The magazine clipping with Fath's gown (see #3)!

 What’s next. How do you plan on growing your brand

 A true nerd's nerd, when I'm not restoring vintage pieces I actually enjoy studying, researching and teaching others why the history of dress is so important.  In coming years I see Black Cat transitioning from simply a boutique to more of a vintage fashion resource for students, museums, collectors and TV/film producers.  I intend to continue lecturing on fashion history and plan to publish a blog focusing on restoration and the cultural significance of clothing in society; I will likely change the focus of my web site from exclusively e-commerce to an informative/authoritative one with a tightly-edited collection of historical and collectible pieces for sale.  I am currently in negotiations to write a monthly article on the influence of vintage fashion in modern life, and am co-curating a fashion exhibit with a local museum in September.  Ideally, the future will include more such opportunities!