Vintage fashion, formerly a niche interest restricted to punks, goths, celebrities, and other weirdoes, has within the past decade achieved a rapid and overwhelming mainstream acceptance. Those who remember being taunted for wearing secondhand clothes in grade school may smile at the irony of those same garments now being revered as the epitome of cool, while still remaining completely vulnerable to the attack of nostalgia that finding a certain cashmere sweater can bring. Vintage collecting may have started out on the margins, but a quick visit to Etsy or a look at any one of the thriving vintage shops in Providence will demonstrate the velocity of its steamrolling popularity.
Like all aspects of popular culture, fashion is cyclical, every generation reaching back through time and grabbing points of inspiration from its predecessors. This borrowing was fairly moderate throughout fashion history until the early ’90s ushered in the Age of Free Trade, when suddenly it became more profitable for American corporations to outsource production than to keep its citizens fairly employed. Factories closed, unions dissolved, and a frenzied tempest of polyester that shows no sign of quelling began spewing at us from across the ocean. Over the past two decades, fast fashion has reached a rabid pace. The internet has become a global marketplace of ideas, images and goods, a fertile Silicon Valley from which smaller no-name clothing companies can copy runway styles as soon as they hit the screen. The level and speed of borrowing is insane, and the mass quantity of production is a horror show. The world is drowning in clothing that demands to be bought in order to sustain the corporations that create it, and otherwise well-intentioned, conscientious people remain vacantly unaware of the devastating social and environmental consequences of the shirts on their backs. Pesticides on cotton crops, great vats of chemical dye and detergent, byproducts from the manufacture of synthetics, brutally underpaid and overworked laborers, and child slavery are all happily combining to rip apart the world. There are multiple reasons our manufacturing was outsourced, and one of them is the cost efficiency of exporting manufacturing to countries that have little to no environmental standards or labor laws.
Fashion has definitely become an industry, not an art. As profit margins widen, the quality of production goes down. Hemlines rise. Linings disappear entirely. Seam allowances shrink into oblivion. And there you have it, a brand-new dress that looks vaguely like hundreds of other dresses for the grand retail price of $12.97. Woe. Is it any wonder, then, that interest in vintage has risen as magnificently as it has? Luckily for us, many of the garments from the previous century are alive and well. With the quality of production, how could they not be? It’s always a special little bittersweet thrill to search over a vintage garment and find that small red, white and blue tag that stoutly proclaims, “UNION MADE USA.”
Quality is what catches Ruth Meteer’s expert eye. Having collected and sold vintage since she was still in high school, Meteer’s appreciation of quality construction and beautiful objects combined early to set her lifelong professional course. Her passion for the acquisition process enables her to bring carefully curated pieces to her customers. “In a pile of junk, I can spot the one quality item. I have an eye for it,” she says, laughing. “I feel like I rescue beautiful things.”
In April 2013, Meteer joined forces with some friends who also dealt in vintage fashion to form the Vault Collective. Citing problems with independent vintage resale, such as lack of storage space and difficulty in setting up professional photography areas, the idea behind the Vault Collective was to make it easier for everyone to store and sell their wares. They split rent on a North Main Street storefront and, rather than keeping regular hours, held weekly parties when attendees could shop their wares. When one member of the collective moved, however, rent was no longer affordable and the Vault Collective was reduced to Meteer and one other member.
Meteer continued selling her wares online and at festivals, markets and parties, until several months ago she was approached by Cornish & Associates, the real estate development company behind much of downtown Providence’s revitalization. The retail space at 235 Westminster was newly vacant and in need of a short-term tenant through the holidays. Meteer agreed upon a six-month lease and the Vault Collective was reborn.
Now composed of six local vintage vendors, soon to be eight, the Vault Collective serves as a storefront for its members, who would otherwise only be able to sell online and at markets. Every member has access to ample storage space and the professional photography area set up in the back. The shop will keep regular hours, each member donating a day per week to staff the sales floor as part of the membership requirements. The collective boasts a broad curatorial range, with items spanning a gamut of decades and price points. Meteer herself curates mostly ’90s and high-end designer pieces for her shop Gypsy, while Kim Hobby of Archetype Vintage provides a mix of WWII-era clothing through the late ’70s, with an assortment of exquisite museum-quality pieces to round off her collection. Andrew Erwin of Uptown Vinyl specializes in vintage men’s clothing and accessories, as well as the vinyl referenced in his company name. The collective represents a little bit of everything, from Jazz Age lingerie to ’80s prom dresses, with a few upcycled pieces, some jewelry, and a small selection of housewares to round out the mix. There’s something for everyone, something unique, something original, something beautiful, something well-made, something affordable, something priceless.
The Vault Collective opened its doors for business on Monday, September 15, and Meteer has scheduled a Grand Opening party for Wednesday, October 1 from 5 to 9pm, with cocktails, music, dancing, and of course, shopping.
The Vault Collective
235 Westminster Street, Providence, RI 02903
Sunday 11am – 5pm
Monday-Saturday 10am – 6pm