The first vintage dress I ever bought was a form-fitting 1950s black taffeta number from Toronto's now-shuttered Harbourfront Antique Market. The dress' details were amazing: the anachronistic font on its embroidered label, the tiny steel zipper that ran the length of the back, the internal darts and boning that gave my sixteenyear– old self an unfamiliar – and frankly thrilling – shape. I was enthralled, and soon became an obsessive seeker of older-than-me goods in Toronto's growing, and preposterously bountiful, vintage scene.
Twenty-plus years ago, the hunt for accessible, unique vintage still yielded frequent treasures: the perfect Mary Quant-esque mini, an impeccably hand-knit 1960s cardigan, a 70s Irish-made tweed coat ideal for tramping imaginary moors. Now, a trip to the thrift shop yields little but year-old fast-fashion castoffs, while the burgeoning high-end designer resale market continues to flourish. And it's starting to leave the sinking feeling that good vintage shopping may soon be a part of a bygone era.
"When we started 20 years ago, we could still get some original 1920s; we could get a lot right up to the 1960s," recalls Tao Drayton, proprietor of Toronto vintage institution Cabaret Vintage. "Then we started allowing a little more 1970s, and now the bulk of what we get is probably 60s and 70s. The vintage is still out there, in caches – in rental houses, with collectors, all that stuff – but it's definitely not as available."
"I've absolutely seen the death of vintage shopping as we know it in my career," says Kealan Sullivan, owner and buyer at 69 Vintage. "It's difficult, if not impossible, for me to consistently find interesting, high-quality and perfect-condition vintage items as I did 10 years ago."
While a stroll through 69 Vintage's sunny Queen Street West space belies Sullivan's assertion that great vintage is hard to find – the racks are filled with to-die-for 60s furs, fringed wool boho shawls and 80s party dresses – she's quick to point out that the store draws heavily from a stockpile of goods that took a decade to accumulate. What's more, Sullivan explains, vintage buyers now face fierce competition from private collectors and big-budget film and television wardrobe houses that take otherwise sought-after pieces out of circulation.
The availability of high-end designer vintage has changed, too. "Over the years I've built up a fabulous circle of buyers and contacts around the globe that I source from, but as vintage becomes more accessible and collectible, women do hoard the great pieces," says Cherie Federau, owner and buyer for vintage designer e-boutique Shrimpton Couture. "The days of finding amazing pieces every week at a thrift store are long gone, [and price-wise,] the entry point is now at the retail level rather than the thrift level."
It's no surprise, then, that many vintage retailers have shifted their approach. 69 Vintage reworks vintage garments to reflect clients' contemporary tastes and trends. This month, Cabaret will close its brick-and-mortar boutique to focus primarily on online sales of their popular house line of vintage-style garments, as well as a line of contemporary, made-in-L.A. flapper dresses. Toronto's I Miss You, once a mainstay for unbranded quality vintage, now exclusively sells highend designer wares in its Ossington Avenue shop and online via the New Yorkbased luxury e-commerce site 1st Dibs. "We still carry historical vintage couture by all of the top labels, but we specialize mainly in contemporary designer resale," says owner Julie Yoo. "Contemporary clothing is more accessible to a wider audience, and it allows us to cycle through the high volume we need to move in order to sustain a viable business."
Indeed, contemporary designer resale has become an important feature of the secondhand retail landscape. "I think [designer resale] is eliminating the stigma that people may have had in the past with pre-owned pieces," says Calgary's Lauryn Zhukrovsky, owner of the recently launched designer consignment e-boutique The Upside. "And people are becoming savvier to the fact that they can get a like new or gently loved piece of clothing for a fraction of retail."
In Yoo's view, there's no reason to fear that we'll run out of great vintage any time soon. "As the years go by, it's natural for items from certain decades to slowly start disappearing, but there's always a new 'vintage' to replace that," she points out. "And low quality fast fashion has consumers cycling through their clothing quicker, but there are alternatives that are not runway high fashion."
Federau concurs. "There are countless brands and young designers making waves and producing new ideas and great pieces every season," she says. "These designers may become the Suzy Perettes and Stephen Burrowses of the future!"
My mind turns immediately to Horses Atelier, the four-yearold Canadian label designed by Heidi Sopinka and Claudia Dey. Twice a year, Horses releases a tightly edited collection of beautifully rendered, timeless garments – silk slip dresses, practical but chic jumpsuits, peasant blouses in custom flower prints – all of which, according to Dey, reflect the pair's shared values of velocity, beauty, utility and endurance.
"We take very seriously this act of putting more objects into the world; they must be lasting," says Dey thoughtfully."We want to make the heirlooms of the future."