Is it vintage?
26 April, 2016
The passion for vintage fashion is enjoying a golden age in Barcelona, with reference stores such as Le Swing, Blow by Le Swing, l’Arca and Holala!
“Vintage refers to pieces which, although the years have gone by, still have a certain value, whether because of the designer who created them or for their wonderful patterns. Clothes, like good wine, improve with age,” says Rainier Guerra. “A Mary Quant, that’s vintage! An emblematic piece from a period more than 20 years ago,” says Jean-Claude Mesana, referring to the English designer who invented the miniskirt. “Well-made pieces that are still being worn 40 years later. People value well-finished pieces with unique patterns that you can’t find now,” says Mario Suárez. “Real vintage? It has to be at least 20 years old, it must be haute couture and it can’t have any retouches or patches. A collection piece from a different age,” is Dorian Lebarbier’s view.
Guerra, Mesana, Suárez and Lebarbier share an extensive knowledge of vintage fashion and people’s passion for an older design. It’s a feeling that has caught on in Barcelona of late, as shown by the rise in the availability of vintage clothing (and older clothing, even though experts say they’re not the same thing) that has recently taken hold in the city. Thanks to this, businesses such as the ones that Mesana and Guerra run together and which Suárez explains in his book Seagram’s Gin. Guía Vintage Barcelona (“Seagram’s Gin: Vintage Guide Barcelona”) are experiencing a rise in demand.
Clientele in the know
The key to the interest is customers, usually women, who have more information on the history of fashion and the strictly technical characteristics of a well-made piece of clothing. This more extensive knowledge, due to the large amount of information that the Internet makes available to the public, has driven a new generation of customers willing to pay a good price for a unique handbag or jacket.
“There is a more select fashion culture. Previously people went to markets to buy leather jackets and little else. Today the public, women especially, want to find an original Kenzo or Saint Laurent from the labels’ golden years. The most unique objects of classic prêt-à-porter are the ones that generate the most interest. Demand for them has led to the appearance of shops specialising in these unique products. They don’t sell second-hand clothes, because there is very cheap modern fashion available, but exclusive products which you can only find in a certain place and which have a great backstory,” explains Mario Suárez.
Together with fellow journalist Anabel Vázquez, Suárez wrote Seagram’s Gin. Guía Vintage Barcelona, published by Lunwerg i Columna, last year. The book not only covers fashion stores but many other spaces that have a direct relationship with vintage goods, such as “places with unusual furniture that have preserved a part of the history of the fabulous Barcelona of the 1950s and 60s. For example, the city has fantastic cocktail bars like Boades, which reminds us of the social life of the 1940s, where we can imagine all the émigrés who left for Cuba and then returned,” Suárez says from Madrid, where he lives. The book tells the stories of the renowned Sombreria Mil, the exclusive Santa Eulàlia and the romantic Magnolia Antic.
But coming by an exclusive vintage fashion item isn’t easy and requires mastering the rules of the sales channels where they can be found. “Behind every piece we sell at Le Swing are many hours of work. Sometimes we’re lucky and come across amazing things on a trip. Other times we return empty-handed,” says Rainier Guerra, who has just arrived from the US. He has been at the head of Le Swing and Blow by Le Swing, two benchmark stores among Barcelona vintage clothing fans, since the 1990s. His latest trip took him to Los Angeles, where one of the most important vintage clothing fairs is held, which was also the destination of a recent trip by the owner of Holala!, Jean-Claude Mesana. In reference to these types of commercial visits, Guerra says, “It’s like fossicking for gold. You never know if you’re going to find it” or whether you’ll come home with nothing to show. Guerra is Cuban by birth, as are his partners. He is convinced that his roots have marked the style of Le Swing and Blow by Le Swing.
“We appreciate old things because it’s what we’ve always had in Cuba. Neither globalisation nor major labels have reached the country. We’ve had to learn to reuse things and above all to see the best in old pieces,” Guerra explains. He is proud to count the most famous stylists, film and advertising professionals among his customers, because they know that at Le Swing they will find unique pieces for their audiovisual productions. He summarises his passion for ancient goods thus: “A piece with many years’ history and which says something to you. I prefer that over something new”.
However, as the people featured in this report explain, it’s not easy to come across a unique find in the fashion sector. Dorian Lebarbier, who now has an online store, Paris Vintage, and who ran a shop in Barcelona that was also dedicated to vintage fashion, says that his dream would be to have a Balenciaga. “A floor-length dress from the 1950s or any piece from the master’s collections. Also Pedro Rodríguez, he’s another of my favourites,” he confesses. Although these pieces have never fallen into his hands, he has been able to sell items by some of the designers who marked his youth, including Dior, Miss Dior, Chanel, Courrèges and Yves Saint Laurent.
When one of these treasures comes into the life of a vintage fashion fan, they don’t find it easy to part with. Guerra still remembers a Hermès bag, the iconic Kelly model, which he sold a couple of months ago. “We found it in Paris, it was a gorgeous green colour! We sold it, so we don’t have it any more, but I will always remember it”.
But it’s not only emblematic pieces from well-known firms that are sought. Indeed, Mesana says he especially values works from unknown designers that stand out for their technical perfection. “Some anonymous designers were true geniuses! Even more so than the famous couturiers. Their work can fetch a very high price at vintage clothing auctions,” the Holala! manager says.
Mesana believes that part of the problem in finding emblematic pieces today “lies in the fact that fashion firms don’t break new ground so much”. He is of the controversial opinion that “fashion is continuously recycling old ideas. André Courrèges was the last great designer, and then innovation ground to a halt. Other big names such as Galliano, Gaultier and the Antwerp designers are inspired by past trends and even second-hand clothing”.
The owner of Holala!, where only 20% of the clothing is vintage and the rest is second-hand, also recently visited the Inspiration Fair in Los Angeles, home, he says, to the largest number of firms specialising in vintage fashion. Another hub for sector purchasers is Pasadena, California. Guerra, together with his partners, were there earlier this year. They also visited various vintage clothing warehouses, very popular in the US. “Most of the clothing you find there are brought in by individuals who want to continue consuming, so they recycle their most emblematic pieces to buy other, equally fantastic ones,” Guerra says, confessing that the search for major vintage fashion icons is as wonderful as it is tiring.