Are they buying up all of our stuff?

Retro clothes are not vintage clothes.

Retro clothes are new-made garments designed to imitate or evoke the fashions of as bygone era — often, the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s. Vintage fashion is the real thing: sturdy garments well made in America (usually by union labor, if that matters to you) that remind us of an era when all the best stuff, from movies to muscle-cars, was “made in the U.S.A.”

It’s about nostalgia, yes, but in this unrelenting recession it’s also about the “recessionistas” — that’s what Alison Houtte calls her growing new customer base — realizing they can get not only a distinctive look but also a better-made garment by “going vintage,” at a fraction of the price they’ve been paying for toss-off foreign-made garments at the big name stores.

Unanswered so far: Are people from overseas now visiting us to buy American vintage — mid-century antiques of all kinds, but particularly fashion — not just to wear, but also as a “not-making-them-anymore” appreciating asset to sock away, just as those with wealth have always hedged their bets against a withering paper currency by stockpiling gold and silver coins, first edition novels, engraved antique fowling pieces?

If you want a quick course on vintage, start with Houtte’s book, “Alligators, Old Mink & New Money,” in which she describes her own transition from top fashion model to purveyor of vintage rags in far-from-stylish downtown Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I saw that 12 years ago when the Japanese were running after the Levi Big E, but that’s faded away a little bit,” Alison told me last week in answer to my “foreigners stocking up” question.

“What I’m seeing now is a boatload of new faces I’ve never seen in 12 years in business here in Brooklyn. These are women who were shopping Macy’s and they’re going to give Hooti Couture a try.

“And the ‘Mad Men’, the whole TV show the ‘Mad Men.'” (set on Madison Avenue in 1960, with appropriate attire.) “I think this Halloween is the best Halloween I’ve had in 12 years in the business, they come in saying ‘I’m dressing for the ‘Mad Men.’ …

“There are other neighborhood stores that are the high-end label store. These gals aren’t running to the bank right now. A woman right now wants a beautiful dress for 25 to 75 dollars; these labels that run 300 dollars, 1,500 dollars, 1,800 dollars are on hold right now.”

(Hooti Couture is at 321 Flatbush at Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y. — the name is the way Alison’s grandmother always insisted the family name should be pronounced, though Alison herself says “Hoot.”)

Annie Lee, co-owner of Annie Creamcheese vintage salon at the Shoppes at the Palazzo on Las Vegas Boulevard, sees both sides of that price-tag divide — a huge difference between her customer base on the Strip and at her other location, in the tony D.C. suburb of Georgetown.

“In the D.C. store it’s definitely that $25 to $75 price range, that’s in a college town, so that’s definitely where I sell more of my vintage. The Georgetown store is kicking butt, that’s a big part of the reason this store is still open,” in spite of a recession which has pared down the Vegas high-rollers, Annie told me last week.

“Here they’re collecting … the designer labels. We just had Allison Janney in here from ‘The West Wing’ with her entourage and they bought a ton of vintage, she says she loves to wear vintage on the red carpet. … Alice Cooper and his daughter were in here last week.”

And was it Alice buying the vintage rags, or the daughter?

“Oh, the daughter, definitely,” Annie says. “Alice was the bag holder, he was the purse holder.”

Customers from overseas?

“Absolutely: Canadians, people from Dubai, a lot of British people. … I just sold a gray wool Pierre Cardin dress for $1,800 to a woman from Mexico. It’s hard to find the good pieces, though. The young girls, 17 to 25, are starting to stockpile their vintage, I only see vintage prices going higher.”

Annie Creamcheese has lots of stuff under $1,800, make no mistake. Though I wouldn’t call it your $50 bargain destination, either. (Annie Creamcheese, open every day at 3327 Las Vegas Blvd., 2nd floor, Shoppes at The Palazzo.)

Some in search of Ms. Houtte’s “$25 to $75 vintage” here in Vegas opt for the Cat’s Curiosities vintage boutique in the downtown Charleston Antique Mall. (Disclosure: I help out with the vintage books and records at Cat’s.) It’s there I first learned of the arrival of the foreign vintage buyers.

There’s one group of three Asian 20-somethings who show up at the mall every couple of months, using a tax resale number issued out of Newport Beach, Calif., reports proprietor Michelle Tully. Vendors at the mall call them “the Japanese kids.”

Are they buying to wear, to stockpile as appreciating assets, or to ship home to Japan to be reverse engineered?

“Some of both,” figures Amy Lawrence, who runs Cat’s. “They seem eager to snatch up things from the 1920s and earlier. It doesn’t seem likely they’re buying those to wear. They’ve got a good eye for rarity, for things I’d have expected to go to collectors.

“I’m sure in years, decades past it was the shoe on the other foot, where Americans were buying up stuff from Europe, Asia, that either due to hard times or a lack of appreciation, was kind of, orphaned is a good term …”

Why vintage clothes?

“Just study economics: you buy low, sell high; buy things that are out of favor, unappreciated. With the Japanese kids and the Australian women … I think it’s a form of debt collection. They’re unloading their hoarded dollars on us, exchanging them for things of real value. … I expect if the dollar’s slide continues, we’ll see more and bigger foreign buyers. …

“There’s bound to come a day when Americans wake up … and wonder what’s become of all that stuff, the family heirlooms and treasures that quietly disappeared over eBay. Maybe this generation didn’t want grandma’s silver or her wedding dress — but if the next generation has a change of heart and wants to buy them back, will they be able to?” (Cat’s Curiosities, open seven days in the Charleston Antique Mall, 307 W. Charleston Blvd.)

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Review-Journal. See www.vinsuprynowicz.com/ and www.lvrj.com/blogs/vin/.

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