At the tail end of our California roadtrip, we stopped at a vintage store while we were at Carmel by the Sea. The owner of Foxy Couture, Susan, pulled vintage Lilly Pulitzer from backstock, along with Key West Fashions (a label of the same aesthetic and time frame) and provided intel about another brand to look into, Vested Gentress.
Susan and I discussed how she began in vintage resale, alteration hacks, and the first project any aspiring clothing designer should pursue.
L – When did you first develop an interest in vintage – or secondhand – clothing and accessories?
S – My grandmother was a knitter. I would spend summers with her in California when I was a kid. Whenever she needed a zipper for a project she would take me to a thrift store to get one. She would complain that the new plastic zippers were not as good as the old metal ones. She would give me a couple of dollars to buy some things. Back then most things in thrift stores were well under a dollar.
L – When did you realize that there was a market for upscale resale?
S – When I was in high school, my drama teacher asked me to help her with costumes for the high school production of Bye Bye Birdie which was set in the 1950s. I was living in Atlanta and I hit the thrift stores since there was no budget. I was showing my mom my purchases when she zeroed in on a label in a garment. It was a couture Pierre Balmain. My mom couldn’t believe I found it in a thrift store for mere pennies. She proceeded to tell me how to look at clothing labels and judge a garment based on construction, quality of fabric, and design. This prompted me to realize that some things were worth saving and moving on to the next generation.
L – You shared with me a hack for altering a skirt that may not fit around the waist by folding in the waist and taking it in from the waistline of the skirt. Do you have any other alteration hacks?
S – Yes, A maxi skirt can become a 1960’s jumper in the style of Courreges by using the hem to make the straps and placing darts in it if needed. Several scarves of the same size can become a bias cut mixed print slip dress. The possibilities are endless.
There are many ways to reinterpret a garment. If the fabric is good and there is enough of it, you are ready to design. One of the best things I ever did was to take sewing lessons from a Russian lady in San Francisco. She had grown up in a convent and learned to sew from the nuns. She taught us hand stitches for everything from a rolled hem on a scarf to a bound buttonhole. We basted every stitch before we sewed it at the machine.
I also took pattern making and draping. Since prices are low with thrifted items or damaged clothing, it is easy to be fearless when cutting up a recycled garment.
I had a lot of fun making clothes. When you learn to sew, a skirt should always be your first project. It is the easiest to construct and the easiest to alter.
L – Did sustainability – as in reuse – inspire you to get into the resale business?
S – I went to design school at night in the 1980s in San Francisco. During the day I was a Director of Finance in a financial services start-up. Design school gave me a much needed creative outlet. I toyed with the idea of producing a line of clothing but it just did not make financial sense. Most designers I knew were struggling financially. They would borrow to make a line and have to pay their lenders while not being paid by the big stores which led them to turn to factors, who smoothed out the money gaps but also took away most of the profits for the designer. At the time I had great sources for used clothing and recycling was in line with my personal beliefs so I went that direction.
L – Can you tell me more about Foxy Couture? When did you establish it and was there a particular impetus?
S – When I started in vintage, I had already been a collector. I decorated with items that I found at the Marin Flea Market or thrift stores. I just really liked old things. San Francisco in the 1980s felt like a small town of like minded people. There were many opportunities to start this business. Around 1989 to 1991, I had a friend who I partnered up with and we focused on wholesaling to the resale and vintage stores as well as doing the Marin Flea Market and Vintage shows. There was no official start date, we had no business plan, employees, or start up funding. It was just something that we wanted to do and that we felt good about ethically. We shopped almost every day and made amazing finds. I got to handle and own clothing that I could probably only see in a museum today. Most people focused on the 1940’s or Victorian at that time so to be competitive I focused on the 1970s. Growing up in South Florida in the 1970’s and looking at European fashion magazines gave me a good visual history of the era and there was not much competition in that segment of the market at that time.
The name Foxy Couture is a play on the 1970’s slang “Foxy” and Couture denoted that it was designer. Today the business focuses on exceptional designer clothing from all eras. If I had to describe my personal business plan, it was to make my avocation my vocation. I didn’t set too many limits and I have really enjoyed my work.
Foxy Couture is shoppable via the online store. The brick-and-mortar location is northwest of 7th Avenue, 2 San Carlos Street in Carmel-By-The-Sea.