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In Clothing: vintage garments, strange inventions

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Once in a while, Loreta Corsetti likes to give names to the clothes she makes. There's the Phantom of the Opera Dress, for example: a sleeveless, black, knee-length dress with fringe around the bottom, rhinestone buttons, and in the back, yards of black-and-white striped satin forming a sort of bustle like bunting at a political convention. Then there's the Apple Dress, a narrow, black-and-white plaid wool jumper. At the neck, there's some hand-crocheted lace, a houndstooth applique, and a red plastic apple the size of a golf ball.

Corsetti was trained in fashion design, but most of the clothes she's making these days aren't completely original. They're vintage clothes that she reshapes (the Apple Dress originally had a 50s A-line skirt), embellishes (the Phantom of the Opera Dress started out plain), or cuts apart and makes into something else. Trip Through Our Time, the shop Corsetti owns with her friend Roxanne Saxton, is full of Corsetti's strange inventions.

"Our store is not like the regular vintage resale store," Corsetti says. "A lot of people come in here and ask us, What are you?" The term she uses is "reworked vintage." She and Saxton, both 22, opened their shop about a month ago.

What sets their store apart from other resale clothing stores--apart from the strange-looking clothes--is the treatment the clothes get. Everything is dry-cleaned and, if need be, mended, cut and resewn, or decorated. "A lot of people come in here and say, 'I won't spend more than three or four dollars on a dress,'" Corsetti says. "What they don't understand is that they don't have to do anything to these. These are done."

The two spent a year and a half hunting down clothes for the store. Everything they bought had to meet two criteria: it had to be unique, and it had to be in good condition. "Some of the stuff we bought still had tags on it," Saxton says.

Over the course of their search, they often learned the origins of the clothes; their lingerie, for instance, was made mostly in Paris in the 30s and 40s. They also found some antiques, like a 19th-century linen blouse. They hooked up with a few dealers they trust, and now they leave a lot of the hunting to them.

Corsetti and Saxton met about two years ago. Both were students at Ray-Vogue College of Design--Corsetti's major was fashion design and Saxton's was merchandising--and both had been interested in opening a store. They started talking about it almost the day they met.

Pretty soon, Corsetti says, "I realized that this was the kind of person I could spend all day with, every day. We got along, and we had the same vision: the clothing, the look of the store." About six months after they met, they started making plans--and shopping.

"We went to flea markets, estate sales, resale shops, and we met people, and people referred us to other people," Saxton says. "We learned as we were going."

They worked several jobs for a while, earmarking a certain percentage of each paycheck for clothes. The two of them wallpapered the store walls and painted the floor. They bought a display case from a store that had gone out of business, and Corsetti got a free mannequin from a store she was working at. They even reupholstered a secondhand loveseat themselves.

They considered taking out a loan, but their earnings and savings turned out to be enough. They didn't even borrow money from their families, although friends and relatives did contribute a lot of advice and elbow grease. After a month in business, they're breaking even--just barely. While Corsetti spends the evenings sewing, Saxton spends them waitressing--"to pay the rent," she says.

When altering clothes, Corsetti takes into account both a piece's condition and its shape. "I try it on, I make Roxanne try it on, and I try it on somebody else. I see three different body shapes in the garment, and then I decide what needs to be done."

One of her most frequent alterations is narrowing skirts to make dresses more flattering. But she's also resewn the sequins onto a top, cut the polyester bodice off of a crushed velvet skirt, and cropped the stains off of the bottoms of men's jackets and made them fitted. She'll also custom alter clothes to fit customers. Not everything in the store is worked over as thoroughly as the Phantom of the Opera Dress, but about 90 percent of the clothes have been altered somehow, even if only the buttons have been changed.

"I spend a lot of money on buttons and crims," Corsetti says. "People don't realize how much little things like that improve the look of a garment." Her collection culled on various trips includes wide red Polish ribbon embroidered with figures of men and women holding hands and some French black silk ribbon with gold threads running through it. She bought the plastic apples--the one on the Apple Dress was left over from the bunch she attached to the hem of a skirt--in New York City.

Some of the store's more interesting customers have included brides in search of vintage wedding dresses, a ballroom dancer looking for a dress to wear to competitions, Chicago Symphony musicians looking for black dresses--and a man in a business suit who wanted to try on skirts. "So we brought him some skirts," Corsetti says.

Corsetti and Saxton have had a few problems; one was finding a good dry cleaner. "We had this gold lame dress with beautiful glass buttons," Saxton says. "The only reason we bought it was because of the buttons." Corsetti spent two days making alterations, and then they sent it to the cleaner, who didn't cover the buttons. All of them shattered.

They've also had a few signs of success. Playboy magazine liked one of their hats--a wide-brimmed straw hat with bunches of orange velvet "grapes" at the rim--enough to rent it for a photo session. (The hat should appear, Playboy says, in an upcoming issue.) And the second week they were open, a man came into the store and asked if Corsetti and Saxton were interested in selling the place. "I said no," Saxton says. "This is us. This is us. We can't sell it."

Trip Through Our Time, 950 W. Diversey (404-0563), is open 10 to 6 Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday, 10 to 8 Thursday, 10 to 7 Friday, and noon to 5 Sunday. On Thursday mornings, they serve pastries and coffee; the store is closed Monday, Prices range from $30 to $250.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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