Gems from the Past

story by Anna Lockhart | photos by Erik Weber

Walking along Gay Street in downtown West Chester, it’s clear that this county seat is a place that holds dear its history. Nods to eras past twinkle via details in the buildings — the slight warp of original Colonial-era glass in a window; the wrought iron railings that lace along widow’s walks around second- and third-floor balconies, like those on the Lincoln Building, where the first biography of Abraham Lincoln was written in 1858, or the cobblestones on the street that could trip up a walker distracted by window shopping.

Maybe this appreciation for the past is why so many spots in town offer well-worn remnants of it, from vintage apparel to antique goods for the home. Not everyone has the patience to scour flea markets, estate sales, or even thrift stores to find vintage or vintage-inspired treasures — so it is lucky that West Chester is home to some experts who do the leg work for you. I shopped around town recently looking for bygone gems, and I was not disappointed.

“…an expert who…knows the history and style of each era she sells…”
Malena’s Vintage Boutique

Vintage, but Make it Fashion

On the corner of West Gay and Church Streets, Malena’s Vintage Boutique is an institution. If you’ve been in West Chester for a while, you likely already know of Malena Martinez: Since 2003, the WC native has housed an impressive collection of vintage clothing from the 1850s to the 1970s in her store. She cut her teeth in the fashion industry in New York City, where she worked a vintage store while in school. When she was starting out, the internet was just beginning to affect and change the landscape of retail and of vintage sales. So she headed back to her hometown of West Chester and opened a storefront. Today, she has customers who are home grown and local, those who make the trip from hours away, designers, high profile collectors, and clients shopping for the theatre and film industry.

After 16 years in the business, she is fastidious and particular, an expert who can eyeball sizing to translate vintage sizes to contemporary, who knows the history and style of each era she sells, and can explain to her customers the particulars of garment construction, materials, fiber, and fit.

“I always look for something that is wearable, something that can be integrated into a wardrobe and actually worn,” says Martinez. That means skipping things like hats and gloves — items that are easy to hold onto for years as a collector, but are not a wardrobe staple for today’s women.
Inventory on the store floor is constantly refreshed. On a recent trip, I found a few pieces to catch my eye. A saucy red suede skirt from the 1970s in an a-line cut would pair great with boots for fall. A blue and white chunky-knit, Scandinavian-style sweater looked plucked from a fashionable ski lodge. A daintily beaded bag that would be right at home in The Great Gatsby.

“We are a trend-oriented collection, so we like to pick things that reflect what is currently in and what people are already shopping for, and not just a random assortment of vintage pieces,” says Martinez.

Right now, for example, shoppers will find a few ponchos and capes on the store floor — they are easy to fit on a lot of sizes. “A designer like Calvin Klein will sell a camel coat every season, and that will be around $2,000,” says Martinez. “We have lots of those, and they are a lot less expensive, and the construction is just as good, if not better.”

Everything in Malena’s is in ready-to-wear condition, since Martinez repairs and rehabilitates each piece, sometimes with the help of a tailor, before it goes onto the floor (although even if a piece isn’t in pristine condition, she notes, a designer can still use the pattern for reference). She’s been known as an expert in stain removal, as well — something any vintage or thrift shopper will know is a gift.

If vintage shopping is new to you, Martinez recommends starting with a retro accessory, like a 1970s or 80s statement necklace or a piece of turquoise jewelry, easy and affordable pieces to integrate into a wardrobe. She also suggests that people find the era that fits their body type — a stick-straight, boyish frame was catered to in the 1920s, while curves and a cinched waist are typical for 1950s styles. Though vintage styles tend to run small, Martinez makes an effort to find a variety of sizes.

She cautions not to think that you need to match vintage with vintage, unless that’s your thing. “You should mix eras, otherwise you will look like you stepped out of a movie set,” she says. If you’re wearing a ’60s mini dress, for instance, pair it with a some booties you already own.

Vintage clothing is a unique and sustainable choice — and the well-made pieces are much more durable than most contemporary clothing, says Martinez.

“I compare it to the construction of a home,” she says. “The materials, the fibers, are better; they are built to last. There is very little elastic, there are darts and boning. It has held up for 50 years, so it will continue to last. A lot of clothes made now might last for six months.”

Vintage styles recur and resurface, of course. Designers use vintage patterns and designs for reference to create silhouettes that are from bygone eras. Through years of thrifting and vintage-hunting on my own, I’ve found that the key is to find pieces that have those flattering, interesting, well-cut silhouettes in styles that last beyond the end of the season. The reason styles recycle is because of a network of trend forecasting and marketing ploys, but true style remains steadfast through fads and phases.

“…an elegant wardrobe with an art deco feel in a distressed sage green…”
Thrifty Vintage

Vintage in the Home

Like shopping for vintage clothes, finding furniture that has stood the test of time is also a thrill — and one that turns out to be an excellent investment. Beth Stiles, owner of Thrifty Vintage, scours estate sales, Habitat for Humanity, and the internet to find sturdy antique furniture to rehabilitate and sell in her store. Her number one rule for furniture? It has to be made of solid wood.

“Wood lasts forever,” she says. Most imperfections can be corrected and refinished. “They’ve already lasted 50+ years, so they stand the test of time. And in 20 years, when you want a change, you can refinish it again and have a brand new piece of furniture.” Newly made furniture is often made of particle board or other manufactured materials, which tend to wear down more quickly. Her pieces are heavy, but that’s part of their selling point. “My rule is that if a piece is light enough that my two children can carry it, I don’t want it,” says Stiles.

Her goal is to find things at a lower price, give them the tender, loving care they need, and keep the price tag low.

She says her customer base is all over the map, but includes younger people just starting out and looking to build a quality collection of furniture. “You don’t have to buy things in sets,” says Stiles. “Start with one piece and build slowly.” In fact, that is how she started out with furniture rehab: newly married, she and her husband started off building their home décor with inexpensive furniture from stores like Ikea, then higher end brands like Raymour and Flanagan. When she found a dresser from the 1930s, Stiles refinished and painted it, and was hooked. She soon started looking for more pieces to rehab, paint and sell.

Some pieces are from as early as 1900-1910. Stiles paints most of her pieces, like a large dresser and vanity from the 1930s with a lovely rounded mirror, painted a dark lavender, and given an update with ceramic knobs. Stiles sometimes uses multiple colors (up to 6 or 7) and complex finishing techniques to get just the right shade, like another piece on the shop floor, an elegant wardrobe with an art deco feel in a distressed sage green. With years of refinishing experience, Stiles also works with clients to rehab furniture they already have, but don’t know what to do with.

For those looking for a smaller piece of flair, the shop also sells handmade décor items from consigners. All are made out of older materials and given a new life, like a collection of antique China made into large-scale floral yard art, and dust pans, birdhouses, and pendant lights made from license plates. Another collection features steam-punk style lamps made from found metal pieces and lamp parts.

For her own collection, she loves the 1900-1920s, which features intricate drawers and carvings, and dramatic hardware. To those new to antique furniture stepping into her shop, Stiles says her first piece of advice is to not shy away from color. “One bold piece in a room doesn’t need to be garish,” she says. “It can add color and sparkle to a room. If you look forward to seeing it and it makes you happy, that can mean all the difference in your home.”

“…filled with shades and textures in natural hues…”
Old Soul Decor

Décor with an Old Soul

At Old Soul Décor, elements of the past meld seamlessly with contemporary styles. Owner Krystal Reinhard has amassed her inventory from estate sales and antique dealers. “Not everything in the store is antique or vintage, but I chose the name Old Soul because choosing pieces thoughtfully adds soul and character and layering to a home,” she explains.

Like Stiles, Reinhard laments that much contemporary furniture, made of unnatural and cheap materials, begins to fall apart after a few months. “We want people to find something that will hold up for another 100 years,” she says.

Reinhard describes her own aesthetic style as “modern rustic,” an eclectic blend of faded woods and chipped paints with clean lines and smart, sleek shapes.

“I appreciate all periods of furniture, but I like a mix of mid-century and rustic, primitive antiques,” she says. Her design work is also mindfully local. “Chester County especially is really rich in history,” says Reinhard. Touches that look pulled from a centuries-old farmhouse, like chipped paint and industrial pieces, flow harmoniously with newer styles. Living in an 18th-century row home herself, Reinhard looks for décor that will mesh with the older homes a lot of her clients live in.

Old Soul Décor is filled with shades and textures in natural hues: wood grain, smooth, buttery teak, cow hide, elegant lamps, splashes of color and large-scale painted collage pieces, Audrey Hepburn and Chanel logos, a Japanese chest with intricate hardware butterflies as embellishments, pony hair jewelry, kitschy mid-century pieces, plush cushions in clean lines.

There is nothing stuffy or dusty about the décor here, though much of it is clearly from decades ago. A variety of eras, elements, colors and textures are included, yet there is nothing random about the collection.

Reinhard’s background is in fine arts, and this mindfulness for composition shows in the ways that she combines unexpected pieces for a full picture in ‘vignettes’ throughout the store.

“I want to show how you can use pieces together so people can envision the whole,” she says. “Some people come in and feel a little unsure of how to integrate one antique piece with the rest of their home décor,” she says. “We can help them put things together so that it flows.”

Just like vintage itself, continuing to flow from one era to the next.