Sandwiched between Espresso Royale and Noodles and Co. on State Street sits a lone rack of old sweaters. The glittery sign above it reads “Star Vintage.” As you cautiously enter the store, past the rack of colorful clothing, past the graffiti-slashed walls and the rickety old stairs, past the bizarre sign letting you know “There is no need to be curious kitty,” you enter a basement room that confronts you with what can only be described as sensory assault.
There are displays everywhere, evoking several different eras: a ’50s TV living room, ’80s Joan Jett and one for St. Patty’s Day, half taken down and framed by twinkling white lights. And then there’s just so much stuff. It’s everywhere — on the ceiling, on the floors, toppling off stands. Fluorescent wigs, wide-rimmed sunglasses and stacks of shoes line the walls.
In the dressing room, crooners and tuners Janet Jackson, Andre Previn, Don Ameche and Duane Eddy smile benevolently down at you as you undress. On the floor lies a miniature Coca-Cola cabinet — when opened, it reveals delectables like Campbell’s soup tins, Burtoni high-protein macaroni shells and Reynolds Wrap doled out in doll-sized proportions. It almost seems like little fairy people used to live here, dining on plastic shells and finishing off their meals with a slurp of imaginary Progresso soup.
Star Vintage feels less like a throwback to a specific era and more like a mishmash of everything and anything that used to be. The concept behind vintage has always been about paying homage to history while embracing the ever-evolving trends of the current decade.
“I think a lot of fashion is rehash,” said Tillie Whitt, Star’s owner. “I think it does repeat itself. The ’60s is a throwback to the Victorian era, the fashion of the ’80s is a certain retake on a ’40s style, with the more geometric lines and squared-off shoulders. I think it does continue to reflect parts of history with a new spin.”
Known formerly as Primitive Vintage, Star Vintage was rechristened when Whitt bought the store five years ago.
“It’s always been that weird basement shop where no one knows where it is until you know where it is. That’s what I’ve always liked about it; it’s made it more mysterious,” said Anne Coombs, store manager.
Perhaps unique to Star is how each of the items in the store is named. On one side, the tag features the era the piece is from and the price; on the other, a sassy name describing it: “Melty Cuteness,” “I vant this dress,” “Wow! Superfine.”
“It’s just something that I started when I first started the store,” Whitt said. “When I first started tagging everything, I thought, ‘Wow, this looks like Audrey Hepburn, or this looks like James Dean or Johnny Cash.’ And then I just started naming things. And it’s been a tradition of ours for five years.”
Coombs says that the customers tend to flock in, either from far away or in literal flocks.
“We’ll get big groups of sorority girls that’ll just want to try every dress on, just have fun with it. But a lot of people from out of town that come to Ann Arbor and want fun activities to do also find us here,” Coombs said.
In terms of the store’s turnover, clothes come in and out fairly often. Every week, Whitt brings back garbage bag-sized drops from places ranging from estate sales to rag houses.
“The world is a treasure hunt. I have a house out west in Wyoming, so I’m always shopping (everywhere),” Whitt said.
“A big thing with working in a store like this is that there’s so much stuff that if you don’t rotate and change it, people won’t see it, they just won’t know it’s there,” Coombs said.
“And if there’s a certain amount of clothing that we feel isn’t selling anymore, we just donate it,” she added.
Coombs, who was just promoted to store manager a few weeks ago, will soon be learning to price the items.
“Pricing isn’t standardized; it’s based on the rarity of each piece and the quality — those are probably the two basic criteria,” Whitt said. “I will be spending a lot of time with (Coombs) just really going over the fine-tuned detail of how to identify various pieces and relating to their quality and era and rarity. It’s a very specific educational process.”
Although the staff doesn’t usually go with Whitt on her famous “treasure hunts,” they actively participate in designing the store displays and naming the items.
“It’s a wonderful collaboration of everybody’s input, and really always has been. It’s really the very fun, unique, expressive representation of the employees,” Whitt said.
When clothes are fresh on the floor and customers haven’t had the chance to see them yet, employees have been known to indulge in a few pieces for themselves.
“It’s hard to be around the store every day and not buy something,” Coombs said. “Especially when I first started working here, I was like, ‘I want this and this and this.’ All my favorite clothes are from here, definitely.”
Whitt admits that sometimes she can’t help herself.
“It’s been known to happen. I think one of my original fantasies with having a vintage store was having this massive store where I could just change clothes a hundred different times,” she said. “When you end up dealing with it as a business, most of the things that I buy end up going into the store. But there are occasionally those pieces that never make it down there.”
Whitt is considering making some of the items in her store available online. Purely online vintage stores like ModCloth and Etsy enjoy great success, taking advantage of contemporary society’s reliance on technology and interest in obtaining one-of-a-kind items.
“There’s definitely a section in the back that we are not allowed to touch,” Coombs said. “(Whitt) has really amazing, really old stuff back there, which would do a lot better online because it’s the easiest way to reach collectors.”
Still, Star Vintage will not be leaving its Ann Arbor location in favor of online sales. Meanwhile, the store’s consensus about large chain stores like Urban Outfitters is generally not favorable.
“The prices are not OK with me. I think it’s overpriced and was probably made in sweatshops. That place has no soul,” Coombs said. “This place — I feel like it has a history to it. It’s all different and it’s unique and you won’t find two of the same thing.”
“If you’re buying the repro (reproduced) stuff knocked off in China, you’re not going to have an original piece,” Whitt added. “You’re going have the same thing that hundreds of thousands of other people have.”
She believes that vintage, however, is all about originality.
“That’s stunningly amazing to me, that people will pay good money for corporate repro for something where we have the original,” Whitt said. “I’ve had the buyers of Anthropologie come into the store and buy things which, then, they base their items on. They’re basing it off of merchandise that we have the originals of.”
Coombs takes a more organic view on the specific items of clothing in the store.
“I feel like certain pieces belong with certain people,” Whitt said. “I bought this sweater that I wear pretty much every day, and I feel like it was meant for me to have. Everything here has a soul and a soulmate. I’ve seen it happen. Some girl will try on a dress that a million different girls have tried, and it will look different on her.
“And she’ll just love it and be so happy to own it. That’s my favorite thing.”