Vintage Clothes Given Second Life

Posted September 2, 2011 at 5:12pm

Before moving into her World War II-era row house on Capitol Hill, Uesa Robinson stopped by to introduce herself. 

Not to the neighbors, but to any ghosts that might already be living there.

“I’m gonna be moving in here. I hope it’s OK,” she said. “You can be here, but I prefer not to see you. Please don’t pull out any drawers or open any cabinet doors.” 

Robinson isn’t particularly superstitious, but she is more comfortable with the past than many of us. In fact, her home is filled with other’s people’s history.

When she isn’t working at her 9-to-5 job, Robinson scours estate sales for vintage and designer goods that she sells on her website, at pop-up shops around town and by appointment from her home. 

Racks of vintage gowns fill her spare rooms. Hairpieces once owned by a 1930s movie star are scattered across an armchair. On a hanger in her sitting room there’s a mint-green cocktail dress from Erlebacher’s, the Washington boutique frequented by socialites and first ladies, including style-icon Jackie Kennedy, from 1907 to 1974. 

Costume jewelry, delicate lace tea gloves and scarves from Chanel and Hermès overflow from hatboxes piled high on a hodgepodge of vintage furniture. It all began in 2004, when Robinson gathered some donated clothes and sold them from a temporary space in Eastern Market to raise money for an AIDS awareness organization in Africa. The fundraiser was so successful that she started selling clothes every weekend at the venue.

One day, in search of more items for her secondhand shop, Robinson responded to an ad in the Washington Post. The seller had been a lingerie model in the 1950s and was looking to get rid of the racks of designer clothing she’d accumulated over the years. 

It wasn’t the designer goods that caught Robinson’s eye, but the rack of clothing that had belonged to the seller’s mother. Although she didn’t know much about the designers of the 1930s and ’40s, she was struck by the cut, fabric and detail of the clothes. 

When she added the vintage pieces to her shop inventory, they flew out the door. 

“I didn’t know people were into vintage like that,” she said. She started going to more estate sales and shifted her focus from popular designer names to finding vintage items. “Once I really started paying attention to it … I just fell in love with it.” 

The Eastern Market space was taken over by Port City Java in 2006, but she continued to pursue her passion for vintage in her spare time. Her evenings and weekends were spent browsing auctions and estate sales, selling items at trunk shows and pop-up shops and supplying garments for photo shoots. 

She started selling by appointment from her own home, and her clientele steadily grew by word of mouth.

When she lost her job at Merrill Lynch in 2009 because of downsizing,
Robinson viewed it as an opportunity to focus on turning her passion into a business. 

For two years she spent mornings filling out job applications and afternoons working on her website, uesagoods.com. (Her first name is pronounced “yoo-iss.”) 

Now, Robinson is happily juggling her vintage business and a new full-time day job. Though she’s got a great selection available online, local customers who shop at Robinson’s home will find many items not yet listed for sale on her website. 

Shopping Robinson’s collection is an experience. As you sip a glass of tea and browse the racks in her living room (which is really more of an artfully disheveled display case of vintage furniture and fashion accessories than a typical sitting room), Robinson will bring an assortment of things for you to try on. 

“She has an amazing eye for seeing what looks good on people,” says Philippa Hughes, a fixture in Washington’s creative scene and founder of the Pink Line Project. Having worked with Robinson on fashion events and purchased items from her collection, Hughes is well-acquainted with Robinson’s eye for detail. “She’s an artist in that way,” she says. “She sees things that artists see.”

Following the popularity of the TV drama “Mad Men,” modern designers increasingly copy vintage styles. But Robinson knows how to spot the real thing. “Metal zippers definitely are prior to the ’60s” she explains. She can look at a skirt and tell you it’s from the 1940s by studying the hem length and placement of the zipper. 

Her knowledge doesn’t end at the construction of the garment. Sometimes Robinson can tell you a thing or two about the person who owned it. She once bought a woman’s military jacket from an estate sale in McLean, Va., and was so intrigued by the previous owner that she went online and did some research. When she eventually sold the jacket, she printed out the woman’s bio for the buyer. 

When you buy from Robinson you get more than clothes, you get a piece of history. A dress isn’t just a dress. Perhaps it’s a Claire McCardell, a Pauline Trigère or a Leslie Fay dress. To modern fashionistas these labels probably aren’t familiar, but they are among the names that first defined American style apart from European influences. 

There’s a reason styles from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s became “classics.” In an era when affordability and quality seem mutually exclusive and ever-changing trends are mass-produced, Robinson’s well-curated vintage collection is an attractive alternative for a shopper who wants something unique that will also stand the test of time. 

Robinson doesn’t buy clothes just to sell them. She is a collector of history. Each garment has a story to which a new chapter may be added as it’s passed to a new owner.