Vintage store sews its seeds at Ryerson

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By Mary Nersessian

It’s easy to trip over one of the 14 waist-high, overflowing bags of crumpled clothing in the cramped storeroom of The Underground vintage clothing store. The musty smell smell in the air is reminiscent of Grandma’s attic and a conveyor belt is piled high with second-hand wool sweaters and faded jeans.

A sign among the seven rolling racks of pressed and neatly-hung clothes points out the “Eskimo coats that need cleaning.” A quick around the room reveals nothing but a mess of clothes. This room is where unwanted clothing gets a second chance.

Second-hand clothing comes to The Underground’s storeroom from one of 20 recycled clothing plants in Toronto. The store’s staff pick the coolest duds, hand and price them ans move them upstairs for the delight of vintage shoppers – if they know they’re walking into a vintage store.

The facade of the store is misleading. Most customers walk into the old Stitches store on Yonge and Gould Streets looking for cheap clubbing gear. Instead, they find themselves transported back in time as they walk through racks of vintage leather jackets and glittery evening purses older than most of the clientele. For now, a small sign that reads “No, this is not Stitches,” is the only indicator that The Underground took over the space in mid-August, just steps away fro Ryerson. Next week, the staff plan to hang up their own sign, signifying the official launch of an independent clothing store competing for student dollars on the Yonge Street chain-store strip.

Fuchsia and blue-berry-coloured saris with gold embroidery are draped over the change room doors. The music of hip early-90s group Dec-Lite is bopping overhead. Tucked into the back corner of the store is a small worktable with a sewing machine and piles of clothing on the ground. Karen Dagg, who graduated from Ryerson’s fashion design program in 2000, looks up from her sandwich and wipes crumbs from her mouth before she starts sewing again.

She is wearing pig-tail coils on her head and pinstriped pants she designed. As The Underground’s official seamstress and fashion designer, Dagg is hard at work re-making some of the clothes that come into the store. With her imagination, scissors and needles, Dagg creates one-of-a-kind pieces that sell for $25 to $65.

She was one of five Ryerson students who were finalists in the International Young Designer’s Awards in Paris in December 1999. She has also won an award for fur design in Denmark. Before spotting a job posting for The Underground on three weeks ago. Dagg worked at a design company and made mascots for the Toronto Blue Jays ans Guinness Beer.

She appreciates the creative control she was working for a small store. “Large design companies are very conservative and not at all creative,” Dagg says. “They simply interpret fashion trends for Canada.”

“We [don’t sell] clothing for the masses,” says Courtney Pickett, a sales associate. She says the store gives students the opportunity to maintain individual style among the mass-produced items that neighbours Gap and Le Chateau offer.

Lesley MacKenzie, a second-year fashion design student, admires the clothing hanging on the wall. She is pleased to hear items are designed by a Ryerson graduate. “It’s interesting to know what you can do in the future and to know the opportunities available,” she says.

“What I create is very sculptural,” says Dagg as she fingers a knitted, sleeveless sweater with a chunky diagonal ruffle hanging on the wall behind her. “Right now I am inspired by Japanese design or what I see on the street.” She says her designs are intuitive. Because she has trouble planning the design and sketching them, her clothing often takes shape while she works.

Shopping for vintage clothing since the age of 15 has taught store manager Stacey Paterson a few tricks of the trade. “I went through the entire inventory to make sure this place wasn’t too thrift or too Value Village.”

“I want it to be 50 per cent vintage and 50 percent re-made and independent clothing.” She says the biggest hurdle is maintaining a level of quality vintage in the 100 items that roll into the store each day. For example, she keeps her eye out for Levi’s jeans with a big E on the tag because they are a manufacturer’s defect and worth more. She also knows that the most valuable Adidas clothing comes from Germany.

A one-of-a-kind outfit can be picked up at The Underground for under $50. Most jeans cost around $40 and are currently 25 per cent off. T-shirts cost $6.99, wool sweaters range from $15 to $20 and winter coats from $80 to $100.

“They have a good selection,” says first-time shopper Becky Conber, a first-year image arts student, as she eyes the selection of vintage shirts. The Underground is owned by Russell White, who is originally from San Francisco and lived in the Haight Ashbury district in the 1960s. The district was famous for its hippie ans Beatnik culture.

White moved to Vancouver in 1990 and has been in the vintage clothing business since. He opened in Vancouver, London, and Japan before coming to Toronto. White also owns Thrift Town, located at 1473 Queen St. W.

An article on one of White’s London stores will be appearing in the October issue of Dazed and Confused – a British culture magazine. He would like to open more stores but he has no definitive plans to do so. “The Underground can mean either being underground.” says White, in reference to one of his stores that was literally underground, “or it can mean off-beat.”

White won’t divulge how much he invested in The Underground, but says that securing the location alone costs $50,000. “It is still scary because we are in a high rend and high traffic spot,” says White. Pickett thinks The Underground scored a perfect location on Yonge Street, far away from the dozens of vintage stores on Queen Street and in Kensington Market. “There are students all over and people from Eaton Centre walking by,” she says. “In Kensington market, all the stores are competing with each other. We don’t have competition.” White is counting on Ryerson students to make The Underground a popular vintage destination. “I want this to be a cool place for young people,” he says.

Vintage clothing became popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s. With the post-Second World War predominance of mass-produced clothing, jaded fashionistas started scouring the newly-opened vintage shops. “The vintage-clothing business has been really hot in the United States for five years,” says Donna Smith, director of the Ryerson school of retail management.

“Yonge and Gould is a prime location,” she says, because Ryerson students fit into the demographic the vintage clothing market relies on. “There is more freedom in creating your own look and mixing it with what is hot and modern,” she adds. “We should all dig into our mother’s and grandmother’s closets.”

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