Culture  What goes around, comes around

At Marché MTL’s Swaparama, vintage fiends trade their old clothes for, well, more old clothes

I am probably the last person on earth to buy into the vintage clothing trend. I am a skeptical consumer, and I guess you could say I jumped on the “urban renewal” train late in the game. For years, I could think of nothing less original or mundane than rocking an outfit that made its debut around the time I was born. If Yves Saint Laurent was correct in suggesting that clothing is a reflection of the self, how do we let ourselves become robed in, for lack of a better term, sloppy seconds?

Montreal is a style-soaked cosmopolitan city, and Montreal girls are notorious for wearing the latest trends, while adding their own personal touches to complete the look. Currently, the look is vintage. Not only can vintage clothing be locally acquired – either from the closets of mothers and grandmothers, or the aisles of little-known shops in the Plateau – it’s also cost-effective. With a little creativity and a sharp eye, vintage shopping becomes a lifestyle.

My questions are simple: why has the vintage trend taken hold and what is its appeal? Are we trying to re-live eras passed? Are consumers simply becoming more environmentally conscious, or is buying vintage a means of indulging our high-fashion impulses without breaking the bank?

Embracing the old

I may be a cynic, but I am open to change. I’ve forever assumed that moderately-priced, vintage clothing catered to a group of grungy yet chic, hipster-esque girlies whose style is reminiscent of the early 1990s. To me, the repopularized high-waisted Levi’s jean shorts don’t scream “high style” – they just scream. But when I was given the opportunity to attend vintage boutique Marché MTL’s annual clothing swap, I decided to stop fighting change and embrace the old.

“Swaparama” is an all-you-can-carry vintage clothing swap hosted by one of the city’s most selective vintage boutiques. Marché asks patrons to donate a bag of used clothing and pay a $15 donation prior to the event. The cover charge, which was raised $10 since last year’s event, is needed to cover the cost of the venue as well as the human power required for such an undertaking. Once at the swap, participants can browse through clothing, shoes, and accessories, accumulating as much as their reusable bags allow.

The idea of a Swaparama came to storeowner Kafi Dublin after noticing a clothes-swapping trend amongst her own friends. The store claims that the event encourages sustainability while offering customers a unique vintage shopping experience.

Cutthroat couture?

My hour at Marché MTL’s Swaparama was certainly unique. I arrived at the swap just after 6 p.m., 30 minutes before the event was scheduled to begin. There were over 50 girls in line, each with her unique brand of brandless street couture. Soft flannel shirts, sexy fringe boots, brightly-coloured chipped nailpolish, and oversized eyeglasses à la Woody Allen were everywhere. The high energy and anxiety exuded by my vintage-clad fellow shoppers was comparable to cutthroat Boxing Day zeal.

I found my spot at the back of the line and began conversing with my fellow swappers. It goes without saying that every girl attending Swaparama was hoping to find beautiful clothes, but also believed she was doing something good for the planet: reusing clothing means not having to buy anything new. A group of CEGEP girls remarked that a surge in vintage’s popularity has made aged clothing too expensive or too highly coveted. They were attending the swap because, as they put it, “Fifteen dollars and a bag of old shit won’t get you anything on St. Laurent.” At the swap, the possibilities were infinite.

The doors of the Swaparama opened just after 6:30 p.m.. The crowed cheered and pushed its way up the narrow staircase of the venue, Academy, and into the midsized lounge. As I walked inside, the racks of clothes and hoards of girls overwhelmed me. There was no rhyme or reason to their browsing, and I came to an immediate realization: this is a Hobbesian jungle, a fashionista state of war. If I don’t act fast, there will be nothing left.

Remembering a similarly overwhelming experience I had at the Marc Jacobs store in New York last winter – during which I was nearly trampled over a t-shirt – I decided that if I couldn’t beat the madness, I would have to join it. I headed immediately to the coats.

Every girl had the same technique: they quickly scanned the tables, picked up the pieces they liked, threw them into their bags, and moved on. To me, that’s what is so interesting about vintage shopping: you know what you like, you understand your creative limits, and no two girls want the same pieces.

It was a high-pressure hunt, but there was neither cattiness nor conversation between swappers while they browsed. About 20 minutes later, I had seen all I wanted to see and headed to the bar. I refueled with an adorable complementary cupcake and white wine.

The underage CEGEP girls who I met in line were enjoying some cocktails and asked me what I had found. “Cuuuuuute,” they squealed as I held up a Christian Dior trenchcoat and some other chance finds. As I witnessed again, there were no petty jabs or jealousy to be had. As David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” came on the sound system, we did just that. Maybe it was the alcohol, but once the vintage hunt was over, the group was remarkably civilized.

On my way out, I thanked the Marché employees and handed them my contact information for future sales. Sabrina, the store manager, was grinning widely. She remarked that the event had gone off without a hitch and everyone was having a great time.

Old-school creativity

Style is inherently personal, and I will not attempt to understand why people dress the way they do. I can, however, make observations on the shopping process. My vintage shopping experience changed my opinion in several ways. I realized that, first and foremost, vintage shoppers value creative expression. A girl’s ability to put together an outfit is tested when she digs through a smorgasbord of garments of different sizes, colours, and materials. Vintage shoppers can also be proud of the fact that they’re aiding sustainable living and saving coin at the same time. Finally, used clothing enthusiasts are constantly surprised by the clothing they discover, and always on the hunt for the next great piece.

I can’t say I will become a regular vintage shopper, but I respect anyone who is. It requires immense patience, perseverance, and oodles of energy. Ultimately, though, vintage shopping is highly rewarding. Girls left this Swaparama with bags full of clothing and contended smiles. For Marche MTL, this is exactly the kind of promotion they desire: the happier the girl, the happier the clothes that adorn the girl. It’s a beautiful thing.