Old Rags Mean Riches for Vintage Clothier Harriet Love

It’s one of the hottest clothing stores in New York City, but there’s not a stitch of Calvin in sight. Sixty percent of its stock turns over every six weeks, but not a single item could be described as New Wave or avant-garde. Fact is, Harriet Love’s tiny shop in SoHo is old hat…not to mention old blouse, old sweater and old dress.

Call it Antique Chic—well, Vintage Chic if you’re particular, since antiques must be 100 years old and most of Love’s clothes are from this century. Call it what you will, business couldn’t be better for Love, 44, who’s been in the nostalgia trade for 18 years. “These clothes have become a viable alternative in terms of fashion,” she declares. “People who buy them want something unusual and one of a kind—and love the adventure of finding something special.”

Customers range from brides-to-be looking for wedding dresses to grandmothers reveling in days gone by. The rich and famous can also be found browsing at Love’s boutique. Diane Keaton bought a few ’30s and ’40s pins, Barbra Streisand fell in love with a sequined collar, Meryl Streep picked up an Edwardian blouse and young Ron Reagan walked out with a ’50s tweed jacket.

At a time of instability for most retailers, Love restocks between 50 and 150 items per week. Love argues that her clothes are cheaper and better-made than their modern-day counterparts. “Today you could find a nice beaded dress for $4,000,” she points out. “I sell them for between $500 and $1,000—and with carnival beads you can’t get anymore.” Other items that have gone the way of the Edsel—such as hand-carved abalone buttons, French and Belgian lace, and glass beads from Czechoslovakia—are always cropping up in Love’s store.

At first she stocked her shop by traveling to country auctions and buying from “anyone who would contact me. It was very mysterious and wonderful,” she says. “I met one woman on the Connecticut Turnpike. It was freezing and so dark I needed a flashlight to see the clothes in the trunk.” Since good sources are the key to her business, Love is close-mouthed about most of them, worried that they might dry up. Still, she believes the U.S. has a lot to offer. “We’ve never had a war on our shores,” she says, “never had homes and factories destroyed. Everything that’s been here is here.”

Love grew up in a retailing family near Atlantic City, N.J. Though her father owned parking lots in Philadelphia and her uncles ran jewelry, linen and clothing stores on the Boardwalk, Harriet credits her clothes sense to her housewife mother. “She had a wonderful editing process,” says a smiling Love. “She could pull out the one dress that was terrific and on sale.”

After majoring in theater and English at Boston University, Love opened her first store in New York’s Greenwich Village with $1,200 and some old clothes from family and friends. She believes her boutique was the first in the U.S. devoted exclusively to vintage clothing. Recently she parlayed her knowledge and expertise into Harriet Love’s Guide to Vintage Chic, a guide to the value, care and finding of old clothing. Work also brought Love together with her literary-agent husband, Asher Jason, when a friend brought him into the shop. Married 10 years, they live in a spacious one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village.

Hard as it is to give up her “finds,” Love has relatively few vintage items. She has kept her turn-of-the-century linen wedding gown, a ’50s black-beaded Fortuny gown and a few dozen other treasures. “But I’m not a hoarder,” says Love. “I really want my customers to get everything.” Spoken like a true retailer.

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