Time pieces: Where to buy vintage fashion in Charlotte

Judith Craycraft, owner of Backstage Vintage Apparel, holds up an early-1980s vintage dress covered with metal sequins and glass beads that she’s rented to many partygoers looking to own the room. (She has a Cleopatra headpiece she rents out with the dress on request - think “Sonny and Cher.”) Craycraft says she sells items out of her store but prefers to rent many of them, so they can stay in use year after year.
Judith Craycraft, owner of Backstage Vintage Apparel, holds up an early-1980s vintage dress covered with metal sequins and glass beads that she’s rented to many partygoers looking to own the room. (She has a Cleopatra headpiece she rents out with the dress on request - think “Sonny and Cher.”) Craycraft says she sells items out of her store but prefers to rent many of them, so they can stay in use year after year.

They’re some of the best fashion deals in town – clothes constructed to stand the test of time, now one (or nearly one) of a kind.

Clothing from another era is so hot right now, retailers are offering up new reproductions everywhere you look. But if you want the real deal, there’s good news: The number of shops that sell vintage is expanding across the Charlotte area.

Whether you’re a fan, a newcomer – or just hankering to channel the late ’60s for Sunday’s debut of the final season of “Mad Men” – here’s a look at popular places to seek those pieces from another time. Know of a shop we missed? Email us:

FROCK shop

Vintage clothing just seems at home in this 1902 Victorian home with a sweeping front porch on Central Avenue.

Owner Caroline Cook-Frers started hosting traveling trunk shows of designer and vintage upscale clothing in 2010 and moved into the brick-and-mortar world in January 2013. She’s launching an online store this spring.

“It’s a pinkies-out approach to vintage here,” she said.

Cook-Frers sells new pieces in addition to vintage, so she can offer customers a complete look, and has expanded her plus-size offerings at the request of customers. Vintage pieces range from formal gowns to casual separates. Purses, shoes and jewelry – both new and vintage – round out her shop.

She also offers styling services, both in-home and at the store, and is eager to recommend pieces to customers. The most exciting moments in her shop, she says, happen when a shopper fits perfectly into a vintage piece that was clearly custom made for a woman decades ago.

“When that happens,” she says, “it’s pure magic.”

▪ 901 Central Ave.;

Kitsch-y-Cool Vintage

This vintage “shop” is smack in the middle of the Sleepy Poet Antique Mall on South Boulevard, and you’ll find everything from collectible 1960s Enid Collins wooden box purses ($48 and up) to 1970s Izod dresses ($16) and lingerie, hankies and gloves dating back to the 1930s and ’40s.

One wall holds dozens of pairs of men’s and women’s cowboy boots (we spotted vintage Frye recently), while suitcases from the 1970s perch atop racks and cases hold gobs of vintage jewelry, including 1970s sunglasses from Italy.

Owner Christi Schiavo-Williams has been selling vintage since 1991 and has “pickers” based in Phoenix and Philadelphia who source her goods all over the country.

None of her stock comes from Charlotte-area pickers or estate sales, she says. “I want the thrift stores here to have vintage for the customers.”

At Sleepy Poet, many of Schiavo-Williams’ customers come specifically for the clothing, while others come for home furnishings and wind up browsing through her clothes and accessories.

“Vintage is way more mainstream than when I started in the ’90s,” Schiavo-Williams says. “I want to introduce people to vintage if they’re not used to it.

“I always tell people to mix it up,” she says. “Buy what you like, but make sure it fits you and mixes in with the rest of your clothing.”

▪ Inside Sleepy Poet Antique Mall; 4450 South Blvd.;

Stash Pad

The newest kid in the vintage clothing scene, Stash Pad in Plaza Midwood (next door to Boris & Natasha) has a fun, funky, hip vibe and offers vintage clothes for men, women and kids as well as vintage jewelry, a hefty selection of new wigs (trimmed in-store to fit the face), cosmetics and makeup services by Scott Weaver, a handful of home goods and new vintage-inspired items ranging from T-shirts to handbags.

Owners Corrie Throckmorton, Heather Lamparter and Kelly Call are veterans of the Charlotte style scene (Lamparter worked at the now-online-only Hong Kong Vintage’s former location on Central Avenue, and she and Throckmorton both worked at Boris & Natasha), so they combined their knowledge of Charlotte vintage shoppers when deciding what to offer at the shop.

“We want it to be highly curated – the best of the best,” Lamparter said.

The 1970s and 1980s are perhaps best represented, although Lamparter and Throckmorton say they get requests from teenagers looking for “vintage 1990s” – a concept that makes them laugh, but is also, indeed, represented. (Vintage is typically defined as being between 20 and 100 years old.)

Everyone from partygoers looking for the perfect look to drag queens and young moms are welcomed here, and the women offer a Kundalini meditation class at 11 a.m. Sundays for $10.

▪ 1216 Thomas Ave.; 980-224-7321

LeMond Modeling Vintage Men’s Boutique

Tucked in the eclectic Area 15 in NoDa, LeMond Hart’s cozy shop focuses on vintage and modern business menswear, offering a large variety of dress shirts ($10 each), pants ($15-$25), jackets and unique extras including new bow ties, vintage Stetson hats ($20) and crocheted lapel pins Hart makes himself.

He opened the shop in October 2013 and has a small selection of vintage womenswear, too, a part of the business he says will grow over time.

Hart, a Charlotte native, says that helping people dress is his ministry. He taught himself to buy and style vintage clothes to avoid getting picked on during a traumatic childhood, he says, and his love of fashion never stopped.

Much of Hart’s stock, which includes names ranging from Jos A. Bank and Brooks Brothers to vintage Armani and Tom Ford, comes from Hart’s in-laws, who own an antique furniture store in Albemarle and find clothing while buying furniture at estate sales.

Hart is quick to give his customers styling advice and offer a complimentary coffee. (He has a barista stand in the back of the store where he accepts donations for charity.)

“I love promoting traditional aesthetics,” Hart says. “You can be current by adding a pop of color; for example, adding gingham (popular this spring) can add dimension.”

▪ 516 E. 15th St.; 704-712-9531

Buffalo Exchange

While not exclusively a vintage shop, this Arizona-based retail chain has plenty of vintage in its racks on Central Avenue. Recent visits have turned up English-made Dr. Martens as well as vintage rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, full slips, dresses, skirts and tops.

Store manager Kara Perry and her staff buy clothes from the public (patrons are paid outright for their clothes – they are not sold on consignment), as well as from pickers who scour estate sales and thrift stores for clothing with value.

“Retail is always moving, and let’s face it – clothing is disposable,” Perry says. “The stuff that has value is the stuff that’s been around forever. That’s the stuff that stands the test of time.”

Perry has worked at Buffalo Exchange stores in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but says she sees far more quality vintage clothing come through the shop on Central Avenue than either of the “big city” stores she’s worked at in the past.

She has reference books in her office that she uses to train her buying staff on identifying vintage original T-shirts, cowboy boots and other items. Current reproductions can often mimic originals, so staff need to spot key differences, she says.

“Vintage clothes,” Perry says, “have a kind of energy to them.”

▪ 1521 Central Ave.;

Backstage Vintage Apparel

To comb the racks of Backstage Vintage Apparel is to take a tour through the decades, starting at the 1920s and ending in the 1990s.

Every decade is amply represented, from fully beaded Great Gatsby dresses complete with metal sequins and glass beads over silk, to authentic Eisenhower jackets, leisure suits for men and women, pouffy 1980s bridal confections and steampunk suits and hats.

Owner Judith Craycraft (call her J.B.), a professional violist and violinist, picked up much of the clothing during her decades of touring with orchestras. “Before shows, I would run backstage to the wardrobe departments and buy their old costumes,” she says.

She opened the Central Avenue store on New Year’s Day in 2012. She previously owned a vintage shop by the same name in Asheville.

Craycraft prefers to rent much of her merchandise rather than sell it (“that way it can continue to have a life,” she says). Prices average $65 to rent a complete outfit from Friday through Tuesday for weekend parties, but can vary. Backstage is popular among theme partygoers and concert attendees. The day we visited, a customer came in looking for a long dramatic black cape to wear to a Fleetwood Mac concert.

▪ 2005 Central Ave.;

Rat’s Nest

Probably the most chilled-out vintage shopping in Charlotte can be done at Rat’s Nest in NoDa, where members of the local – and sometimes national – music scene show up to buy vintage T-shirts and boots and just hang out. (The Avett Brothers can sometimes be spotted there when they’re in town.) Among the racks of clothes and boots sit comfy lounge chairs and throw rugs, and the fridge is stocked with beer and soda.

Owner Brian Wilson says the 11-year-old store has always “tried to keep that super-laid-back vibe.”

Cowboy boots and T-shirts are among the big draws for vintage lovers here, but you’ll also find Malia dresses, vintage purses and cowboy shirts with heavily decorated yokes.

Wilson (who also co-owns local bar The Thirsty Beaver with brother Mark) prices T-shirts from $8 to $400 (the highest price is reserved for highly collectible shirts – see the “I survived Hugo and the Jim Bakker trial” one hanging in the middle of the store), and cowboy boots from $20 to $400.

“When I was younger, I’d go into some of those cool shops but I couldn’t afford anything,” Wilson says. “I decided that if I ever opened a place, it would be a place where the average high school kid could afford to shop.”

He says he’s constantly on the hunt, visiting thrift, salvage and antique stores in cities near and far for inventory he knows customers will like.

“It’s part of my life. I’m always looking for stuff,” Wilson says. “That’s how it started. I’d see cool stuff and I’d give it to my little brother or sister. Then I was finding other people stuff. … I’d probably be doing this even if I didn’t have a store.”

▪ 442 E. 36th St.; 704-371-3599

Hong Kong Vintage

A longtime favorite vintage clothing and accessory shop on Central Avenue, Hong Kong Vintage now sells exclusively online, at

Detailed descriptions, lots of photos and precise measurements take some of the guesswork out of shopping for vintage online through Hong Kong’s website. You’ll find a huge variety of special occasion dresses (including a psychedelic swirl print silk chiffon dress with beaded cuffs, $218) to modestly priced jewelry and accessories (a handsome tweed and leather belt is $28).

What is vintage?

“Vintage” typically refers to items that are between 20 and 100 years old and clearly represent the style of the decade in which they were made. Vintage items can be handmade or manufactured; they can be used or from “dead-stock”: That means they were never worn or sold to the public – often from stockpiles in warehouses.

How to buy and style vintage

When shopping for vintage, keep in mind that there’s sometimes a fine line between vintage and costume. We asked vintage retailers for their best tips on adding vintage pieces to your wardrobe, and how to wear them while still looking current:

▪ Look for labels, but don’t shy away from a piece you love just because it doesn’t have a tag. Do look for quality, however: Items with lining, boning, handstitching, piped seams and bound buttonholes made from quality fabrics are all signs of well-made garments.

▪ Avoid buying frail garments, and be sure they are strong enough to be cleaned. If an item is delicate, take it to a cleaner who can treat it gently. Use padded hangers or fold and store extremely delicate pieces in acid-free tissue.

▪ If buying collectible items such as rock ‘n’ roll T-shirts, find out if the store you’re buying from has a reputation for quality and owners who know the difference between real vintage and fakes. Vintage reproductions are in plenty supply, and some are so convincing that it can be hard for the untrained eye to distinguish old from new.

▪ Watch the fit of vintage garments, and alter when necessary. Women decades ago tended to be smaller (hence the scarcity of vintage in plus-sizes, retailers say), so don’t be surprised if you wind up in a larger size than you typically wear. A size 12 from the 1950s could be a size 8 in today’s clothes. If buying vintage online, pay more attention to the measurements than the size.

▪ When pulling together a vintage outfit, wear at least one item that is current. “I’m in love with the bootie, because it will take these vintage looks and bring them right into today,” says Caroline Cook-Frers of Frock Shop. For example, a busy, ’80s-style silk blouse can fit in better in a modern workplace when paired with a pair of slim pants and modern shoes.