Chicago is an amazing city for vintage lovers. Not only is there a great community of vintage wearing, history loving, swing dancing folks, there are some wonderful stores, bars and restaurants, and museums to feed their hunger for all things retro.
Knee Deep Vintage is my favorite vintage store in Chicago right now. If you've been reading this blog for any lenght of time, that's probably no surprise - at this point, I think about half of my vintage wardrobe was purchased there. Located in picturesque Pilsen (the neighborhood that I live in, as it happens), Knee Deep offers an amazing variety of vintage clothes, shoes, and accessories, and often for far less than you would find them elsewhere.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the owners of Knee Deep, Carlos and Trent, about how they got into the business, the current state of vintage, and their tips for people who are getting into vintage.
Jessica: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with me! So where are you guys from?
Trent: I'm from Rockford, so just out in the suburbs.
Carlos: Originally I'm from California, but I've lived in a lot of different places. I lived in Seattle for a little while, and I opened my first store there in 2000.
J: And that was a vintage store?
C: Yeah, that was vintage. It was great. I was younger, and I was flying by the seat of my pants, just starting to figure it out. I was 22 when I opened it, and it helped me kind of work out the kinks so that when I opened this shop, I knew what to do and what not to do.
T: I didn't really start selling vintage until I met him, but I did a lot of thrifting when I was younger, and it turns out that where I grew up was a great place for thrifting. It's still a great place to go. Not sure if I want to let that secret out!
J: I'll have to check it out! I never go out to the suburbs.
T: You really should, there are some really cool old towns that were built up in the 20s.
"I just wanted to have a shop that was affordable and obtainable for people who had the same interests as me."
C: I grew up thrifting a lot, going to church sales, stuff like that, so it was really in my blood. I came from a larger family, so lots of thrift stores, lots of hand me downs, and that kind of spurred the interest at a younger age.
J: So you've been selling vintage since 2000, Carlos?
C: Probably before that, because I was always reselling as a means of making money, even in college, or selling stuff to Buffalo Exchange in California. It was just a good way to make extra money.
T: And before we opened this store, we would go thrifting just for the fun of it, or we'd sell milk glass on eBay and stuff like that.
J: So you got into this really organically.
C: Yeah, it's what I know best. I really appreciate clothing, and the thrill of the hunt. And I just wanted to have a shop that was affordable and obtainable for people who had the same interests as me when I moved to Chicago, which was a big reason why I started this.
T: I was actually the IT manager for a law firm, and it was like 16 or 18 hours a day, and you're on call when you're not there. It was just so stressful.
J: So when did you open Knee Deep?
C: Trent and I opened it together in 2007, so this store's been open for about 9 years now. I'd been doing some other work, and we just decided to buckle down and do this for reals.
J: So where do you get most of the clothes that you sell? I know a lot of sellers shop estate sales and things like that.
C: At this point, because we've been around so long, it's a lot of referrals. In the beginning we would do thrift stores, rummage sales, where ever we can get our hands on it, but now people usually call us.
J: So, like, "my aunt had 50 vintage dresses and now we want to get rid of them...?"
C: Yeah, and closet clean outs, things like that.
J: I feel like for the past few years the prices for vintage have just been going up and up. Does that make it harder for you to source vintage to sell?
C: I feel like we're kind of past that, just because we do have the people that come to us.
T: And it's like any other commodity, it just goes up and down.
C: I remember when Etsy first became a thing, and everyone was racing to do it, but then we started getting calls from people who were shutting their stores down when they realized how much work it was going to be. And that's why we've been resistant to selling a lot online. Eventually we'll probably have to to keep up with the market, but for right now what we sell in the store is just fine.
J: Yeah, I was going to ask about that. I find it really interesting that you don't do online sale. Is there a particular reason that you avoid that?
C: We used to do it more, and we still do it once in a while, but it kind of takes the fun out of it. Just talking face to face, vs. emailing, and it's really time consuming. And it was fine when we did it, but then you spend all your time...
T: Like at the post office, or sending emails. And I feel like we've had more problems when we did it, like measuring, taking so many pictures.
C: And you could just come into the store and buy it for $20 or $40 less, and we don't have to spend all that time.
T: Or a lot of times it'll sell in the store while you're trying to answer someone's question about it, and that's a whole other issue.
"I feel like [fashion is] really regurgitated right now. No one's pushing, especially from the high end. Like, it blows my mind that souvenir jackets are as big as they are right now. They're really beautiful, but I feel like everyone is doing them right now."
J: So what's your favorite era in vintage?
C: Hmm... I mean, I love everything, but I think my go to favorite is the 50s, probably, the 40s and 50s, which is really what kind of dominates the racks here most of the time. I really like all eras, though. Fashion is so derivative - the 70s drew a lot from the 20s, the 80s from the 40s, things like that. People are always borrowing and crossing over, so that helps me appreciate all different eras.
T: To look at, my favorite era is probably the Victorian. The constructions, the material... It's really gaudy, but also really understated. It just amazing what they did. The taste level - they just walked a really fine line. And I love Levi's, although I don't wear them so much anymore.
J: It's really interesting how cyclical fashion is. Sometimes I feel like there's almost nothing new to do with it anymore. Like what more can you do with it?
T: I feel like it's really regurgitated right now. No one's pushing, especially from the high end. Like, it blows my mind that souvenir jackets are as big as they are right now. They're really beautiful, but I feel like everyone is doing them right now.
C: Yeah, I feel like a lot of trends are dictated by TV and movies, so that's something that I look at a lot in terms of selling.
J: So what are some trends that you wish would just die in a fire?
C: I feel like the trends of my childhood that come and go, like the 80s/90s. It just boggles me that what the normal people were wearing then is what the cool kids are wearing now.
J: So, like, the choker thing?
C: More like those flouncy 90s rayon dresses. I mean, I get it, they're cute, but wow... It just makes me feel old. But like I said, I appreciate every era, so there's nothing I just completely want to see go away.
"Really stylish people know how mix and match different eras and different countries of origin and really make it their own. They don't have to chase trends because they know what they love and what looks and feels good on them."
J: So if someone is just starting to get into vintage, what's once piece of advice that you'd give them?
C: I'd say to try to find ways to incorporate it into your current style. I think separates are a great way to start - pick up a blouse, or a great jacket or skirt, stuff like that, so that you can kind of ease your way in. Or t-shirts, because they're so universal. But what's really important is to find something that you really feel comfortable in. And I do think it's good to pay attention to your body type - if you're curvy, 50s styles are going to look great on you. If you're more straight up and down, you'll look really good in stuff from the 20s. But really, the sky's the limit.
T: I feel like really stylish people know how mix and match different eras and different countries of origin and really make it their own. They don't have to chase trends because they know what they love and what looks and feels good on them. I feel like a good vintage store is the same way - the owner has their own idea about what they like, and they stick with it. I think that's what really makes a store feel special and unique.
J: And I feel like if you really love it, it's just about having that confidence and not caring so much about what everyone else thinks.
C: Totally! As long as you're happy, that's really the whole point.