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Naomi Thompson

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The Business of Vintage

Posted: 17/04/2012 14:37

Vintage is no longer the preserve of the charity shop queen or the yesteryear aficionado. It's now the church of the bedroom entrepreneur. It's the cutting edge marketing campaign that the global brand latches on to. It shrieks 'creative', 'new' and 'different'. Except it's not; everyone is at it now. 'Vintage' has graduated to being a global industry.

So why has the consumer, the marketeer, the budding business impresario, the event organiser, the fashion designer, embraced this libertine plundering of the past?

On one hand, we have only recently woken-up to the fact that well preserved examples of our fashion and cultural history are worth holding on to. Yes, items have always been collected and desired, but good vintage items are now a commodity worth paying for, a tangible asset that doesn't depreciate.

As a trend and branding exercise, quite simply, like sex, nostalgia sells. This also explains its gargantuan leap from the niche to the mainstream on a macroeconomic level. So why is 'old' the new, well...'new'?

For many, vintage is synonymous with quality and yes, the aesthetics are pleasing on the eye. But, it's the perception that vintage is trustworthy that has powered this trend. It is solid. It has a back-bone.

In the last four years it has gained traction. This year, niche vintage festivals have started to appear, bringing down prices and breaking up the monopoly of the last two years (which can only be a good thing). It is evident from the catwalks that designers are still looking to the past for their new collections and not a day goes past when I don't see a new vintage inspired advertising campaign. Even the Pinterest logo has hopped on board.

Every day Twitter alerts me to a new 'vintage' business or 10. I very much enjoy looking through all these budding emporia and dissecting their concepts. I am voraciously hungry to find out what's new; who provides the best service; who is the new hot seller on the web. So I check 'em all out, slowly and carefully. It's a pleasure to be able to recommend the best.

Vintage brides are also on the rise, despite proclamations of the trend being over. Catherine Middleton herself married in a dress very much akin to that of Princess Grace of Monaco in the 1950s. Annabel Beeford's vintage inspired wedding website (lovemydress.net) saw her business go from strength to strength last year. There is talk of vintage being a fad: a trend that is now waning. "I can see no evidence of this through my blog," says Annabel. "I think the appeal of vintage is that it is, of course, timeless - beautiful fashions of the past look as good on today's modern bride as they did 40, 50, 60 or more years ago. Certainly, most of the independent designers I work with are reporting an increase in demand for 20's and 50's inspired dresses. Businesses that specialise in the sale of vintage or reproduction dresses have never been busier."

Hasn't it all been done to death though? Possibly, but vintage is clever. It morphs. On a macro level, it craftily rebranded itself as 'Heritage' in 2011.

So where can we see this going? As a commercial trend I say this will continue for a few more years before the visual element becomes overdone in the eyes of mainstream consumers and it returns to being the way of life for certain groups of individuals. However, I believe the value of good period items will only increase as supply runs out. Current levels are being worn out and we have little to replace them with. To say people will lose interest in vintage is like saying people will lose interest in antiques. The value simply won't disappear. In fact it will increase.

Until then, if you are a brand or business wishing to capitalise, there are certain strategies available for riding the wave.

Businesses need to keep their heads above a saturated market. The way to do that is to acquire a reputation and cling on to it. You either need to be authentic (i.e. businesses that pride themselves on exact repro, vendors of rare garments or beauty specialists that recreate exact looks) OR you need to be innovative - take your little corner of vintage and make it your own so that your concept is clearly defined and unique.

It can be as different as you want and that's where creativity comes in. Simply put, you have to be known for what you do and frankly, you need to do it very well, so you wipe out the competition.

Get a loyal following behind you. Just because your concept is pretty and twee doesn't mean to say business will be any easier. You will still have to deal with people nicking everything you come up with: from your name to your concept. Business is business, vintage or otherwise.

Here are a few tips I have gleaned from looking at all these new sites.

Online sellers. Put a bit of thought into your product photography. A glossy website, let down by images that scream eBay, won't win you plaudits or new customers.

Act like a business: swot up on commonly used terms and conditions. Find out the rules of selling online. Have a FAQ section. Show the world you know what you are talking about.

Service providers. Make it clear exactly what you are offering. Explain why you are different from other people providing a similar service - what's your edge? It's not all about cupcakes and bunting now.

There are so many people doing the same thing that a USP is crucial. I would expect a really niche service nowadays, not just a good one. People want choice.

Blogs and websites. There is a wealth of undiscovered material out there. Look to your own resources as well. The way forward is personalised content. Dig out those old cine films or your grandmother's wedding dress. Again, it's about keeping the old fresh.

Larger businesses need to remember that vintage is an adjective, not a noun. The mistake made by many big brands is to harness vintage as a singular concept. Seventy years of 20th century culture cannot be simplified under one catch-all term. For a concept to remain fresh, campaigns should focus on a particular era, person or event. Where possible this should be tied into the brand's own heritage.

Whatever the size of your vintage related product or business, there are always ways to be innovative. It's just plain lazy to think that adding a dose of 'vintage' will make your product instantly desirable. Like every other business in the world, whether you are selling tongue spoons or macaroons, you need to put a bit of work into it.

The best piece of advice I've ever been given is, 'You didn't invent the tea cup'. It still makes me smile. Those words came out of the mouth of the most successful retro entrepreneur of them all.

 

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