Chicago women breathe new life into historic styles
Put your game face on. If you love it, buy it. Get it or regret it.
Chicago vintage sellers give this advice to first-time buyers. The Chicago vintage scene is a close-knit community dominated by entrepreneurial women and consumed by people seeking unique stylistic expression.
In recent years media like “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” “Hidden Figures” and “Carol” have piqued consumer interest in the historic and aesthetic appeal of vintage clothing. Nineties clothes are trending worldwide, with everything from crop tops to chokers making a comeback.
Chicago women are making waves in the world of vintage. Heather Stumpf-Popio of Vavoom Pinups photographs modern women, Britteny Riordan of Luvsick Plus curates plus-size vintage clothing and Ashley Harding of Vintage Refined left corporate America to customize vintage furniture.
These women are mothers, college students, restaurant managers, creatives, deep thinkers and savvy business people. Many buy and sell online, in shops, at street festivals or pop-ups. Their love of vintage fuels their passion for history, self-expression and sense of community.
“Wearing vintage clothing is like a wearing a part of history,” Tammi Savoy said.
Tammi Savoy’s Instagram is a curation of glamorous beauty shots reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor and Eartha Kitt. Savoy, real name Temeka Estes, has over 17,000 followers that observe the mother, wife and now full-time musician’s every move because of her dedication to Old Hollywood style.
“My first true vintage purchase was a beautiful ’50’s baby pink dress,” Savoy said. “It had a deep V and bow detail in the back. I purchased it to wear to my big brother’s wedding. It was a hit with everyone and from then on I was hooked.”
The Chicago-based rising star wants to “bring class and elegance back into every aspect of life.”
“In high school I was only able to afford bell bottoms, flared jeans and peasant tops,” Savoy explained. “Now that I’m older I can finally wear more styles that I have always loved.”
Savoy described her style as vintage with a modern flair. Some of her favorite vintage pieces are her Jonathan Logan and Suzy Perette dresses, both ’40’s manufacturers known for their Parisian-inspired silhouettes of cinched waists and full skirts.
Savoy loves the details and the craftsmanship that were put into vintage clothing as well as the high quality fabrics.
“What I love most about vintage clothing is that it is timeless and classic,” Savoy said. “It will never go out of style in my mind.”
“The cellphone in my hand is going to be vintage one day. I have finally stepped into my mortality of vintage just like the women in my family before me,” Heather Stumpf-Popio said.
Heather Stumpf-Popio is the woman behind the lens at Vavoom Pinups, a vintage head-to-toe photography experience. She has shot over 3,000 women in a decade in various stages in their lives, including boudoir calendar shoots, bachelorette parties, couples, mothers and children and gender reveals.
Stumpf-Popio wore a tan yoga outfit as she gave a tour around the vanilla-scented River North studio she shares with her husband, actor and photographer Chris Popio. The top part of the space is simple. The sunset peeked through the white curtains and illuminated the hardwood floors and makeup chairs. Downstairs is where the magic happens, with hundreds of color-coordinated vintage clothes and shoes from Pinup Girl Clothing, Modcloth, and Unique Vintage are scattered across the studio.
“At Vavoom, I always say that every woman who comes into my studio is beautiful no matter what,” Stumpf-Popio said. “We just have this fancy mirror held up to her because whatever she has is already inside.”
Stumpf-Popio’s positive outlook on life, the female body and photography began with her grandfather.
“My grandfather was the one who propelled me into vintage,” Stumpf-Popio said. “He was a commercial artist and in his studio he had some pinups. When I was a student at Kansas City Art Institute a lot of my drawing and painting was figurative and about the gaze on feminine bodies. This work brought me back to photography and thinking of how I could make a living doing this.”
Stumpf-Popio’s all-female team of about 10 hair and makeup artists “set the tone for the whole experience” of a shoot. Solo shoots last two to three hours, while parties last all day.
“For parties it’s so much more fun for everyone else to have their shoot first and the birthday girl or bachelorette last so they can all watch and cheer her on,” Stumpf-Popio said. “It’s this really positive camaraderie of beauty.”
When it comes to her shoots Stumpf-Popio has a formula she uses to elevate trust with her clients.
“We create a game plan of outfits and talk about what we like, just like ‘Say Yes to the Dress,’” Stumpf-Popio said. “I always make sure they feel completely confident in that look. You can see it on people’s faces right away. I do click-by-click post coaching to let them know we’re having this fun experience together. It’s as if we are on a rollercoaster together, just laughing and having a good time.”
For Stumpf-Popio, what vintage means for Vavoom Pinups in the future is expanding their all-female team to include men, trans and nonbinary people.
“It’s been an incredible almost ten years of doing this,” Stumpf-Popio said. “I’ve photographed women who have overcome illnesses and some who have died after I’ve photographed them. When I have these connections with my clients it’s incredible how over the years I have watched people grow and move away, come back, have babies, come in with their mom, and have these incredible experiences every time they come in. Even if we get a new set or get some more clothes, we’re still here.”
“If you have a plan and are willing to work hard, you can make anything a business, ”Ashley Harding said.
Ashley Harding is the founder of Vintage Refined, a locally sourced and handcrafted full-scale custom furniture store. She began pursuing her entrepreneurial dream full-time in 2015. Her passion for making spaces look better started when she was young, sketching floor plans in her notebook and rearranging bedroom furniture. Five years ago she had no clue how to rehab furniture but the trigger point was watching a show on HGTV.
“I was watching ‘Rehab Addict’ on HGTV and Nicole Curtis, the host, was re-doing a dresser to turn into a bathroom vanity,” Harding said as she soothed her newborn daughter. “I remember thinking, ‘I want to do that.’ I bought an old piece of furniture off of Craigslist and everything I learned was through YouTube videos, blogs and a lot of online research.”
Harding was worried that her dream might just be a “flavor of the week” rather than something she wanted to pursue long-term but after a year and half of watching “Rehab Addict” and customizing furniture, she solidified her decision.
“My husband was always very supportive from the beginning,” Harding said. “It took some time to make plans and wrap my head around the idea of leaving corporate America after nine years of finance and deciding to do something on my own.”
Originally, Harding did everything for Vintage Refined in her garage, but in April 2015 she started working with a team, comprised of one full-time employee and contracted workers, in a warehouse space full of people in various trades.
“Being around that incubator kind of environment where you pick up new tips, products and techniques through talking to people has been great,” Harding said. “Now I’ve been able to step away from the physical aspect of rehabbing furniture in order to focus more on client relationships, customers, setting up all the deliveries and updating inventory on my website. I try and be in the office several days a week to stay involved.”
Harding started off selling on Etsy and was terrified at first thinking, “Who’s going to buy a piece of furniture off of Etsy from someone who has zero sales and zero reviews?” Her first sale was a dresser to a customer in Maine. Harding said it was a “rough process from start to finish” because she lost sleep worrying. Harding said she ended up getting a five-star review and built a good reputation on Etsy.
Women ages 30 to 45 are Harding’s biggest buyers, the most popular items sold are dressers that can be used as changing tables.
“What I’ve noticed is different geographical locations like different styles,” Harding said. “People from the South like the French Provincial style and people from urban areas like a little more modern Mid-Century style.”
Harding cites her customers as her number one source of marketing.
“I’ve been in business long enough now that word of mouth has gotten out, and I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me because they’ve been referred by someone else,” Harding said. “I’ve had repeat customers, and this week I had someone buy a piece of furniture because their daughter had bought something before. That’s a good feeling because I can market myself, but having people out there on the street putting in a good word for me means a lot more.”
“If 14-year-old Margie could see how she dresses now, she’d be so proud, ”Marjorie Woolard said.
Marjorie Woolard wore her signature ’80’s forest green jacket with shoulder pads and a red beanie on a Sunday morning at The Radler in Logan Square. She is the manager of Same Day Cafe, a popular brunch spot a few doors down from The Radler, and the founder of Kitten Surprise Vintage.
The native South Sider was inspired to begin buying vintage clothes in high school by the 1997 film “Austin Powers.”
“When I was in high school, 12 years ago, it suddenly dawned on me that I could buy things even if they didn’t fit me but I loved them anyway and sell them,” Woolard said. “One of the first vintage pieces I ever bought was a colorful polyester ’70’s shirt in France. I thought it was cool because I love stretchy, tacky polyester. It’s easy to wear and looks good on everybody.”
She sold her first item, a colorful ’60’s Danish tablecloth, on Etsy in 2007.
“I love the idea of having an item in my life for just a short amount of time, but then finding it another home,” Woolard said. “I get very attached to items but it helps me not become a hoarder so I can keep the cycle going.”
She gravitates toward buying clothes from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s at thrift stores and estate sales based on print, color and how she feels when she’s holding it because “if [she’s] not excited about a piece it won’t sell.”
However, Woolard said she wishes people took more risks in the Chicago vintage scene.
“The Chicago vintage scene is eclectic but a little safe,” Woolard said. “I want people to explore a little bit more. I notice a lot of the things that are selling in person are very trendy 90’s items that everyone across the globe is wearing.”
When it comes to her personal style, Woolard said she blends “‘60s and ‘90s with a little ‘70s thrown in.” For her birthday in January she went to an old school tiki bar and dressed up in a ’70’s go-go dancer dress and high boots because she “wanted to fit in with the theme.” She loves when she can wear a vintage piece and be transported to another era.
“A vintage item can be 60 years old and still beautiful,” said Woolard. “Somebody made this, wore it and loved it.”
“The excitement of people selling vintage clothing is what keeps me shopping because it is about more than just the price tag or the labels, it is about passion for the clothing,” Lindsey Wehking said.
Lindsey Wehking, a recent DePaul University graduate who studied communications, has always had a fascination with fabrics.
“When I visited my first vintage clothing store in high school I was in ‘fabric heaven’ and soon became hooked on the quality of vintage clothing,” said Wehking. “I’m sure you have heard stories of your grandma wearing the same ‘size 2’ dress her whole life, that’s because the quality of the dress allowed her to.”
Wehking likes the affordability of vintage clothes, spending $60 to $70 on dresses and $80 to $100 on coats, but typically has one staple vintage piece surrounded by ‘trendy’ clothes.
“On most days I wear my ’50’s blue fur coat or my ’30’s beret from Budapest as accessories over my modern clothing.”
Wehking loves the ’50s and credits current fashion trends with the timeless style of Jackie O.
“The women and men of the ‘50s dressed so elegantly,” said Wehking. “From the shapely dresses to the checkered one-piece swimsuit with matching swim caps, to the adorable hats and oversized earrings. At Milan Fashion Week in February 2018, we saw a ’50s inspiration in Moschino collection. I believe Moschino gained inspiration, as I do, from the stunning Mrs. Jackie Kennedy. Her effortless, classic style has inspired many of my looks over the years.”
“I will never forget when I purchased a red coat from Belmont Army and the cashier was radiating with excitement because I was the first person to notice it on the racks,” said Wehking. “That’s what I love most about vintage, the store owners that are so knowledgeable about the history of the items and are so emotionally invested in taking care of the pieces.”
“Dressing in vintage clothing just to look vintage is not what it’s all about, you want to feel confident looking like yourself,” Elise Belluccia said.
Elise Belluccia is a recent DePaul University graduate who studied Theatre Management. Belluccia wore a uniform of khakis and button-ups in a private Tampa, Florida high school and did not start wearing vintage until college.
“It wasn’t until I came to Chicago and found other people who liked to dress uniquely that it encouraged me to as well,” Belluccia said. “I came to college and tried to find a different means of outfit self-expression and my vintage interest came at the same time. I love the androgynous ‘30s and ‘40s look and I simultaneously developed an interest in the aesthetic and historical fun while realizing the style really worked well with my bodily proportions.”
Belluccia often shopped for vintage clothing on school breaks when she was home in Florida, aiming to spend less than $30 per piece.
“I didn’t just wake up and say, ‘I’m going to wear vintage clothes.’ So at first it was trial and error,” Belluccia said. “A lot of the first pieces didn’t work out because I didn’t try them on first. I always make sure to now.”
Belluccia draws inspiration from musicals like “South Pacific” and “Hello, Dolly!” and loves to shop at Shangri-La Vintage and Vintage Garage Chicago. Her queer identity plays a key role in the looks she emulates from old Hollywood starlets such as Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth and androgynous icon Marlene Dietrich, who were all rumored to be a part of Hollywood’s “Sapphic Sewing Circle.”
“I gravitate between ‘40s and ‘80s looks because I love Madonna,” Belluccia explained. “The ‘80s have a lot of recycled fashion from the ‘40s, like big shoulder pads worked in both time periods.”
Her favorite outfits are high-waisted trousers with belts, blouses, oxford shoes and red lipstick.
“The last vintage piece that I bought were these fabulous ’50’s khakis,” Belluccia said. “They come very high and they flair out. I love that vintage clothes are so well-tailored and well-made, that’s something that you typically don’t get with the quality or construction of current clothes.”
“I feel an enormous amount of pride and responsibility to fill the void of plus-size clothing within the vintage community,” Britteny Riordan said.
Britteny Riordan is the founder of Luvsick Plus, a vintage clothing collection for plus-size women.
“I have always been plus-size so shopping at a mall really wasn’t an option for me, unless I wanted to shop at Lane Bryant, which at the time no 13-year-old girl would be caught dead in,” Riordan said. “I grew up going to thrift stores with my mom as a teenager, back then it was more of a necessity rather than a passion. I had to get creative with my style and thrifting allowed me to do that.”
Luvsick Plus started as an Entrepreneur 101 class project. Since Riordan already shopped vintage, she had friends model her clothes and within the first week she had ten sales. From then on she was hooked and has sold on Etsy for almost seven years.
“This is truly a one woman shop,” Riordan said. “I take my own photos, so if anyone saw me running back and forth from my camera in a vintage dress and heels before the timer goes off they would find it hilarious.”
Although the Luvsick Plus shop has many bold prints and colors, Riordan said 90 percent of her wardrobe is all-black.
“People always say red is a power color but I would suggest trying an all-black look and seeing how they feel,” Riordan said. “I recently bought a ’80’s leather motorcycle jacket that is completely covered in studs, each one was put in by hand.”
For Riordan, one of the biggest successes of running Luvsick Plus are the kind messages she gets from people thanking her for selling plus-size vintage.
“I feel incredibly honored to help people find something they love, especially knowing how heartbreaking it can be to go into a vintage store or to search online and not find a single thing in your size,” said Riordan.
She said the fashion industry has “come a long way in regards to its attitude and inclusivity of plus=size fashion, but it’s still an incredibly under serviced group, which you can see first hand in the vintage community.”
“There are only a handful of us who deal exclusively in plus-size vintage on Etsy amongst the thousands of vintage shops,” Riordan explained. “When I hear, ‘People were just smaller back then,’ or, ‘There’s no such thing as plus-size vintage,’ I want to scream. Fat people did not just magically appear. We are not all of a sudden trendy. We have been around and clothed for a very long time. The resources are out there and there are customers who are desperate for it.”
In the future Riordan wants a brick and mortar store to create a “welcoming space for people where they can have fun and express themselves.” She said she wants to be a staple in Chicago’s plus-size community.
Through talking with shop owners, designers, fashionistas and entrepreneurs in Chicago, the vintage scene is more than wearing an old designer jacket. It’s a lifestyle of innovation and renewal that, more often than not, one falls into by chance and stays by choice. Rather than a fad that fades with time, vintage is as much a part of one’s identity as hair color and cultural background.
The Chicago vintage scene is a dynamic community of friendship, artistry and innovation. These unforgettable women have created a culture where old pieces feel like new friends.
Header photo by Cody Corrall.