Sarah Kate Byrne, Irish vintage enthusiast and one third of new online platform Open for Vintage, is currently streamlining this unique market alongside business partners Colin Saunders and James Loftus. It is her ability to decipher an item of clothing’s era from ten metres away (yes she admits she is feeding an obsession) together with a frustration at the current online offering (products are either too high-end or the quantity is overwhelming) that spurred the Irish entrepreneurs on to create a contemporary and highly functional website offering beautifully made vintage. The motivation is also to offer small stand-alone boutiques an online presence without any of the monetary and maintenance stress that is usually involved, and to change people’s perception of vintage as a ‘fad.’ Open for Vintage currently holds over 35 boutiques with everything from last season Gucci, to rare Givenchy, Christian Dior and Nina Ricci pieces for under €179.
Below, Sarah Kate Byrne offers an insight into her all-consuming relationship with vintage clothing, why now is the perfect time to launch and how today's women will do anything to stand out from the crowd.
So vintage is covetable once again? Why, in your opinion, are we so fascinated with the past?
Sarah Kate Byrne: It comes and goes in waves. I think the idea of vintage as fashion is waning. Now the general consensus is that people don’t want to look like everyone else. They want to buy something cool and different, or they want a vintage wedding dress. It’s a desire to stand out from the crowd. It’s also aspirational; you might want a Gucci bag from two seasons ago that you couldn’t afford, now you can get it in almost mint condition at a fraction of the price. It seemed a bit of a fad for a long time but I think people are realising that it’s not, that it’s quality. Also, a lot of shop owners and buyers took advantage of saying something is vintage when it wasn’t even particularly well made – people got put off by that.
When did your vintage obsession begin?
Sarah Kate Byrne: My father is a conservation architect and as a result we were surrounded by old things; we never had anything new. If we got new crockery, it was always someone else’s. He would always find things in antique stores, he gave me a sixties dress of my mother’s and some amazing Bird of Paradise feathers – that’s where the passion came from.
Also moving to London in my twenties on a pithy salary meant that I started going to charity shops. Ten years ago in London, charity shops had a lot of vintage in them – I would go in to buy something because I didn’t have money to shop on the high street and invariably I was finding these really beautiful, well-made clothes, accessories, and bags. Most importantly, they suited me, unlike the high street. I didn’t dress in an especially vintage way but I’ll always wear something second hand or vintage.
Would you describe yourself as a vintage expert?
Sarah Kate Byrne: I’m a very passionate enthusiast rather than an expert. I know quality and I know what I’m looking for but I am by no means a valuer. But that’s the beauty of it – we rely on the boutiques, which we handpick because of their expertise and knowledge.
It’s about trying to convince people that spending £400 on a vintage dress that nobody else will have is more worthwhile than going into Ted Baker and spending £300 on a dress that everyone will have. I’ve gone to weddings and seen friends have their picture taken with a girl wearing the same dress. It’s not funny when you’ve spent that sort of money. I hate wearing the same thing as anyone else. I will always wear vintage or second hand before I’ll wear new.
How would you advise a customer who hadn't worn vintage before? Do you recommend mixing and matching with modern staples?
Sarah Kate Byrne: If you think about our whole website and presentation, we’re not saying buy into the vintage lifestyle; the hair, the makeup, the era – that’s not what we’re about. I love forties suits and will wear one to the races with a modern hat and shoes. It’s all about making it modern, and going with what suits you. If someone rang and asked for advice on how to approach the website, I would always say, “Do you look better in an A-line shift dress or do you need structured tailoring?” If you need tailoring, then you’re looking at fifties dresses with the waist or even earlier. If you like A-line sixties shift dresses, there are certain styles that are almost dateless. You’ve got to stick with what you’re comfortable with. If you’re dipping your toes in the water, go for easy things like a blouse or something wearable like a skirt. Everyone’s got their own style but some people need a helping hand. I don’t get it right all the time, I know that. You go with your gut and pick things you think will suit you and that way, you’ll build up more confidence. It’s about browsing our website and being inspired.
Which is your favourite era to wear in terms of fashion?
Sarah Kate Byrne: I love the old stuff, twenties and thirties dresses, really beautiful deco dresses and gowns. If I'm going racing or need something smart winter-wise, it’s always the forties and fifties suits – anything with a very classical shape, that Dior New Look. I love big full skirts nipped at the waist.
If I’m going to a wedding (I’ve had non-stop weddings), I’ll always wear something vintage, either a silk skirt or a little fifties dress. I’ll never turn out in something I bought in a high street shop.
Instagram is currently filled with nostalgic images from the past. How important is social media when starting a business like Open for Vintage and how effective can it be?
Sarah Kate Byrne: We’ve been told from every single angle that social media is key but I think you’ve got to be careful. Between the three of us, we bring a lot of strengths to the table but none of them include social media marketing. It’s a learning curve. I like the idea of making Instagram an art gallery of beautiful things but it’s quite tricky to convince people that they are also for sale. There’s also only one of everything – if it doesn’t fit people, they immediately lose interest. A high street brand would have much more success on social media or a blogger who does “Get the Look” by tagging different suppliers. Simply stating where shoes are from allows 100 girls to go off and purchase them online, whereas with us, you’ve got to be motivated.
We don’t want to be sales-y, it’s not about the sale. We’re a marketplace and a business but we’re not Asos, whose mentality is “Come online and buy 20 things from us and get free delivery. Try them on and send back the 19 you knew you wouldn’t like in the first place.” It’s destroying online shopping. I’ve read so many articles about really big companies that are suffering – they’re margins are so tight because there’s no thought process involved. It’s creating havoc. It’s that mentality of, “Oh, it’ll be here with me tomorrow and I probably won’t like it, but I can send it back for free.” It’s an addiction. For us, it’s about getting people to come to us naturally, and for them to enjoy the shopping experience for what it is.
How have people’s attitudes changed towards vintage in the past few years?
Sarah Kate Byrne: Celebrities are now taking a step back and trying to up the ante and stand out from the crowd. It was amazing to see Irish singer Una Healy choose a dress of ours to wear to the Goodwood Revival (a vintage festival based in the UK) – that was incredible, she’s an aspirational celebrity for a very young 18 year old. Historically, she probably wouldn’t have gone for something so demure but she looked exquisite. That was all very positive.
How do you feel about brands and do you have a favourite?
Sarah Kate Byrne: I don’t really buy into brands but I get excited if I find something that happens to be a brand. I bought three things last week in Galway; one was a beautiful eighties Saint John dress from Love Vintage in Clifton. I didn’t know anything about the label, though I was later told the brand is becoming quite collectable. I also bought a little silk velvet ladies smoking jacket in a shop in Roundstone– the label is clearly 1950s from a boutique address in Capri and very high quality. It has a beautiful hand stitched label. Lastly, I found a raw felt hat with a white fox fur trim in the same shop – I took it down, turned it over and inside was a a vintage Yves Saint Laurent label. Even if all three of those pieces hadn’t had any label, I wouldn’t care – they are all really beautiful on their own no matter where they came from. It’s quality and a love of workmanship.
How do you feel about fast fashion and the high street?
Sarah Kate Byrne: I only have to glimpse at pieces in a charity shop and I can tell the ones that are at least twenty years old. Sadly fast fashion is fast fashion. If I feel the need to spruce up my wardrobe, I'll got to Zara or Penney’s for staples but they don't last and won't be around in twenty years time. You buy something in H&M and it will be great and very cheap but you’ll wear it once and that’s it. The tailoring and style is fantastic but the quality and fabric is not good. If I could afford to have the high street styles made for me in high quality silks or expensive fabrics, I would.
Did you inherit any vintage heirlooms from your family members?
Sarah Kate Byrne: My mother kept a lot of things but not as much as she could have. I’ve got quite a few bits and bobs of hers but sadly none of my Granny’s (they were mostly destroyed by moths). My landlady in London actually turned up recently with an armful of her mother’s clothes – all these vintage dresses that fit me like they were made for me; a dress coat, a little polka dot frock from the fifties, a beautiful silk dress which is more seventies, everything really. I’m very lucky, people do give me things when they hear about Open for Vintage. Where do you draw the line? It’s feeding an obsession!
What is your go-to outfit for wedding season?
Sarah Kate Byrne: For me, it’s always good to wear something different. I’m going to a wedding this week and I’m wearing a vintage dress. I’ll usually wear a really good vintage skirt in full black silk taffeta and pair it with a shirt for a more demure wedding or wear it with a crochet lace top. I’ve gone in an eighties skirt and dressed it up and down. Vintage separates are great for weddings.
Vintage hats are also amazing, I’ve no qualms about wearing the same hat to a wedding. I have a little straw disc hat, very New Look and I wear that with everything. I’ll have women in their twenties and eighties alike coming up to me at weddings and saying, “Oh you look so glamorous, you’re the best dressed here.” And I’m thinking “Oh, well I’ve worn this hat two weekends in a row.” It’s the same compliment. If you find something that suits you, then you dress it up with everything else. I’ll wear Vintage over high street every day of the week.
What are your hopes for the future of Open for Vintage?
Sarah Kate Byrne: We came into this with an idea to improve the shortcomings involved with vintage marketplaces. Really and truly, it’s quality workmanship and one of a kind pieces and trying to get it out to an audience and make it exciting. A lot of of people are setting up their own clothing lines because they are sick of buying high street, and that’s great but as those companies grow, they end up doing exactly what they said they wouldn’t do. They end up mass producing and following the trends because that’s how you make money. For us, it's hopefully staying true to our beliefs, getting it out there and changing the mentality of people as well.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Christina Higgins
OUTFIT: Yellow high-waisted trousers, Marni @ Tk Maxx, Pink striped pussy-bow blouse, Vintage, cream metallic top, Vintage, John Lennon glasses, Vintage, gold metallic sandals, Topshop, Pink python clutch bag, Emma Manley