The word "vintage" often conjures up the smell of mothballs. In a world of fast fashion—cute and affordable, but cheaply made and produced en masse by anonymous, underpaid workers, like fast food—vintage fashion is usually equated with kitsch and nostalgia.
London-based vintage enthusiast Gill Linton set out to change this stuffy, retro reputation by founding Byronesque—the first combined editorial and e-commerce website dedicated to designer vintage fashion that's at least 20 years old. Essentially, with Byronesque, Linton is trying to rebrand "vintage"—to modernize an industry too often associated with rummaging through dead people’s old rags. "It's easy for people to look like they've stepped out of an Austin Powers movie or Mad Men, which is fine if you like that sort of thing, but I find the nostalgia of vintage really ugly," Linton tells Co.Design. As an alternative, Byronesque aims to give the kind of thoughtful, high-gloss treatment to vintage fashion that contemporary magazines like Vogue give to new designers.
The vintage fashion industry is large and growing—according to NARTS, the Association of Retail Professionals, there's been a 7% increase in the number of second-hand stores in the past two years. In the U.S., the combined annual revenue of used merchandise stores is about $13 billion, according to FirstResearch. The Internet has opened up new international markets for sellers and buyers, and eco-conscious circles within the fashion world are spreading awareness of the importance of buying used or recycled clothing.
"Inspiration for the site came from a personal frustration about the banality of fashion, the rise of fast fashion, and how ‘vintage’ has become an abused marketing buzzword," Linton says. "Fashion has become so driven by ‘corporate profit first’ that it’s hard to be really inspired anymore."
Half of Byronesque is the shop, with a collection meticulously selected from retailers around the world. Highlights include a signed Vivienne Westwood leopard print coat, a flammable-looking Yves Saint Laurent leather trench coat, and Victorian dresses. "The vintage items we sell have their own special history, and the scars that tell their unique stories have inspired and outlived landfills of imitations," Linton writes in the website’s impassioned, defiant manifesto.
Byronesque’s other half is the irreverent online magazine devoted to encouraging new designers to go against the trendy grain. "It’s my hope that we will provide directional designers with the inspiration and tools to be the next fashion troublemakers, because without a new generation of designers like Westwood, Galliano, McQueen, the fast guys will win," Linton says. Editorial features include "Occupy Mall Street," chronicling Vivienne Westwood’s 2013 "Climate Revolution" show, in which she protested "ecocide"; "The Paint House," a film about skinhead fashion; and a profile of Boy George, "The Original Androgyne Who Made It Okay For Boys To Look Like Girls."
Byronesque launched just over a year ago and has been experimenting with its marketing since. In December 2013, Byronesque marked its one-year anniversary with a multimedia exhibition, Byronesque.com//OFFLINE, which they described as a "fashion retrospective you can buy." An army of mannequins lined the corridors of the abandoned James A. Farley Post Office near NYC’s Garment District, clad in rare pieces by the likes of Comme Des Garcons, Jean Paul Gaultier, Maison Martin Margiela, Issey Miyake, and Vivienne Westwood. The exhibit also featured video editorial content from the site and a pop-up boutique, which Racked.com named one of the 10 best pop-ups of 2013. In the year since the site launched, Byronesque has taken on double the number of retailers initially forecasted.
When founding Byronesque, Linton and her creative director, Justin Westover, partnered with Sylvain Labs, a company that espouses a concept they call "Optimus Time." They define that as a window of time in which things are aligned for the ideal introduction of a new behavior, product, or idea. "Like us, they believed that the time is right for a new kind of vintage fashion culture," Linton says. "What was once an obscure, niche sub-culture has the potential to become a more mainstream concept, even greater than just a fashion reference."