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Vintage Buying Tips from Sierra Fromberg of Grey Era

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Buying vintage gifts seems like a good idea for the holidays, but vintage can be tough when you're not shopping for yourself. For shopping tips, we rounded up three people who are in the business of hunting down pre-owned pieces and selling them to the public at large. Earlier this week, we talked to Erica Weiner about jewelry. A little later, we'll get advice from Justin Dorset of Dorset Finds about shopping for antique furniture. But first, let's hear from Sierra Fromberg, owner of East Village vintage shop Grey Era.

If you haven't been to Grey Era since it opened earlier this fall, it's definitely worth a trip. The cozy E.9th Street space is lined with oversized sweaters ($100-$125) on one side and classic '90s pieces like floral maxi-skirts ($110) on the other. Fromberg buys with an eye towards style, not label, so most pieces are nameless, although recognizable tags range from Umbro to Gucci. She also carries wool socks and soy-based candles, and she's got $20 bins stocked with everything from silk shirts to Baja hoodies.

It's so hard to pick out vintage for other people. But as a store owner, that's basically what you do every day.

Well, it's so hard to buy clothing for other people in general. I have a lot of guys who come in here and are looking for presents for their girlfriends, and I don't have jewelry, which is usually what they'd go for. So they come in and say, "I want to buy her a dress," or "I want to buy her a skirt." And that's tough! You really need someone's assistance—someone who knows vintage and knows other women's bodies.

You started out as a stylist, right?

I did. In high school, in the summer, all my friends went to camp, and I was like, "I want to stay in the city. I want to work." So I did these four back-to-back summer internships at Elle. It was just me. No other interns.

How old were you?

I was like 14, 15, 16, 17. They didn't even have interns. It was literally just me. So one summer I would be in the accessories department, one summer I was helping the market editor. Then they offered me a job right out of college, and I wanted to take it, but my dad was like "There's no way you're not going to college. And you have to leave the city." So I went to college, but I took almost a full year off to do an internship with [stylist to the stars] Lori Goldstein.

When I graduated college, I applied to every single magazine, but it was at a time when magazines really weren't hiring. So I applied to all these PR companies and took the first job I got offered. I left to do freelance styling and assisting, but I'd always wanted to open up a store. I was in Mexico last year for my 30th birthday and I remember saying to my boyfriend, "If I don't do this now, I'm never going to do it." And then that was it. I said I was going to do it, and I did it.

Where do you find the clothing?

Well, that's tough. I mean, I am really very inspired by the early '90s. That's where my fashion coming-of-age took place. The girls who were seniors when I was in 7th grade were all wearing Levi's and those amazing worn-in boots and giant fisherman sweaters. So when I opened the store I really wanted it to have that sort of Seattle/Portland grunge-type feeling to it, but in a more sort of wearable, our-generation type of way. So I did a big buying trip in Portland and a big buying trip in Seattle because I figured I should go to the motherland and shop.

I never shop in the city. I'll go to upstate New York, Connecticut, there's a couple warehouses in New Jersey that I go to. But it's just me, so I can't leave the store for too long. I'll take a day, and do as much buying as I can in a day.

What percentage of the job is buying versus running the shop?

I would say buying for me, at this point, without having real help here, is probably between 30% and 40% of the job. I like to have new stuff in the store, but it's unrealistic to say that I'm going shopping every week. I try to go once a month. You have to rent the car, you have to get up there, and then you have to add in a few days because everything gets dry cleaned. And that doesn't happen overnight. So it's a process.

I'll be honest, a lot of people go buying and put stuff out in the store the same day. And I'm very uncomfortable with that. You walk in here and it smells nice, the clothing smells fresh and clean, and that's how it should be.

What do you look for on a buying trip? What makes an item jump out at you?

Anything that I would have pictured myself wearing back in high school. I love really great distressed flannels. I actually look for pieces with really great holes, or paint on them—you know, they're wearable, but they've been loved. For jeans, I look for orange tab Levi's, which are more high-waisted. I don't get those super-distressed. I want those worn-in, but not holey.

For sweaters I look for things that have a cool print or design. I try to buy hand-knit Irish wool sweaters. They look different, and you can really tell. And with silk tops, which I sort of stockpile, I like to have a rainbow of colors. Everyone has black and white and beige in their wardrobe, but I have a lot of customers who come in and want yellow, or red, or jewel tones. For those, they have to be in perfect condition. They have to look like they've never been worn before.

Sierra's four tips for vintage shopping:

1) Don't be discouraged by the sizing. A size two or four from twenty years ago is not the same thing as a size two or four today. You can't pay attention to the sizes. The best thing to do is try everything on, though of course you can't do that if you're shopping for someone else.

2) If something doesn't look (or smell) like it's been dry cleaned, have it taken care of before you wrap it up. Though Grey Era dry cleans all of their pieces, not everyone does, and it's just not worth the risk to your friend's skin and health, not to mention her closet.

3) Make sure you really give pieces a solid inspection. Sounds like a no-brainer, but if your friend gets home and discovers a hole in that gorgeous dress you got her, she'll be the one who has to absorb the cost of repairing it (if it can even be repaired).

4) Get to know the owner of your favorite haunts. The more an owner knows about their customers and their style, the more they can be on the lookout for special vintage pieces for the next time you come in.

· Jeweler Erica Weiner on Buying Vintage for the Holidays [Racked NY]
· Grey Era [Official Site]

Grey Era

435 East 9th Street New York NY