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The Allure of Vintage, According to Maeven's Amy Yee

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Photos by Driely S.

For Amy Yee, it wasn't a big jump to move from art to fashion. The Chicago native, who majored in art history, painting, and photography at Fordham University, was immersed in running a Chelsea gallery when she decided to make her side business of selling vintage online into her full-time gig, complete with her own site called Maeven. "It wasn't that I disliked it—it just wasn't for me," Yee said of gallery life. "And vintage was the one thing I was still most excited about."

"I do feel like what I do now is still related to what I set out to do—to be a painter," she continued. "I'm looking at these pieces as little sculptures. I'm attracted to the bright colors, the textures, the prints, the materials ... there's a true curatorial aspect" to buying vintage.

Read on after the jump to see why she set up a studio in a former No. 2 pencil factory, where the name Maeven came from, and how she's expanding her business into the Brooklyn Flea and beyond.

When did you first get into vintage clothing?

I've really been buying vintage since high school. I would hit thrift stores on the way home from school. It's something that I just never let go of because I just really like shopping this way—it's so much fun.

So how did it grow from a hobby to a business?

I started with eBay in 1999 or 2000. I was selling things online on the side, just for kicks. And then Etsy really took off. Etsy is what really let me quit my day job and pursue this full time.

Why did you decide to pursue an online shop in addition to those sites?

I'm still on those marketplaces, and I think you have to be where your customers are. People shop that way and they love it, so I'm there and I don't have any plans to leave those places. But I did feel like if I wanted to pursue this, I really needed to establish a brand, and show my personality. There was so much more that could be part of the e-commerce experience.

Where did the name Maeven come from?

It was really tough to pick a name for the business. I came across the word "Maeven" and liked the way it sounded. I'm Irish and Chinese, and Maeven is a Gaelic name that also has part of my Chinese name in there—Ai Mei, which sounds like the "Mae" in there.

And how has establishing the Maeven site furthered your brand?

There were things I couldn't do on the marketplace—different marketplaces have different rules about what you can and cannot sell. The way that you build a site, the way you add content, the product mix and ways of displaying images, you can give much more detail. I spent a great deal of time on it. I hired a great designer to do the branding. I really wanted to make it professional, and I spent a year studying business concepts and coming up with a business plan.

And is that when you acquired your studio?

I'm going on my third year here. I started working out of my apartment and I outgrew it. One day, my husband said, "We are living in a closet." We had racks all around the bed. What's in here now is only about half of the racks I have. The rest are at the Brooklyn Flea. I also have a storage space, so I've really been growing my collection.

Where do you find your merchandise?

I don't like to disclose my sources, but it's a complete patchwork. I'm shopping in all different places. One interesting part of my business that I've discovered is that I'm buying directly from my customers. When they're doing a closet clean-out they'll call me, or they'll send me pictures of items. They even come from people in different parts of the country that I haven't met—they think we have a similar aesthetic. I've also met some designers and collectors who are liquidating what they have, and I'll go through and pick things.

I think that's one of the most exciting parts of doing business. You get worried when you first start planning and think, "Where am I going to source?" Without inventory, you don't have a business. It's one of the biggest challenges. So in part, it's fortunate that it's happened this way.

Would you say you carry more merchandise for everyday wear or special occasions?

I carry a range of things. I have party dresses, but I think the biggest thing that people are looking for are wearable pieces. That's important to me when I'm shopping, thinking whether or not it mixes into somebody's modern wardrobe. Is it too costume-y or too stiff? Or is it something that blends in?

Do you make business trips for buying?

If I'm traveling, I'm shopping. I bought a car just for that purpose. It's better than being the bag lady, schlepping all over the city with huge Ikea bags.

How much work do you put into restoring or repairing the pieces you acquire?

For most things, I am making little repairs or cleaning stains. But if something is in need of a lot of repair, that's when I might abandon it, if I think it's going to take me too much time. It's important for my customers to get value from what they're buying from me. I don't know if people realize that there's so much repair behind all the pieces.

I have bins of alterations here—things that I'm still contemplating, "Do I fix this or scrap it?" Depends on if I have free time.

Where did you get the skills to repair these pieces?

I think you just learn as you go. I have a stack of sewing books over there, which, admittedly, I've never even opened.

What's the most difficult part about these repairs?

Figuring out how you're going to do it, or matching some of the colors. With a neon piece from the 50s, I can't just walk to the corner notion store and pick up a throw that's going to match. Something I obsess over is getting the colors right and restoring it to how I think it should look.

Do you do any sort of style updates to these pieces?

Not intentionally. I think some things really should be left as they are, and some people are sticklers for that. But if I come across a really gorgeous piece that has a rip on the bottom, I will most certainly take it out, make it wearable, and keep it alive. I'll do some things to make them more modern, like take some of those really big 80s sleeves off dresses or coats.

What's really exciting about vintage is that it's all repeated today. I look through trend reports because I want to find pieces that are relevant to what people are seeing on the runway now. I think there's added value there.

Who are your core customers?

It's obviously women—she's urban, and she can be in her 20s or she can be in her 60s. I definitely have a lot of local customers. I'm shipping to people that live right down the block. It's exciting for me to go out and get a coffee in the morning, and see somebody wearing a piece that they bought from me. It's happened several times, and I get chills.

Beyond the US, I have a lot of customers from Japan. Australians love vintage, as well as the UK and Canada.

I feel like my customer is coming to me for an approach and an aesthetic, and it doesn't matter what age they are—they're just attracted to something unique.

And what is the price point for those unique pieces?

I try to keep it at a nice range. I do have pieces that are easy and affordable. I would say most of what I do is in the $100 to $200 range, and then I have things that are $2,000 that people are buying.

But rather than shopping by price, I think customers are really looking for value. I recently priced a custom red fur coat at $2,000. Something like that today, if it's new, could be $40,000. Or I have cashmere sweaters that are in the $100 range, whereas you can get a new one anywhere from $500 to $1,000.

What are your favorite pieces right now?

I love sweaters, knits, coats, and outerwear. I'm really loving mohairs right now. This mohair jacket would look so great with a skinny little belt (see the photo in the gallery, above)

And this dress is hand-painted. I found it at a flea market. I think it's great that it's from the 50s and the color is so vibrant.

Do you pay attention to where the pieces you find are made?

Yes and no. I'm really looking for prints and running my hands through racks. But when we sit down and write the descriptions, you're playing detective to uncover where something is from and how old it is. But I wouldn't say I got out shopping looking at a label.

There are certainly a lot of things that are made in the USA. But there are also things from other countries—I get really excited when a label says "Made in France" or "Made in Italy."

You've slowly been transitioning to in-person sales with the Brooklyn Flea.

I'm loving meeting people in person and seeing what customers are drawn to. I'm getting to see what they're picking up and having conversations with them.

Do you think this will eventually expand to a brick and mortar store?

I'm definitely considering it. I think there's a barrier to buying this kind of product online. Something happens in person—people get excited about touching the fabrics, trying them on, and it doesn't happen that way online. So I'm looking at spaces now.

Where have you been looking?

My gut says to stay in Brooklyn, because that's what I know. I would love to stay in these neighborhoods that I'm both living and working in—Williamsburg or Greenpoint—but I don't know if that's right.

I really am just exploring now, and getting really excited. This is partly why I started at the Brooklyn Flea—just to see what I would learn from that, who my customer really is, and what they are willing to spend. Once this winter market ends, hopefully I'll have a better picture.

In the meantime, can people come by the studio to check out your offerings?

Yes, by appointment. I hadn't set out for this space to be a showroom, but it's happened. I get emails all the time where people say, "I like these ten things, can I come try them on?" I welcome that. It's been a really nice experience, both with the flea market and meeting people here. I'm really enjoying the retail and customer experience.

Okay, time for the lightning round: 8 a.m. or 8 p.m.?
8 p.m.

Beer or wine?

Whiskey or tequila?

Beach or mountains?

Cats or dogs?

Favorite vacation destination?
It's been so long since I've been on vacation, but I love Mexico.

Favorite neighborhood lunchtime spot?

Favorite bars?
Donna, which is near my house [in Williamsburg], just had a fire, but that was my favorite for a bit. Over here [in Greenpoint], Achilles' Heel is new-ish, and that's nice.

Rap or country?

Scandal or Homeland?
· Maeven [Official Site]
· All Better Know a Store Owner Posts [Racked NY]