Dealers find new market by recycling vintage designs

ALEXANDRIA, Minn. – A recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune told of a situation that’s become all too familiar in recent years: the closing of a long-established antique mall due to declining sales.

Owner Marianne Kelly closed Mill Antiques in Stillwater, Minn., after almost two decades in business. The usual suspects were cited: Cheap imitations, the flight to the Internet, a disinterested younger generation.

Philip Davies, of TIAS.com, was quoted as saying such changes have “devastated the industry. It’s amazing to me that an entire brick-and mortar-industry is actually dying on the vine.”

But if the Star Tribune reporter had looked closer (in fact, just a few blocks away), he would have found another story – one of success – thanks to an emerging market that a saavy few have been able to tap into by adapting to the winds of change.

Bruce and Linda Tomlinson of Alexandria, Minn., are respected, longtime dealers in country antiques and folk art. Now, in addition to selling to collectors and dealers, they provide “inspiration” to clothing designers.

The couple have always included vintage clothing and fabrics in their displays at Midtown Antique Mall in Stillwater, and at shows including Brimfield and the Bedford (N.H.) Pickers market. But it was their growing following at the Vintage Fashion and Textile Show, held three times a year in Sturbridge, Mass., that led them to a whole new clientele in the fashion industry.

They now focus on vintage clothing – mostly for men – from the 1800s to 1960s, which are in turn transformed into new clothing designs.

“You bring the same eye to vintage clothing as you do to antiques,” said Linda in an interview with Antique Trader. “You look for a certain artistry, quality, color and texture.”

A design firm will call the Tomlinsons with a concept, seeking inspiration for their seasonal lines, and the couple will ship off boxes of clothing that are either bought outright or used on approval.

“Let’s say they want a holiday look that might include sleek, silk designs from the 1930s and ‘40s,” said Linda. “Or they might want a tweed look for fall. They use a lot of movie references, anything from Audrey Hepburn to Apocalypse Now. Or they may say they need something younger and edgier, or with a runway influence.”

Right now, popular sources of inspiration include clothing and uniforms with vintage lettering and a sportier look, Linda said. Some designers may simply be seeking a certain pocket or collar treatment, or designs in beads and lace. Children’s clothing designs can be expanded for adults. The Tomlinsons’ merchandise is about 65 percent men’s, 30 percent women’s and about 5 percent children’s.

But as with any segment of the antiques market, it’s all about restocking. The Tomlinsons have a storage unit bulging with clothing with designs that may emerge at next year’s New York shows.

“At the Sturbridge show, we just started clicking with customers,” said Linda, “and we’ve kept on clicking, thankfully.”

The Tomlinsons may be reached at 320-762-1341.

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