Today’s interview is with Catie Nienaber – a vintage store owner, blogger, and fashion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. I first found Catie when searching for vintage fashions and advice online, and happened to come across her blog. I was instantly struck by how effortlessly she mixed selected modern items with wonderful vintage pieces. I am thrilled to have her on the blog today (and to be able to ask her all my questions about vintage!). Enjoy meeting the lovely Catie.
Who are you?
My name is Catie Nienaber, I own an online vintage shop called Dronning Vintage and also write fashion stories for the San Francisco Chronicle and it’s accompanying style blog, SFUnzipped. I’ve been blogging for myself for almost seven years, much of it centered around fashion and the occasional personal essay. I originally started my blog (Cuffington) while I was a Creative Writing MFA candidate as an exercise to encourage myself to write every day.
Where do you live?
I live in San Francisco.
You clearly have a passion for vintage, and operate and own your own shop. Can you share more behind this passion and interest?
Sure! I first became interested in vintage because it seemed to be a way to achieve a certain look for less – many designers are often inspired by designs of decades past, and instead of shelling out $1000 for an Oscar de la Renta beaded cardigan (like I had $1,000 to drop on a sweater anyway!) you could find a perfectly amazing vintage one for less than $50.
Also, in college, spending a lot of time in the theater department really educated my eye, in terms of how vintage fashion can communicate a specific time and place. One time a production of ours was reamed because the costuming and hairstyles were (in the words of the critic) very inauthentic (the play was supposed to take place in the late 1970s). And it got me thinking, hmmm, how could someone know that? What are the ‘tells’? In the 20th century, so much of fashion changed because of political and social changes and it intertwines so much. Why did cork wedges become so popular in the 40s? Because leather was rationed, but cork wasn’t. That kind of stuff just fascinates me to no end.
I am admittedly a very poor vintage shopper. I never seem to find anything that I like! Can you share some tips for a vintage shopping noob – how to look for great items, where to go, pricing tips?
If you’re not sure how to begin, I think it’s good to study up a bit on the varying silhouettes that have come in and out of fashion over the years. When people say “vintage clothing” they’re really talking about many decades’ worth of gradual change. Compare the basic silhouettes and styles of the 1930s vs the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and think about what excites you about them. Maybe you’re really drawn to one era because it flatters your shape or accentuates all your positives, or maybe you love how things were cut or the kind of prints or materials that were commonly used. Keep that in your back pocket when you go out.
I’d recommend going to a local vintage store first – don’t put pressure on yourself to go thrifting and expect to find something amazing and in pristine condition right off the bat – a vintage shop owner has already done the leg work for you. As far as pricing, approach it as you would regular clothing – think about cost per wear, etc. Be sure you know how to properly clean it. Most vintage you can’t just throw stuff in the washer and dryer. One tip I always tell folks new to vintage is when trying on dresses, don’t step into them to put them on. Undo the zippers first, then throw it over your head – that’s the safest way to climb in and out of them.
You have a wonderful sense of style, mixing both modern and vintage looks. Can you share some of your favorite items in your closet – both modern and vintage?
Thank you! My closet is actually on the small side (at least, I think it is) and I’ve adhered to the ‘one in, one out’ rule for many years. Absolute all time favorites? Let’s see…the first things I think of are my pale pink cat print Miu Miu blouse from Spring 2010, a rose-print ’40s rayon day dress, an Alexander McQueen dress from his Plato’s Atlantis collection, and all my ’30s and ’40s tilt hats.
You have written in the past that while you have an appreciation for the traditional glossy fashion mags, you are also frustrated with certain aspects – socialite profiles, etc. Can you share more behind this thinking? What are some of your favorite smaller magazines and publications that you go to for inspiration?
I remember writing about that, I was on a bit of a tear that day! The publishing world has changed enormously in the past ten years, which was when I first started taking note of fashion magazines, and we live in a very different world now. What sold a magazine then doesn’t necessarily sell it now, and much of this is because of the changing taste of what the public demands and how people consume media. All that said, as far as smaller-press fashion magazines go, I have been a big fan of Lula for many years. For a more cerebral experience, try Worn.
How do you decide when a particular item of clothing/accessory is worth a splurge? Do you look for quality, uniqueness, etc? Any favorite brands?
This is kind of a funny analogy, but it always works for me. Several years ago a friend of mine was wig shopping – powdered wigs for a Martha Washington costume. She also is just sort of a wig collector, but always on a budget. She came across an amazing wig worthy of her Martha Washington ensemble, and tried it on. She had a think on it, and decided – and I’m quoting her – “it just didn’t feel like $60 worth of hair.” So back on the shelf it went. If I really love something but it’s expensive, I ask myself several questions that are all variations of “Does this feel like $_____ worth of _____?”
How often will I wear it (the good old cost per wear analysis), is it something classic that will transcend trendiness, or will I love it so much that I will still wear it after it’s not super trendy anymore? Does my budget allow for it? If the answers are yes, I often indulge.
What’s a piece of advice about style and building the perfect wardrobe for yourself that you learned the hard way perhaps, over the years?
Sometimes, my sourcing excursions take me to thrift stores, and especially in the past five years or so, I have begun to see just so much discarded fast fashion. So many pilled, cheaply made clothes that are as disposable as a paper napkin. Over the years I have decided that it is far better to just have a few nice things of great quality rather than a huge closet primarily full of junk that you have no plans on hanging on to in the long term. This is why with vintage you often get the best of both worlds: well-constructed garments, built to last, made of quality material. Do you want a quality cashmere sweater but are on a budget? Buy one from the ’50s, it will run you less than $100, and the quality of the cashmere will surpass most that you’d see today (today, cashmere of comparable quality costs several hundred dollars). I’ve said this for years, the smartest girl in the room buys vintage cashmere.
How about a piece of general life advice?
To thine own self be true.
What are some of your other passions and hobbies?
Books, art and film history, karaoke, feminist causes, San Francisco Giants baseball.
Finally – please share something surprising about yourself!
When I was much younger, I used to figure skate competitively! I loved moving dramatically to music out on the ice, and it was such a thrill to successfully execute a routine.
Learning about vintage from an expert like Catie was fascinating and refreshing for me. I loved hearing more about the history of her love for vintage, and I’m quite certain that her anecdote about Martha Washington’s wig will stay with me forever! I’ll be asking going forward…”is this worth $X of X fabric?” It’s genius! Thank you again to the wonderful Catie for being here with us today, and for her more her – please visit her blog, here.
PS: I’m going to still try to be publishing these interviews once a week – but now they may be on varying days, as my schedule has been tougher. Thanks for all the sweet notes yesterday!