Karen Elson's Guide To Buying Vintage

Click through for Karen Elson's can't-miss tips on finding perfect past-decade pieces, to learn who taught her how to shop for vintage and to find out why you should never rule out a secondhand treasure that's in need of a little repair.

Courtesy of Vintage Vanguard

Elson walks the runway at Anna Sui's Spring 2014 show.

Lucky: What—or who—got you into vintage in the first place?

Karen Elson: Anna Sui was one of the formative people who got me into vintage. I used to go to the Sunday flea market here in New York with her, and we'd bump into Marc Jacobs! Anna taught me how to look for vintage, how to find vintage deals—and also about the art of vintage. I owe a lot to Anna, I really do.

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Three still-available looks from the Vintage Vanguard collection.

What's your favorite secondhand find of all time?

Oh my god, it's hard to choose. A lot of them are here tonight! That was pretty bittersweet, to be honest with you—handing over those pieces. At certain points it'd be like, "Oh, I still want those!"—but it's for such a great cause. And to see these incredible designers rework your vintage and make it miles better than it ever was, that's pretty special. I can't stress how supportive our designers have been—I mean, they're so busy, but they really took it to task and made time for this in between their collections. And I mean, it's not like they're getting anything for it! But truly, it's not about what you're getting, it's about what you're giving. I feel like that's the message of what we're doing with Vintage Vanguard. We have to remind people that in fashion, it's not just about us looking beautiful in these dresses. Dress for Success is such a wonderful organization because it really gets where that power's coming from. Giving a woman an outfit to wear to a job interview, to go and empower herself—it's our responsibility as women in fashion to do that.


Where are some of your favorite places to hunt for vintage finds?

It can be pretty hard these days, I have to say! Thank god the guys at Decades are so fantastic. But that's obviously very high-end. I love The Way We Wore—L.A. vintage is a whole other world. In New York, I love Resurrection. Miami is amazing for vintage, too—and Dallas. Obviously Nashville, where I'm from, is a favorite as well—it's got great vintage stores. But when it comes to getting a really good deal, you often have to get out of the big cities.


How about online? Do you ever shop for vintage on the internet?

Absolutely. For me, it's eBay and Etsy all the way. Those are my big two.


Elson serenading the crowd at last night's event.

When contemplating a vintage purchase, what key things do you look for first?

It doesn't matter if it's got a bit of wear and tear, but it's got to have a great silhouette, and the fabric has to feel good. It's funny, I have so much vintage at home that's in various states of disrepair—but even if it's destroyed, it's got to have charm. There's got to be something charming about it. For me, charm is a big deal.

Courtesy of Vintage Vanguard

The undisputed showpiece of the Vintage Vanguard collection, this gown reworked by Zac Posen quickly sold for $10,000.

Any vintage mishaps you can share?

A good friend of mine had a wedding recently and wore this beautiful vintage velvet, kind of sheer dress—and it started raining, and the dress basically fell apart in the rain! But you have to understand, vintage will fall apart sometimes. Part of the charm!


Dresses on display at last night's party.

Is there anything in particular that you'd never buy at a vintage store?

If it was an ethical issue, sure. I never get involved with illegal or endangered animal skins—or ivory, which used to be hugely popular. I try and avoid anything with bad—I don't want to call it karma, but just bad vibes. I just don't want to support that in general.

That's an interesting stance, because I hear lots of people say that buying vintage fur is somehow more ethical than buying it new.

I mean, I do have fur in my wardrobe, but only if it's been gifted to me. I don't buy it. Fur doesn't really move me, you know? And plus, once vintage fur falls apart, it gets pretty nasty!

Courtesy of Vintage Vanguard

What's your absolute dream vintage find? Anything you're trying to track down right now?

The more Ossie Clark, the better! I'm such a big fan. There are a lot of Ossie Clark prints I haven't been able to find and am dying to own.


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Last night, I stopped by a cocktail party at NYC's The Jane Hotel to celebrate Vintage Vanguard, a fashion-centric fundraising project launched by supermodel/singer/songwriter Karen Elson and artist/filmmaker Liz Goldwyn, both longtime collectors of past-era clothing and accessories. To help raise money for Dress for Success, an organization that provides women in need with confidence- and career-boosting professional attire, Elson and Goldwyn handed over 20+ pieces from their own personal vintage archives to be reworked by some of the industry's top designers, including Marc Jacobs, Thakoon and Marchesa. The final products were then sold online at Moda Operandi and at auction, with proceeds benefitting the style-focused nonprofit.

Goldwyn, whose love affair with vintage began during her teenage thrifting missions in Los Angeles—"My friends and I were obsessed with swing dancing and '40s prom dresses," she laughed—told me she regularly scours the vintage fairs on both coasts of the country for new treasures to add to her expansive collection. She's amassed some pretty incredible, one-of-a-kind finds over the years–most notably a knit hat that once belonged to Bob Marley and a silver lamé G-string adorned with googly eyes, the latter a gift from a burlesque queen featured in Goldwyn's first film Pretty Things. Her favorite aspect of building a vintage collection? Witnessing the cyclical nature of fashion and trends firsthand. "It's really fun to look at what's coming down the runway and know that you've already got the original in your closet," she said.

Later in the evening, Elson, looking radiant in a silver slip dress and a bold red lip that perfectly matched her now-signature fiery bob, took to the stage to perform a trio of songs in an intimate acoustic set. I caught up with the model/musician afterwards to talk—what else?—all things vintage. After all, this is the woman who once owned her very own vintage shop in Nashville (called Venus and Mars, it sadly closed in 2011). Click through above for Elson's can't-miss tips on finding perfect past-decade pieces, to learn who got her into vintage collecting in the first place and to find out why you should never rule out a secondhand treasure that's in need of a little repair. Plus, I've included a few still-available pieces from the Vintage Vanguard capsule that you can shop right now!

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