In New Orleans, we are fascinated with the past. This makes sense in a city that has been around since 1718. We love our old houses, old street cars, old cemeteries, so why not old clothing?
Recently, I sat down with Bambi DeVille Engeran, “The Bakelite Lady,” and Leah Blake to talk about the vintage clothing scene in New Orleans. Bambi and Leah recently opened a vintage clothing store of their own, along with a third partner, Finn Bohannon. Their store, Bambi DeVille’s Vintage, is located at 818 Royal St. and boasts a large selection of affordable vintage from the ’30s to the ’70s, in a variety of sizes.
Bambi’s father has operated an antiques shop on Royal Street for the past 28 years, and she has been working with him for 15 of those years. Four years ago, they moved across the street into a new space, which now also houses the vintage clothing store.
Bambi began collecting vintage clothing when she was 12 years old. Her grandmother, her “style icon,” lived next door, and Bambi could fit into all of her vintage dresses.
“I can honestly say, I was the only person in high school wearing vintage. I wore my grandma’s dresses, my grandma’s ’40s heels, my grandma’s hats to school, and nobody was doing that. They just thought I was nuts. Well-dressed, but nuts.”
Leah worked in various vintage stores in New Orleans before partnering with Bambi and Finn. She also runs an online vintage store through Etsy called Century Girl Vintage.
Every city has vintage clothing stores. So what makes the vintage clothing scene in New Orleans unique?
In a word, history, Bambi says. “You know, this is the thing, I can say this because I’m from here. My father grew up in this neighborhood. My grandparents had a bar and a casino on Rampart Street through the ’40s and ’50s and I have seen this all my life — it’s a love and a fascination with history. The vintage has always been a part of our culture.”
“And how fortunate that someone can walk down the street in a ’40s hat and no one even looks up,” Leah added.
“I tell people that all the time when they come in here, and they’re like, ‘Oh, where would I wear it?’ ” Bambi said. “I never in a million years ever ask that question. I’ve never said ‘Where will I wear it?’ I will wear it to Galatoire’s. I will wear it around the corner. It doesn’t matter — Harry’s Bar, you know.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Bambi has seen periodic changes in the vintage clothing scene.
“Years ago, we had four great vintage clothing stores in New Orleans, for like 20 years. They’re all gone.They were here in the ’70s and the ’80s and by the ’90s … places get priced out. We’ve been lucky. But then we had a void. Before Katrina, we had a void in vintage clothing. Sometimes, you could go around to little shops around town and everybody would have a little vintage. I knew that it was something that we needed.”
Both women have a life-long connection to vintage, and both describe themselves as “self-taught.” They gained their knowledge in vintage by being around the clothes and asking questions. Both have spent time working in vintage or antique stores, and Bambi went to school in New York City, where she frequented the local flea markets.
“There was a 26th Street Flea Market. You know, it was a dollar to get in and you go every Sunday and the dealers there were so informative. I knew visually I could pick out something that was vintage and then it was like, ‘Okay so what year is this? What year is that?’”
Bambi and Leah seem to have connections to each piece in their store. “Fashion is art,” Leah said of the items. “We hang our dresses on the wall.”
Where do they find their clothes?
Estate sales for one. Since Bambi has been in the vintage and antique business for awhile, people know to bring her items to sell. They also both travel to find clothes — smaller towns can yield greater finds. The “hunt” for choice items is one of the aspects of owning a vintage clothing store that they seem to enjoy the most.
“I’m a collector, first,” Bambi explained. “I’m a collector before I’m a dealer. So, I travel and I shop. My girlfriend Rosemary’s always saying ‘You work every day.’ And I say yeah, but I work for myself, that’s why. She says, ‘You’re always shopping, you’re always shopping.’ It’s fun for me because I’m a collector and I’m always looking for something that I love.”
Like Bambi, Leah has been collecting her entire life. “I didn’t know it (collecting vintage) could be an accepted passion.”
“The thing is,” Bambi said, “it’s a lifestyle. It’s our lives. This is not a job. This never has been a job for me. It was just something that I always did and then all of a sudden I could make a living out of it.”
While Bambi and I were finishing our conversation, Leah left to assist a customer, then popped her head back in. Was Bambi’s Mardi Gras crown for sale?
“No, no,” Bambi responded. “I found that in a tree walking home from a Mardi Gras parade years ago.” That’s the collector in her. There are some pieces in the store the two would never dream of selling. Because selling is not really what it’s all about.
It’s about the history.