With more than 40 years in the industry and more than 1500 films and TV shows behind her – Helen Uffner stands as the owner of the last vintage costume rental business in all of New York City.
Helen, a Senior Planet community member, shared her insights on starting a vintage collection, running a business through COVID-19 and the hidden treasures that might be hanging in your closet.
How did you get your business off the ground?
My business officially started in 1982. A friend had a vintage store in SoHo and Woody Allen was doing a movie called Zelig. His people wanted 1920s clothes and my friend knew I had a small collection – one rack of clothing. They came to my apartment and bought the entire rack. I thought “Oh no, now I have to start all over again.” But then I realized that if I rented out my collection instead of selling it, I would get everything back. That was my little “Aha!” moment.
When I started renting pieces to the first big movies I did, like Out of Africa, The Color Purple and The Cotton Club, I actually worked out of my apartment. The first check was made out to “Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing.” I had never named my business, and I certainly never would have named it after myself, but to deposit the check I had to register that name. And it stuck! Now it’s been more than 40 years. (At left, Beyonce’s costume for Cadillac Records.)
What projects do you like working on most?
We have a lot of movies that just opened now that we worked on – West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, Being the Ricardos, Tick, Tick… Boom!, The Many Saints of Newark.
I don’t have a particular favorite type of client. It’s always exciting to see your items on screen or on stage. We have a lot of movies that just opened now that we worked on – West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, Being the Ricardos, Tick, Tick… Boom!, The Many Saints of Newark.
(Other recent hits include Trial of the Chicago Seven, If Beale Street Could Talk and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Click here to see Elle Magazine’s recent profile of Helen including pictures of some of her most recognizable pieces.)
What’s it been like to get back into the swing of business after a forced hiatus due to COVID-19?
Now we’re busier than ever but it was a very slow start. We lost our entire staff so we started from scratch. At first, it was just me a couple days of week and I hardly even went into work. Funny, though–a client called me at home about a certain period bag for a commercial. I had such a bag in my own collection. Before you knew it, I was waiting in my lobby and the stylist for the commercial drove by and I threw the bag to him. They shot the commercial, drove back and threw it back to me. It was a very odd way to do business!
How do you obtain most of your pieces?
In the old days there were big antique flea markets and I would go on buying trips. Now, there’s the internet and people are selling vintage on Etsy and Ebay. Mostly, though, people with older family members who have passed away will call us and ask if we’re interested in what they saved.
I like to consider myself one of the original recyclers.
It saddens me, really, because people stored clothing or accessories for sentimental reasons but often they end up in the trash. If they were special to someone for them to have saved the pieces, they are special to us. We clean them, we repair them, and we give them a new life in movies or TV. If it was a recent acquisition, I can call the family members and say: “Guess what? Watch this TV show because your dad’s suit is going to be on the show!” It gives them a real kick. I like to consider myself one of the original recyclers.
…people often throw the clothes away they think no one wants, like a men’s suit or a plain little cotton housedress from the 30s — but those are the things that are worthwhile for us.
What items are you always looking to buy?
Mostly people save the dressy clothes they wore to a wedding or a bar mitzvah – but when you see a play, a show or a movie, everyday clothes figure more often in a storyline. People often throw away clothes they think no one wants, like a men’s suit or a plain little cotton housedress from the 30s — but those are the things that are worthwhile for us. We call those “character clothes” and those are my favorite. (At right, Tom Hanks’ sweater from Bridge of Spies.)
Any advice for someone who is interested in starting to collect or get into this field?
Getting into this field would be difficult and price prohibitive to find early things, unless you wanted to specialize in more recent decades of clothing. Look at old fashion magazines online or in thrift shops to familiarize yourself with silhouettes from every decade and parts of decades. The early 30s were very different from the mid-30s, which were very different from the late 30s.
On the retail level – it’s bright things that often sell – but when renting to productions, nothing should jump out at you on the screen, so you buy things in neutral tones. It’s very important to think about color tones. You have to buy with the renter and project in mind. It’s different if you’re thinking about re-selling.
What’s next for you?
There’s so much I want to do – I want to make art, I want to continue to lecture, write a blog about history.
I’m looking to sell the business and retire, but I’d like to keep it in New York because New York really needs a business like this. After? There’s so much I want to do – I want to make art, I want to continue to lecture, write a blog about history. Everyone says: “Oh My God, what are you going to do if you retire?” I think: “Oh my God, what am I NOT going to do?”
What does Aging with Attitude mean to you?
I continue to pursue learning, interests and life in general with the same natural curiosity, passion and delight I have had since I was younger. I have never succumbed to the precept “I am too old to do that…” For instance, I can’t wait to try zip-lining and to be able to safely travel again to explore remote foreign venues!
Photo: (Top) COURTESY OF HELEN UFFNER VINTAGE CLOTHING, PHOTO CREDIT IZZY MCCLELLAND, other photos courtesy Helen Uffner.