Desert Vintage: A Sense of Place
With demand for second-hand clothing on the rise and with ever more platforms and retailers to choose from, Desert Vintage boutique stands out with its graceful nomadic style and a contemporary point of view. Co-owners Salima Boufelfel and Roberto Cowan speak about their introduction to the world of vintage and the twist of fate that led them to inherit a much-cherished local business. Speaking from the store’s hometown Tucson, Arizona and recently inaugurated New York location, they reflect on the multitude of skills it takes to reinvent a business and the significance of supportive retail communities.
Advance Copy: You are the first vintage store on Advance Copy, so I can’t wait to find out more because it’s a sector of fashion that’s growing rapidly and in multiple interesting ways. What was your life like before Desert Vintage? Did you study anything creative or business-related?
Salima Boufelfel: I studied history and was also interested in a bunch of different things. I always had a vested interest in clothing. I started buying and wearing vintage clothing when I was in junior high, and at the time it wasn’t really as big of a business as it is now. It was much more niche and run by a lot of smaller mom-and-pop shops. I became familiar and friendly with a lot of the shop owners, and eventually I started doing costuming in high school. They were very gracious and I borrowed different clothing for costuming. It was great! That was my introduction into that world. The shop owners were also very knowledgeable and helpful so they aided me on my quest of learning about the different historical time periods in relation to clothing.
Roberto what about you? Were you always interested in photography?
Roberto Cowan: Photography came to me later on. I’ve always been into fashion for as long as I can remember. My mum was always into clothing and growing up she would take me shopping and I was always the go-to for an opinion. But in high school I discovered vintage. I was voted most likely to become a fashion designer because I was in a home-ed class and learned how to make clothing. After high school, I studied clothing construction and worked a little bit in the theatre department in college. I’ve always loved clothing and always felt like I would be in that world, I just didn’t know where exactly I’d fit in. But my vision of myself was that I would be a designer of some sort. And then I discovered vintage, just by loving clothes.
“When like-minded people meet it sparks something within us.”
Salima, I wanted to learn more about your experience in Paris, something you’ve spoken about in your previous interviews. What did you learn during your time studying and working in Europe?
Salima: I was studying French, which a lot of my family members grew up speaking. During university I did an exchange programme for a year. I was studying History and French at the time, but I really loved fashion, clothes and more specifically vintage clothes. I found an internship at a vintage shop near Barbès in Paris. They took me on and I ended up staying there for the rest of my time in Paris. It was such a great learning experience, not only through the lens of language, but also culturally. It was so eye-opening for me to deal with customers on a daily basis and to learn how that works in a different country where the taste is different and the type of vintage is different. I learned so much about European vintage and how dealers work there.
How did you and Roberto meet?
Salima: I was finishing university and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I was thinking about moving back to Paris. I started working for this small shop and Roberto came in and we were looking for a male buyer and I thought, ‘This guy has so much style! We should hire him.’ I think they gave you an interview after that?
Roberto: Yes. I started thrifting in high school for myself and to make extra money I also did eBay. I discovered the store [where Salima was working] and was so blown away by the concept. That’s how we met. Salima was my manager at that time. And when like-minded people meet it sparks something within us. She taught me so much.
“We always knew intuitively the kind of direction we wanted to take with vintage.”
The boutique, Desert Vintage, existed under a different owner before you took over and has a rich history. How did you find it? How do you recall its original state?
Salima: I discovered the store when I was doing costuming in high school and became familiar with the original owner, Cathleen. It was a vintage store but also a costume store. One of her big seasons was Halloween and she would make all these wonderful, imaginative costumes and they were hung from the ceiling and on the walls and outside on the porch. She started it in the 70s and it was known in Tucson. Roberto and I worked together for about a year and I think we both wanted to start our own business. Roberto came back to Paris with me and we were figuring out what we wanted to do. Our travels brought us back to Tucson for a little bit. Then the owner of Desert Vintage said she was retiring and asked if we would be interested in purchasing the business. We didn’t think about it too much… we just said, ‘We should do it!’ It just felt like a great opportunity. So, we bought the name and the business from her. Cathleen also sold us semi-full and full black trash bags of vintage that she had collected since the 70s. We took a risk as we didn’t know what kind of condition the clothing was in. To this day, we have a couple of boxes left of that stock.
Roberto: I didn’t know Cathleen prior to us buying the business but I just loved how Cathleen saw herself in Salima, who had been the same age as Cathleen when she had started the business. It was a really wonderful exchange, and for me it was totally new. I knew vintage but not in the capacity that I know it now.
“A sense of place has always played into our business and who we are.”
What did you do to make Desert Vintage feel like your own business? The photos of the store that I’ve seen look so clean and paired down – did it look like that before?
Roberto: The first thing for me was to take out the carpet. The store was painted pink and green, and needed to be repainted. It was definitely a process over time; a huge transition for our curation too.
Salima: We were kids taking on that store and I definitely feel like we grew up with the store and the store grew up with us. There were so many learning curves that I’m grateful to have had and continue to have because everything is a work in progress.
When we took over the store, we knew Halloween costumes weren’t going to be part of our business. We always knew intuitively the kind of direction we wanted to take with vintage. We wanted it to be a little more paired down, more selective and we definitely wanted to tell stories with our clothing. It was apparent in how we were going about buying clothing, building collections and building stories around them. We didn’t have that much money starting out. It was scrappy; we had a store and a bunch of clothes. But we did it in a chic way, and step by step. We were on 4th avenue, which is a historic avenue full of small locally-owned coffee shops, retail storefronts and little bars. After a couple of years we started to outgrow our space. We began to encompass more than just a store front and knew that we really wanted to get into e-commerce pretty early on, so we needed more space for storage, and for a studio setting, so we started looking for a bigger space. Our dream space was just a couple of blocks over and it belonged to a tile studio. One day, Roberto and I were driving by and saw that it was being vacated. We ended up moving into that space and that was really where I feel like we were able to get our footing and establish our identity as multi-faceted business owners.
“Our friends…were our models, sales people, back-stock people – it takes a whole village no matter what you do.”
You mentioned growing your own taste and identity for Desert Vintage. How would you describe that aesthetic now and the stories that you are trying to tell through vintage?
Roberto: I feel like it’s so much part of who we are. What you see is our story. For me, it’s how I want to be seen, what I want to wear and what I love at the moment.
Salima: A sense of place has always played into our business and who we are. We both come from a desert and some parts of our ancestry are very nomadic. I think that has naturally informed not only our process but also our selection of clothing and the feel of our interiors. It has played into so many aesthetically relevant areas of our life. I didn’t really foresee that. It’s not something that we sat down and talked about, it’s just something that organically grew and we organically grew into it. Realising who we are as people, and having a business grow with that kind of realisation as well is really interesting.
We’re in [Tucson], a place where there are obviously risks, but it’s also more laid back so we were able to take a little bit more risk in terms of growing a small business. We were able to make more mistakes without as much stress. I think that aided our natural growth.
How did you go about realising the e-commerce side for Desert Vintage? What was your plan for communicating the in-store atmosphere to customers online?
Salima: We launched the site a year into having the store and over time, much like the business, we were able to refine the site and its language. We wanted it to be a good representation of who we are as people and who we are as a company. I remember talking to Roberto about wanting the photography to be a big element.
It was just Roberto and I for a couple of years at the beginning and our friends would dip in and out of the store. They were our models, sales people, back-stock people – it takes a whole village no matter what you do. One day when we were launching the site, I told Roberto that he should take the pictures. We had this little room in the old store with the only window to the street where you would get direct sunlight and we started shooting there. That’s how we launched. Much like the store, there was consideration going into it, but it was also something we had to do financially to keep things going. It was clear to us that we wanted to cultivate our own platform, to stand on our own two feet from the very beginning.
“I’ve learned so much about vintage clothing through other dealers that have become my mentors.”
How do your collaborations with contemporary brands like CO, the Los Angeles-based line of luxury essentials, or Brooklyn-based vintage store A Current Affaire play into your long-term vision? Can you explain your ideas around growth through collaborations or events?
Salima: A guiding principle for us has always been growth through community building. It could be through pop-ups, bigger market places like A Current Affaire, or collaborations with designers who have ready-to-wear lines. It’s not only more dynamic, it’s more interesting to an audience. Everybody wins in the end and it’s a wonderful circular way of thinking about business.
Working with A Current Affaire was something that really aided our growth. I will forever be grateful to them for introducing us to this larger vintage community. We’ve stepped out of it not only with a visual identity for ourselves but also with friends in the industry. I’ve learned so much about vintage clothing through other dealers that have become my mentors. It was a really interesting time in my life professionally; to have access to older and more established dealers in the industry who were very forthcoming and generous with their knowledge.
There is still so much to be discovered in this meeting point of ready-to-wear and vintage. It seems hard to remember now, but not long ago there were very separate crowds for vintage and for ready-to-wear.
Salima: There wasn’t any overlap between a ready-to-wear customer and a vintage customer when I was working in Paris. But fast forward a couple of years and all of my friends who love clothing invest in beautiful ready-to-wear contemporary pieces but also pay equal attention, if not more, to vintage pieces. It’s become a way of dressing, a way of living and obviously much better for the planet. I would have never thought in high school that this secondary market would become serious within the clothing industry. And it makes a lot of sense because you have a much more sustainable product that’s healthier for our planet. I don’t think going forward there’s going to be another way to consume. I think secondary markets are going to be here to stay. And people are going to understand the value in a full-circle product.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Rosie Peraza-Bragg.