Thursday, July 24, 2008

Vintage fashions fit for the stars -

NEW BEDFORD - You may not notice Hilary Duff's Girl Scout vest, complete with merit badges, in the upcoming film "Greta." Ditto for Sir Ben Kingsley's vintage '50s duds in "Ashecliffe" the thriller based on Dorchester native Dennis Lehane's book, "Shutter Island."

But Chris Duval will. That'll be his stuff on the screen, bigger than life and hailing from his vintage clothing store, Circa, tucked into the New Bedford waterfront. Duval, 50, has run the store for 22 years, coming off part-time careers as a pro bicycle racer and a warehouse worker for UPS. Now, with Hollywood types suddenly scouring the area for all kinds of costumes and garb, Circa has quietly become one of the go-to places to outfit the stars.

"I always had an eye for fashion, I guess," shrugs the soft-spoken, wiry Duval, who studied textiles in college. "I'd gone into a vintage store in the early '80s, picked up a grungy pair of men's horned-rim glasses, fixed them up, and said, 'Hey, I can resurrect stuff like this.' "

One New Year's Eve, Duval's then-girlfriend urged him to make a resolution to open a store and call it Circa, thus becoming, as he laughingly calls it, a "fashion archaeologist." The store is a treasure trove of fashion - then, now, and yet-to-be. New York designers routinely snag items from his store to base new designs on, proving once again that what goes around comes around.

"Work clothes like this are big now," Duval said, holding up a pair of patched, grubby work jeans from the 1930s. "These are real character clothes."

In one corner are wall-to-ceiling round hat boxes of yore - Stetson, Melton, Parrot Hatters. On one rack hangs a Sgt. Pepper jacket; on another, '60s minis that cover very little and granny dresses that cover quite a lot.

There is the dashing: men's fedoras, bowlers, the occasional top hat. And the ugly: Will anyone ever take that hideous pale-blue leisure suit? Chances are someone will, or it wouldn't be here.

His business is a more-or-less even split between rentals and purchases. Many customers are local theater groups and museums that rent outfits for shows and events. Valerie Leclasse of Acushnet was looking to rent "Hairspray"-style clothing for a mother-and-daughter act she and her daughter were planning to do in a local show.

"This is perfect, just what I need," she said, holding up a very floral, very tacky, and very "Hairspray"-esque dress. "Chris always has what I need, I follow him around."

Circa was located for many years in downtown Fairhaven, moving to Coggeshall Street in New Bedford before relocating to Circa's current digs on Cove Street about six months ago. It's located in a distant back corner of New England Demolition and Salvage, a cavernous, 80,000-square-foot space full of items that also draw movie people.

"That's why I wanted to be here," Duval said. "It's a good match, the salvage store and I are the ultimate recyclers. Movie people come to see his stuff and come across my store."

Lisa Padovani, assistant costume designer for "Ashecliffe," was referred to Duval by a set director who'd sought period furniture at New England Demolition and Salvage and stumbled upon Circa.

"I found what I needed there, some hats and coats for Ben Kingsley," Padovani said. "We needed very specific clothing from 1954, and he had it."

It was her first trip to Duval's store, but likely not her last.

"I keep vendors on a list to call, and if I need something specific, I tell them to keep an eye out when they're out shopping for inventory," Padovani said.

When he's not working with movie types (set designers from Richard Gere's new movie, "Hachiko: A Dog's Story," filming in Rhode Island, came in for period clothing, Will Ferrell's costume people bought a Marlboro Man-style jacket for "SemiPro," and Leo, as in DiCaprio, had a jacket bought for him for "Ashecliffe"), Duval does a brisk wholesale business selling to retailers as far away as Japan. He stocks up at estate sales and sometimes from old-timers looking to get rid of pieces that are still in top condition. They're often steeped with memories.

"That's what I love the most, talking to elderly people who have such great stories of their clothing," Duval says. He recently sifted through 1,000 dresses in Milton to find some choice items. "I was at a house recently in New Bedford where they had clothes that belonged to the first Cape Verdean lawyer in the country. Amazing stories.

"The stuff is timeless," Duval says, as delighted with the clothing he finds as he is sharing it with the public. "Clothing from 40, 50 years ago is still relevant today. You can wear it with anything. It's classic."

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