Published: August 4, 2008
DURHAM - The skirt was hideous.
It was one of those impractical floor-length wraparounds from the '70s, the kind with the really high waist and so much volume it came off looking like something from "Little House in the Prairie."
Even with its vintage label and the growing popularity of all things vintage, it hardly seemed salvageable. It was best left where it came from -- in a bin full of old clothes.
Jamie Powell saw potential, though. Two yards of potential, to be exact. She didn't see three-decade-old style, she saw fabric, glorious white satin with large floral patches of velvet in baby blue and pale pink. In her mind, it could easily be transformed into a chic dress that she could resell for quadruple the cost of the materials.
It's the latest trend in green living.
From her makeshift studio in a home in Durham, Powell is growing her business of turning vintage rejects -- the stained, torn or simply too hideous -- into modern, wearable fashion that she sells under the label Revamp.
"It's not runway fashion, but fashion people would wear every day," says Powell, 25.
Powell, who has had a longtime love of vintage clothing, decided to make vintage her career just after graduating from college in 2005. Instead of opening a traditional store, she decided to be an Internet wholesaler. She buys clothes by the pound, digs through them to find the gems and then resells them all over the world through her company American Vintage Clothing & Classics (www.avcc-inc.com).
The problem became the waste. When a shipment arrives, she never knows whether she's going to get a T-shirt with holes and stains that will never sell or a chic Jackie O sheath with loads of resale possibilities.
Instead of throwing away the bad, she got creative. She started with T-shirts, taking sleeves from one shirt, sewing them to the front of another with a cool screen-printed logo, while adding a back from yet another. Often Powell would cut off the collar, giving the shirt a dainty scoop neck instead of a ringer collar.
"You end up getting something no one else has," she says.
She quickly moved on to handbags and dresses, mixing fabrics from different pieces to create an updated look. Her first dress was the cowboy dress, made from old cowboy shirts and vintage silk handkerchiefs. The front shirt snaps are in the back and snap up the slit, and the snap breast pockets are on the behind.
It helps that Powell has been sewing since she was a child. Her mother taught her to sew, and she remembers the tiered skirt with rickrack trim she made for Brownies while growing up in Burnt Chimney, Va.
That kind of experience helps with Powell's latest creation, a more complicated dress that she calls the tuxdress, made from old tuxedo shirts and dresses or skirts. For this look, the more outrageous the vintage pieces, the better. She has made dresses from red tuxedo shirts, powder blue ones and shirts with giant ruffles down the front. She'll pair them with oversize muumuus, housecoats or that baby blue velvet maxi skirt, things that might look ugly but are made with classic retro fabrics.
Rebecca Moore, co-owner of Roulette Vintage in Carrboro, which sells Revamp, said it's the individuality of the pieces that help them sell. It also doesn't hurt that her customers appreciate the green aspect of the line.
"What Jamie is doing is unique," she says. "Vintage pieces and reusing them is another way of helping the environment."
Moore's store sells nearly a dozen designers' lines that are reusing everyday items. One designer makes clothes from linens. Another is reusing broken pieces of jewelry.
Powell's advantage, she says, is her access to large amounts of inventory.
Business has gotten so brisk, Powell now contracts out most of the sewing work to local seamstresses. They get half the cut of the wholesale price for every dress she sells. So far, about five contractors work for her.
Even the fabric pieces that are cut from the dresses or shirts are resold. A customer in Australia buys the scraps for $3.50 a pound to make pins.
Powell says she still gets people questioning her decision to keep her manufacturing local rather than shipping it overseas. She chalks it up to people not always understanding her type of business.
In fact, for an entrepreneurial class at Appalachian State University, where she earned her business degree, one teacher gave her a "C" on the class project in which she outlined her plans for the business.
"Now people are saying to me, 'Yeah, this makes sense,' " she says. "There's definitely more of a need for this kind of business, with expenses going up. It's the ultimate in reusing. It doesn't have to be processed."