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In with the old

Vintage stores are on the rise as Lebanese embrace recycled fashion

by Nathalie Rosa Bucher

While the bulk of Lebanese would not hesitate before buying a secondhand car, most frown upon the idea of purchasing, let alone wearing, secondhand or vintage clothes. Deeply engrained as this attitude may be, secondhand and vintage fashion is on the rise in Beirut. 

“I wanted to open a vintage store as I knew that in Europe it was [all] the rage but didn’t exist here,” Yasmeen Borro, owner of Vintage Story, says. Borro opened her boutique, the first of its kind in the Middle East, in Kantari in 2008. Initially, she had vintage clothes as well as accessories in store but quickly came to realize that while her clientele was open to buying and wearing previously used earrings or handbags, most drew the line with garments or dresses. 

“The thought of it being old, that it may have been fished out of an old suitcase or been found on a flea market or thrift store — I go to and find things everywhere, across Europe but also at Souk el-Ahad, in Tripoli and Sabra — is unbearable to most,” Borro says. 

Once she realized that previously owned dresses wouldn’t work, she concentrated on her own original creations, under the label Vintage Story, while also selling actual vintage earrings, brooches, necklaces, armbands, handbags, headgear and some clothes. 

“The old inspires the new and that works,” she says of her label, which she classifies as “high end.” She describes her clientele as mixed, consisting of Arab women; half foreign, mainly from the Gulf, and half Lebanese.

“Initially, I was convinced that you could find many things in Beirut,” she says of her sourcing process. “However, Lebanese women don’t keep much… people move, much has been given away. I sometimes get calls, and people offering me things at exorbitant rates. They offer me something for $80 that I can find in Europe for €20.” Consequently very few of the vintage items she sells are from Lebanon; most come from Berlin, Paris and Belgium. “I have a big purveyor in Brussels who manufactured classy leather handbags all his life. Every time I’m there I take some of his stock.”

While jewelry requires little work before being ready for re-sale, clothes need to be carefully inspected, dry cleaned, stains removed and any damage repaired. 

Once a year, Borro takes part in an expo, usually in the Gulf. “Women there love individual pieces. They try and outdo each other and are bold in their choices. They buy massive amounts of [vintage] jewelry!”

a new concept for beirut

Similar to Vintage Story, about half the items for sale at Naela Nammour’s Pink Henna are vintage and the other half new creations. Her Mar Mikhael boutique also specializes in vintage accessories, including handbags, jewelry and homeware. 

Nammour classifies an item as vintage when it is 25 years old or more. She has bags going back to 1900 and 1910 and almost every decade of the 20th century is represented, up to the 1980s. Over decades of collecting, buying and selling vintage items, she has become a vintage expert. 

“To me, secondhand is more recent, vintage is older. Vintage may be secondhand, but not necessarily as you sometimes find items that have never been used,” Nammour says. “I lived in Paris for 20 years and travelled around the world, and have collected a lot.” While she dearly holds on to many items found in various parts of the world, some of her own collectables constituted the initial stock for Pink Henna, opened four years ago.  Her customers are mostly locals. “Locals have discovered vintage, they often come to look for a present. [Then] the person who received the present often comes to look for the place where it came from,” she says. 

Nammour recently started a Facebook page and has relied on word of mouth. “We’re listed in the Zawarib [Beirut city map] and sometimes magazines or production companies come to take items on consignment for ads or shoots.” Vintage Story’s Borro, who has also relied on word of mouth, is setting up a website for her clothing label but otherwise prefers to remain niche and not advertise. 

To stock up, Nammour travels once or twice a year to comb through some of Europe’s flea markets, and works with a few professional buyers in various places, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States, from whom she gets most of her stock. 

Despite its rising popularity, a stigma still remains around vintage pieces. “The concept is new, Lebanese are used to the word but not everybody understands the concept. Many think that it’s never worn — not quite,” says Maya Kaddoura, founder of Washed and Found, an online buyers and sellers marketplace for vintage and luxury items. 

 “When I used to live in Europe there were so many dépot-vente [boutiques where high-end brands are sold at seriously slashed prices], you would have to beg to sell your things. Here it is the other way,” she says. 

“In France it’s more valuable to have an item that has history. Here, people are starting to get into it, often though not because of the idea, but because it’s less expensive. If they could buy something new they would. Things that work well here are handbags.” 

Her mother and grandmother’s beautiful garments sparked the idea for a vintage business. “I tried to come up with a project with limited investment. Initially, I considered a blog, but eventually opted for the e-commerce route,” Kaddoura says. She set up a slick website with high quality images and tried to do much herself, including retouching the pictures and finding the items to sell. “Setting up a payment gateway costs between $4,000 and $10,000 and, especially in Lebanon, many people are still getting used to the idea of buying online,” she says. 

After a soft launch in August 2013, Kaddoura did an official launch in November. “At the beginning friends of friends and friends of my mom’s were my customers, that’s how I also got my first items — word of mouth worked. Many people wanted to sell initially but the situation has changed somewhat as now there are a bit more people who want to buy. Things I sell now are more interesting as I know what people like and will buy…I have everything from fashion to accessories to shoes. I’m looking for jewelry, and I’ve just uploaded the first bridal pictures to the site. A Chanel bag is the item to have!” 

unique treasures

Kaddoura takes items on consignment and, once sold, 30 percent of the cost goes to Washed and Found, which covers the photo shoot, social media, retouching and handling fees.  

Those who want to view something need to do so by appointment. The 350 items in stock are stored in an empty office, cheaper in rent than a boutique.  

“My customers mostly consist of women aged between 18 and 40, people who want to sell are older. They have been holding on to their old clothes. Women aged between 18 and 26 are the youngest and largest group — they go for secondhand. A 19-year-old girl bought the first Louis Vuitton vintage piece I had.” Men don’t really feature, although a few have shown interest. 

Washed and Found, which employs one part-time assistant, ships internationally using DHL for international shipments and LibanPost in Lebanon. 

When the bounty of years of collecting claimed too much space in her house, Nawal Akl looked for a place to store some of it. “I got this flat in Mar Mikhael,” she says. “I rented it at first, and stored some of the many things I have here. The ‘untouchables’ are still at home.” 

Eventually Akl bought the flat and started to sell secondhand and vintage clothes, jewelry, accessories and shoes in 2011, to surprising success. “I thought I would have to make it work but it worked by itself. It pleases me when I see these items looking good on someone else.” 

The small flat on Badawi Street, named Depot-Vente, is the ultimate treasure trove, full of spectacular, ridiculous, chic and everyday items, where one can find genuine near-new leather boots for LL20,000, designer pieces, real fur coats or a 1970s bathing costume.  “I often find things during my travels,” Akl says. “And I go through cupboards… I also find contemporary stuff. I buy everything, and sell much at LL3,000. Everything that is well made, made longer ago or is handmade is priced differently, as are Italian and French brands. Items made in China — even Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan — are sold at LL3,000 because that is the production cost. When people now see something at H&M for LL80,000 they know it’s worth LL3,000. I do a sort of consumer education.” 

“This place allows people to find unique pieces. It allows for individualism and goes against conformity. We’re tired of H&M, Mango and Zara — everywhere in the world you see the same dresses and fashion.” 

It looks like secondhand is here to stay. Next year will see the launch of the e-commerce website, Garage Luxe, specializing in luxury brands. So far operating only on Facebook and Instagram, the store has a vast array of classics that could make it a game-changer on the scene. 

What matters to Borro is the fact that an old garment is given a second life. “Maybe with the crisis we’re experiencing, Lebanese will come to accept it more,” she says.

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Nathalie Rosa Bucher


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