For nearly 50 years, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing has been renting authentic period clothing and accessories for film, television, and theater, providing an essential service to the entertainment industry. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Helen Uffner herself to talk about how she turned a passion for old clothing into a business and how she keeps it running despite stressors like COVID and rent prices.
How a Hobby Turned into a Business
It all started, she says, with her Polish mother who “had this extraordinary Austrian hand-embroidered blouse. I still have that blouse.” Helen credits her mother for teaching her to appreciate fine workmanship when it came to clothing.
As she got older, she started going to thrift shops and flea markets, often picking up items simply to admire their construction. After university, she began traveling, and often sent boxes of clothing back home, not knowing exactly what she’d do with them. After working for a time in Europe and Israel in fashion and advertising photography, she came back to the U.S and started working for a management consulting company, designing official forms. At the same time, she began lending items out to friends working in theater.
It was the late 70’s, “and vintage was big.” A friend was an illustrator for a fashion forecasting magazine looking to write about antique lingerie, but was having a difficult time finding items from local stores and boutiques. At the time, Helen had her own collection of Victorian and 1920’s lingerie, which the magazine loved and featured in an issue. Word got out about her collection, and department stores like Macy’s and Burdines started buying pieces.
Later, a friend contacted Helen saying that the costume designer for an upcoming Woody Allen film, Zelig, was looking for 1920’s clothing. Helen sold her entire rack to the film team, and after a brief moment of sadness at losing her collection, realized that she should start renting.
Helen began renting clothing right out of her apartment to productions and films, notably Out of Africa, The Cotton Club, and The Color Purple. Ultimately, when the collection grew too large for Helen’s apartment and warehouse storage, she started renting a 5,600 square foot loft space in the garment district.
We provide the gamut from the 1860’s up, especially Victorian, Edwardian, 20’s and 30’s.
To this day, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing proudly remains an equal opportunity renter. She’s rented clothing to films both big and small, from Hollywood (after Zelig, she would go on to supply costumes for a dozen other Woody Allen films) to Netflix to independent filmmakers. She rents to larger theater productions in New York City, including the on-going run of Little Shop of Horrors, as well as smaller high school plays and musicals. Then there’s television, including HBO crime series Godfather of Harlem and the long-running sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. She also rents clothing for magazine editorials, fashion designers and commercials.
COVID & the Costume Industry
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, everything changed. Theaters across the city closed and film and television companies halted production indefinitely. Helen made the difficult yet necessary decision to also close her doors, but not before dealing with returns from some 18 productions, film and theater, that were in various stages of production, both in New York and out of state.
“We didn’t know how long COVID would last. I paid my two assistants reduced salaries for a month to stay home, until we realized this wasn’t going away.” Ultimately, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing remained closed for nearly seven months. “I lost all my staff. When you’re not working for months, you can’t afford to pay anybody, let alone yourself.”
Social distancing mandates also meant many actors couldn’t travel for fittings, leaving Helen to get the proper measurements over the Internet. After slowly re-opening, “clients had to make an appointment in advance. We wore masks and gloves and kept hand sanitizer handy. We cleaned doorknobs and the racks being used, to make them (and me) feel safer.” Clients must also dry clean everything before returning.
Though plays and musicals have picked up production in the last year, Helen says that she still doesn’t rent as much for theater as she used to. “We do more movies and television than theater now. That’s the nature of what’s happening in New York with COVID.”
Rent Spaces Running Out
While some costume businesses have been blessed with steady landlords, Helen has not been so lucky. “Unfortunately, I have to keep paying overhead, even though I don’t make enough.”
Because Helen supplies so many big-budget productions, it might seem like she makes good money. “We rent to movies on a 12 to 15 week basis, charging up to 150 USD for a man’s suit, which totals out to 10 dollars a week. That’s not a lot.” Helen believes her prices to be pretty standard. “Sometimes I’m told they are reasonable, but there are often productions coming in saying they don’t have money, when they do. They’re bargaining things down as if we’re a flea market, not a business.”
“And remember, you’re competing with places outside NYC that don’t pay as much rent or perhaps own their buildings.” Meanwhile, Helen has already had to move her business 4 times as rent prices in New York skyrocket and developers snatch up every spare bit of warehouse space they can get their hands on, only to tear them down and replace them with residential high rises. This happened with 3 of Helen’s previous locations, and each move takes her further from the city center, from Manhattan to Queens to the Bronx, where the business is now temporarily located.
Though the collection itself remains intact, Helen’s current temporary space “is less than half the size of our former space,” with vintage clothing and accessories double-racked and lining the perimeter of the space in wardrobe boxes. The move itself was back-breaking work, “at least a week with alternating trucks and 10 to 15 men working.” Helen estimates that each move costs at least 50,000 USD. The price of her current space was the same as her former 8,000 square foot showroom, but has recently been raised.
Along with other businesses peripheral to the theater and film industries like costume shops, milliners, dyers, and shoemakers, Helen is a member of the Costume Industry Coalition, which raises money and awareness for the costume industry, and all continue to struggle.
I’m still the largest costume place here in New York City. My clients need something local.
“But we’re still here.” When asked if she’d consider moving the business out of the city, Helen says “I’m still the largest costume place here in New York City. My clients need something local. They say that if I wasn’t here, they don’t know what they’d do.”
“If we don’t stay in New York, there’s nothing available to rent these last minute pieces. We’d rent out to SNL, and they’d often come last minute on the Fridays before showtime because they were still writing their scripts.” Furthermore, nobody in the city – or the entire east coast for that matter – can compare when it comes to early vintage clothing. “We provide the whole gamut from the 1860’s up, especially Victorian, Edwardian, 20’s and 30’s. A costume designer told me that I was probably the person with the most Edwardian clothing in the country.”
Collecting, Admiring, Preserving
While Helen considers selling the business and staying on in an advisory capacity, she wants to preserve the integrity of the collection. “In a horrible circumstance, somebody could buy it, store it in the middle of the country, and sell the pieces online one by one – they’d make a fortune.”
“Vintage clothing for me is an art form. Everything was hand-embroidered, even hand-stitched and hand-beaded. I encourage anybody who visits to open up one of our Victorian dresses and look at the boning to study its construction.”
But Helen still loves her work. “Vintage clothing for me is an art form. Everything was hand-embroidered, even hand-stitched and hand-beaded. I encourage anybody who visits to open up one of our Victorian dresses and look at the boning to study its construction, which is remarkable.”
It’s this love of craftsmanship that keeps Helen buying new pieces for her collection. “If I find something that will enhance the collection, I buy it.” She continues to search for new gems at estate sales. “I sometimes get calls from the family of a loved one who’s passed away; rather than throw out the items, they want to give them a new life. We have everything cleaned and mended before displaying. It’s like we’re the caretaker of all these people’s memories.”
Helen’s parents left Poland with nothing, “so I created this history around me with clothing. Sometimes my staff and I would fantasize about who wore such and such a thing.” Clothing doesn’t just tell what life was like in a given decade; it also tells about an individual person’s life, preserving a piece of their memories.
© Roza Melkumyan (9/28/22) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Check out the Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing official site.
Learn more about the Costume Industry Coalition here.
Check out our review of The Second Sun here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Photo credits: All photos have been provided by Helen Uffner and are used here by FF2 with her permission. All rights reserved by Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing.