Vintage shop’s merchandise makes it big on Broadway


Gene Elm, co-owner of Amalgamated Clothing, poses for a photograph in the vintage clothing store on Oct. 9, 2013 in Alexandria, Va. Elm recently worked with designer William Ivey Long on the costumes for the Broadway musical “Big Fish.” (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
November 26, 2013

The Manhattan Vintage fair is the sort of place where 12-time Tony nominees go shopping for theater costumes alongside socialites in search of a flapper dress. Gene Elm and Shelley White, the owners of an Alexandria vintage clothing store, recall staffing their stand in 2009 and chatting with clients who browsed through their racks of clothing from the 1920s to early 1970s.

Elm recalls meeting an older woman with a British accent who carried a shopping list. Instead of looking for groceries, though, she was thumbing through tweedy-looking skirts. She chose two, and as she was leaving, she turned to Elm and said, “By the way, these are for Scarlett Johansson.”

Two months later, the movie star wore clothes that had once been stored at an Arlington warehouse onstage in “A View from the Bridge.” The Broadway performance would win Johansson a Tony Award, and earn Elm and White a prominent place in costumer Jane Greenwood’s Rolodex.

“Aunt Jane has been very good to us,” White said.

If you want to get into the costuming business, it helps to have an “aunt” with 16 Tony nominations. Greenwood has been working on Broadway for five decades and teaching design at Yale University for nearly 40 years. She bought clothes from White and Elm for three of her next Broadway projects: “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “That Championship Season.”

When she doesn’t need them herself, Greenwood has been recommending White and Elm to designers across the country; most recently, their clothes turned up at St. Louis Opera for “South Pacific” and in Seattle for the new musical “Secondhand Lions.” In 2014, their projects include dressing Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams in Roundabout Theatre’s revival of “Cabaret.”

Not bad at all for a 6-year-old vintage clothing business that is essentially a two-person operation run out of a 1,000-square-foot store in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, and a small warehouse in South Arlington. Amalgamated Classic Clothing and Dry Goods is what they call the shop. But their latest theater project is their biggest yet, in terms of gaining big-name connections. “Big Fish” the musical opened on Broadway on Oct. 6. Regrettably, the musical has already announced a Dec. 29 closing date. Reviews of the show, which was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, were mixed, but praise for the 250 costumes said they are “ingenious” and “endlessly creative” and that they “contribute magic to the storytelling.”

Norbert Leo Butz plays the show’s star, and in many early publicity photos, he’s wearing a brown newsboy-style jacket from Amalgamated. The designer who picked the jacket is 12-time Tony winner William Ivey Long. The gregarious, eccentric designer who created bustiers for “Cabaret” and little black dresses for “Chicago” doesn’t always do his own sewing, and now he says Amalgamated is his new favorite place to go vintage shopping.

“Vintage clothing has always been part of the world of a costume designer, because you can look at paintings, and you can look at pictures, but there is nothing quite like turning a garment inside out and studying the seams,” Ivey said, speaking recently by phone from his studio in Manhattan. “It’s a revelation, looking at, for instance, what has gone into making a man’s suit in the past hundred years.”

Like Greenwood, Ivey — or more precisely, Ivey’s assistants — met Elm and White at the Manhattan Vintage fair last year. Ivey was seeking enough “Norman Rockwell-looking” suits to dress an entire town. “Big Fish” is based on Tim Burton’s 2004 film and Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel. In all three versions, the story is set in the deep South, with time-shifting scenes that stretch from 1950s to the present day. The central figure, played by Ewan McGregor in the film and Butz in the musical, is Edward Bloom, a traveling salesman intent on passing down a lifetime’s worth of tall tales to his son. The episodic structure lends itself well to a musical, but the flashbacks require nearly a dozen changes for some of the ensemble members. So Ivey and his assistants went hunting and were thrilled to find Elm and White, vintage clothing experts who get just as excited about looking for a size 38 double-breasted gray pinstripe zoot suit as he does.

“To the end of finding fabulous period looks, Amalgamated is crucial,” Ivey said. “They love the search. It is a joy to describe to Gene and Shelley that we’ve got a particular character and we need a particular item of clothing. They search and search, and they send us pictures, and then the garment.”

In the case of “Big Fish,” Ivey’s staff bought several pieces at the vintage fair and asked whether they could “memo” them an additional list. Elm took a look and ended up shipping five boxes of menswear to Ivey’s studio. “They really appreciated the best suits that I sent them,” Elm said. “I was tickled by that, because suits are really my thing.”

Elm has been collecting vintage menswear much longer than he’s been selling it. He recalls buying his first vintage suit as a teenager in 1978: a size 43, circa 1930s Rogers Peet powder blue number with notched lapels. From there, he started picking up pieces whenever he came across them. By 2007, he was a stay-at-home dad who realized his full closet could become a part-time profession. He and White started taking clothes to vintage fairs, and in 2012, they opened the store in Del Ray.

“Originally, I had wanted to open a vintage menswear store. But I had to learn that vintage menswear doesn’t sell, not here, anyway,” Elm said. He and White know the routine: Guy comes in, wanders through the racks of women’s dresses — which are arranged chronologically by color — and eventually ends up standing in front of a rack of men’s clothing from the 1960s and ’70s, where, at most, he will try on a hipster-looking snap shirt.

“I don’t even have any suits here right now,” Elm said. “I don’t know what it is, but men just don’t buy.”

So the suits sit in the packed, 600-square-foot warehouse, until a designer calls looking for that color, that era, that size.

Elm doesn’t have an inventory. Not on paper anyway. “I have an almost photographic memory for my suits,” he says, and recalls spotting several of his suits on Guy Pearce, when the actor starred in the HBO series “Mildred Pierce.” Amalgamated has an ongoing relationship with “Boardwalk Empire” and most recently noticed some of their clothes in the film “Kill Your Darlings.” Assuming that Daniel Radcliffe didn’t do much dancing when he portrayed the young Allen Ginsberg, the clothes had a chance of living on to see another wearing. That’s often not the case in theater, and if a piece is used in a musical choreographed by Stroman, a lover of can-cans and fan kicks and lively hoedowns, chances are slim that any of the vintage wear will survive.

“I hate that,” Elm said. “If I could only do rentals, and I had a steady business doing rentals for theater and motion pictures, that’s all I would do. But I gotta sell something. I gotta pay the rent. By and large, if it is theater, they’re buying. A lot of great pieces go to the graveyard that way, but what can you do?”

Take the tan jacket Butz wears in “Big Fish.” It’s short, with two side pockets and wide lapels. It looks like a slightly dorkier, earth-toned version something James Dean would wear, and befittingly, Long calls it a “matinee idol” jacket. During the “Big Fish” Chicago tryout last year, Butz wore the original, but after five weeks of stage sweat, the late-60s era jacket was done.

“Eight shows a week?” Long said. “There’s not much clothing that will survive that.”

As he does with so many vintage items, Long had the jacket copied and remade. So where is the original now? Maybe in a tailor’s scrap bin, or in a New York dumpster. But Butz wore it in many of the Chicago production photos. So forever on the Internet, long after “Big Fish” closes, there will be images of Butz, with actress Kate Baldwin in front of a stunning field of fake daffodils, wearing that brown matinee idol jacket from a little shop in Del Ray.

Ritzel is a freelance writer.

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