Published: May 24, 2022
Review and Photos by Z.G. Burnett
STURBRIDGE, MASS. – The morning of May 9 offered the best early spring weather that New England has to offer: sunshine, low humidity and the scent of blooming summer in the air. Yet none of that mattered to the inhabitants of the Sturbridge Host Hotel, which was steadily filling up with vintage and antique clothing, textiles and the people who love to buy and sell them at The Sturbridge Show. At 7 am the parking lot was already close to full, and shopping began at this time in the Entry Hall and the two smaller conference rooms, usually by those who had already bought tickets for the advance 8 am entry. Tickets were only available for purchase in person that morning, which added an extra level of anticipation to those who arrived for their spot first and breakfast second. By the time the show was officially open, this line was out the door and around the side of the building with more than 100 people ready to buy.
The turnout was a welcome relief to the show’s new owners, David Brockman and Brian Cohen of DB and BC Productions, LLC. Last October, Linda Zukas, who founded and operated the show for the past 30 years, transferred ownership to Brockman and Cohen. Although the event mostly remained unchanged, the name was shortened from “The Sturbridge Vintage Clothing & Textile Show” to simply “The Sturbridge Show.” The website was updated slightly, with the addition of an Instagram account to expand the show’s reach throughout its already global clientele. Brockman and Cohen contributed their vast professional network to the show’s promotion, coordinating from their bicoastal locations. Brockman’s Honeymoon Antiques, Ltd has been a fashion staple in New York City since 1997, and Cohen’s Vintage on Hollywood is a must-see stop in downtown Los Angeles.
Preparation began months before May after the turnover, with Brockman using every skill he’s learned in more than 40 years of business to produce the show. “Direct contact is the most important and successful way of running a show,” he said, “calls and emails, especially to follow-up with dealers.” Brockman praised his “amazing” team, who were all 100 percent committed to this production. He also gave credit to the Host Hotel staff, who were struggling from severe staffing issues amidst a renovation, and still managed to provide comfortable rooms and great service to those who booked at the hotel.
Service wasn’t the only part of the production that was affected by the pandemic. One of the greatest challenges Brockman faced was also textile-related; the sourcing of enough pipe and drape to outfit the large show. Many of the companies used by Sturbridge in the past did not survive the two years without patronage from these events, and supply chain issues plagued Brockman through the months leading up to the May show. Where the materials were available, it ultimately made more financial sense to buy the pipe and drape from All-In-One Suppliers in Manhattan, which has been in operation for more 100 years. Even this well-established business would take six to eight weeks to fulfill Brockman’s order, as the wheels on their racks were manufactured in China. When the pipe and drape arrived, it went missing until days before the show when it was found accidentally stored away. Brockman called the supplier to confirm that it had indeed been delivered much to both parties’ relief, as his order had cleared their entire stock.
Other areas of the event were also impacted; aside from a few dealers, the numbers of overseas buyers, especially those from the United Kingdom and European countries, was disquietingly low. “People are scared,” Brockman observed. “We’re still in a pandemic.” Numbers of positive cases in Massachusetts were increasing during Brimfield Week, and even those who were excited to be back at an in-person show were cautious. Masks were recommended in all spaces of the event, although the state doesn’t currently have an indoors mask mandate despite a negative Covid test still being necessary to fly into the United States. The logistics of intercontinental travel for buying and selling are daunting enough without the looming threat of a quarantine, which is enough to dissuade some foreign attendees aside from the health risks. Aside from these challenges, the general feedback among the dealers was that they had a great show, with some saying it was the best they ever had.
At the time of the show’s opening, nearly 100 confirmed dealers set up shop in every available nook and cranny of the exhibition space. This mazelike effect was profound even before the two ballroom exhibition spaces opened, with coordinators and dealers keeping a sharp lookout for any ne’er-do-wells that might manage to sneak in before 8 am. Most dealers had set up shop the day before, with their wares ready for their new homes as soon as buyers could find them. Veteran dealers who had shown at Sturbridge for as long as it’s been operating, some who operate solely under their own name, neighbored relative newcomers. Not a show for beginners, many of these were seasoned vendors who were only recently able to secure a coveted spot at this prestigious event.
There is much overlap between the shoppers and the dealers at Sturbridge. Many were spotted throughout the week buying and selling at the Threadbare and Brimfield shows, and it’s not uncommon for both to occur at the same time. Both shows have a distinct “vibe,” as some of the newer dealers put it. With the rise of social media as an effective marketing tool for independent businesses, some vendors plan their outfits for each event as carefully as their setup. “It’s like Coachella for vintage,” one visiting dealer commented. “People go to see and be seen.” Quite a few were still too wary for in-person shows in 2021, and many dealers were pushed to increase their online sales during the past years’ pandemic-induced lockdowns. The “dress to impress” imperative was therefore even more pronounced, encapsulating their stock through their own outfits.
At Sturbridge, those who deal throughout the week tailor their offerings to the higher end of the market to match the tone and price range of longtime exhibitors. Although some booths specialize in haute couture and designer brands up until the late 1990s, a surprising amount only deal in garments from the first half of the Twentieth Century or even earlier. “Museum-quality” is a ubiquitous descriptor in art and antiques, however, for the majority of these lifelong fashion enthusiasts, the claim comes with material evidence of their expertise. Those who typically focus on later ready-to-wear clothing bring out their best and oldest for Sturbridge and are usually rewarded for their efforts. Workwear was popular especially with younger buyers, and designer clothing did well throughout the show.
Textiles also sold in large amounts, which would normally be expected at a show whose former title advertised such fabrics as half of its offerings. Linens and bed coverings were particularly popular. The past few years have seen a drop in exclusively textile-based dealers, whether through retirement or dealers passing away, and concerns have been expressed that the half of the show’s essence was somewhat diminished of late. As a textiles resource and manufacturing specialist, Brockman aims to return that aspect of the show to Sturbridge in the coming season. He also hopes to bring in some antiques dealers, “It would become more of a concept show, not so vintage and textile-heavy.”
The show’s layout was intentionally varied, without too many concentrations of one type of style in one place. The arranging and rearranging of the extensive floor plan was another challenge as vendors either confirmed or dropped out, but the final product gave a comprehensive layout of nearly every style and decade. “I didn’t want to clump too many genres together,” Brockman said. “It made buyers slow down, divide and conquer.” Indeed, to the left of one of the ballroom’s entries, Susan Simon’s luxurious, colorful antique textiles were across the aisle from Object Americana Vintage, whose booth was stocked with wonderfully weathered leather jackets. With this inherent mix, buyers had the opportunity to go beyond their normal blinders and perhaps discover something they otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
Energy was high before 8 am, even in the ballrooms where booths were poised for opening. Dealers chatted and fussed with last minute adjustments to their stands, browsing others’ racks and excitedly groaning as Brockman’s countdown began on the hotel’s intercom system. Some booths were empty, with their dealers grabbing a last minute snack or using the facilities before the gates opened. For the next ten hours, few would stray far from their designated spaces.
When the gates opened, buyers streamed into the two larger halls, empty bags on their shoulders with even more bags inside those. Many were dealers themselves, a few were brand representatives, but most were simply looking for that next great outfit piece. With every dealer bringing their “A-game,” most shoppers had to take multiple turns throughout the ballrooms and conference halls. Layers of clothing and fabrics were peeled back, revealing the stockpiles that dealers had hauled from all around the country. It goes to show that in-person experience truly can’t be replicated when dealing with material objects, and with materials, themselves.
When asked about the success of the Sturbridge Show’s new Instagram presence, Brockman said, “Well it certainly looked very, very cool once the younger dealers showed up!” Some of these have been massively successful on the social media platform, collecting thousands of followers and bringing attention to Sturbridge. “It puts one in the moment,” Brockman continued, “but it isn’t everything.” He went on to explain that one of his personal reasons for buying the show was to help these vendors experience the kind of networking and relationship-building with clients that can only be achieved face-to-face. Brockman was proud to note that many first-timers who only planned to show in May were now returning in September due to their successful sales. We look forward to seeing what’s in store for the next Sturbridge Show.
The next Sturbridge Show will take place July 11. For further information, www.thesturbridgeshow.com.
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