Published: January 10, 2023
With a lifetime of experience in fashion and design, Illisa, who goes by her first name only, is currently the sole vintage clothing dealer at the Manhattan Art & Antiques Center. Illisa’s Vintage Lingerie is a fantasy boudoir filled with an almost unbelievable concentration of antique underpinnings. Such a collection has no apparent match in the United States, and possibly the world, with pieces dating from the Nineteenth Century up to the mid-Twentieth Century. Illisa has almost no online presence and has built her business through years of collecting, collaborating and an unrelenting love for her work. While visiting Illisa in her East Side shop, we discussed her career and unique outlook on the current revival of vintage fashion.
Please tell our readers a bit about yourself and your background in fashion.
I credit my mother with all of this, she was a graduate of the Pratt Institute and a fashion designer. She used to make all our clothes, especially when we went to parties or bar mitzvahs or weddings, and she taught me everything I know. I was sewing and making my own clothes when I was eight years old, and I just loved it! I remember telling her, “Someday, I’m going to take you shopping in Paris.” And on her 70th birthday, I had a big deal with Victoria’s Secret, and we went! That was a dream come true. My mother worked until she was 83, dressing Palm Beach socialites for 25 years, because she loved what she did. I lost her in February of last year; she was three weeks shy of 90 and lived a great life.
When did you decide to focus solely on lingerie for your business?
There used to be a lot of beautiful vintage stores all over New York. When I was first shopping around, I didn’t know I would get into vintage, especially vintage lingerie. I was with a friend down in the Village, and saw this 1930s silk charmeuse nightgown. When I put that nightgown on, nothing ever made me feel like it made me feel. Glamorous, sexy, pretty, everything you’re supposed to feel as a woman. I was hooked, and I still have the nightgown!
Did you start selling vintage lingerie shortly after?
No, I started collecting and wearing it! I’ve done a lot of different things. I was raising my kids, I was a makeup artist, I worked in the restaurant business for 11 years… I would be wearing this stuff and people asked me where they could get it. So, I took my rent money [laughs] and started buying things and selling them, made the rent money back and had more to buy stuff. I bankrolled my whole business that way.
Believe me, in the beginning it wasn’t so easy. Money was always tight. I’ve been in the business almost 40 years, things used to be much cheaper. In the late ’60s and early ’70s when polyester came out, everyone was throwing stuff out. I got into this business so I would never have to wear polyester! I like pure fabrics.
How difficult is it to source vintage lingerie now?
It’s very difficult, but I have such a big inventory because I’ve been collecting for so long. People know that I don’t have any technology, and all the dealers I work with send me things on approval. I can never buy from a picture, so I have no idea what’s online. I go to auctions and shows, and I buy from dealers. Now that I’m in [Manhattan Art & Antiques Center], I get house calls. Not too often, but once in awhile I hit on something. Especially with the shop window, people will walk by and say, “I have something like that!” Nine times out of 10 they don’t, or it’s too late for me. People have walked into the store with a couple of things, too.
How has the vintage clothing market changed since you started?
It’s gotten better. People want one-of-a-kind, they’re sick of what the designers are making that are oversized, ugly… I tell every designer I work with, “Please, all women want is to feel pretty.” If they’re a Size 0 or a Size 82, those kinds of clothes don’t make them feel pretty. Everything is on a budget, and they don’t put any detail into things, unless you go to the complete opposite end with couture, which only one percent of the world can afford to do.
Most of my lingerie is handmade. A true bias needs to be cut on a diagonal. If you go to Zara or H&M and buy a “bias cut” dress, the fabric’s not right, it’s all lumpy on the side… A true bias cut dress needs twice as much fabric. [These garments] conform to fit the body. I started out at a flea market on Sixth Avenue wearing a slip and people used to make fun of me. They would say, “Look at the lady in her underwear!” I did that market for 12 years, I had my own store for 6½ years, and then I moved to Showplace [at 40 West 25th Street] for 13 years. Now I have this place, and I’m done.
I also did the show circuit for 15 years, six shows a year. The Pier Show and the clothing shows in Manhattan, so I paid my dues. I haven’t done a show in 19 years. I’ll never do it again. You have to bring stock to the show, pack it all up, things get destroyed… My show is when I’m in the store. I’m not going anywhere or getting a computer. People don’t realize that having a website is another job. If I put my stock online, it would be gone in a month. And then what would I do with myself? I need a reason to get up in the morning, and I look forward to it. If you want to see me, you come here. That’s my attitude.
You recently moved to the Manhattan Art & Antiques Center, how has that change affected your work?
First of all, I built the store of my dreams. This is three times bigger than my other store, you can see everything, and working on the East Side is very different than working on the West Side. I never saw such young girls coming in the store with such interest in this, and with mommy and daddy’s credit cards. They’ll come in the store and spend a thousand, two thousand dollars. I was never allowed to do anything like that, I’ve always worked!
It took me 2½ months to set up the store. We gutted it before then and did the floors, the walls, the moldings and had the furniture recovered. I really went all out in designing the store and I love going there. Every time I open my door, I think, “I can’t believe I did this.” It took me almost 40 years, but it was worth the waiting for. [You can’t replicate] walking in and seeing and touching. I can’t buy unless I touch the fabric. You know how much stuff has just dissolved down my sink? Hundreds of dollars.
All my old customers come to the East Side. I’m also on Google, so if anyone searches for “vintage lingerie,” I’m it! There’s nobody else. I’ve worked with some of the top designers in the world. [Jean-Paul] Gaultier is my oldest customer. He hasn’t seen the new store; I saw him right before Covid, and he was doing a show that they did in Paris. He retired from designing but is still doing shows and couture, so I’m hoping he’ll come soon.
Your shop has its own filmography of on-screen appearances. Could you share any upcoming shoots?
I have a great peignoir set that will be on Demi Moore in American Horror Story. There’s a new Robert DeNiro movie in pre-production being filmed in Ohio that I’ve been working on; they just bought a pair of slippers.
Do you have favorite piece in the store?
People always ask me that! [laughs] It’s a French stocking holder I paid a fortune for that I’ll never sell. It hangs on the wall, and I put stockings on it! I love girly things. Back in the ’20s, everything was boudoir, boudoir pillows, all that girly stuff. This is old Hollywood glamour, and everyone wants to feel glamorous no matter what size you are.
A lot of girls come in for untraditional weddings, I’ve sold so many of these slips as wedding gowns. Would you rather get a polyester piece of crap, or would you rather get a beautiful silk charmeuse dress? There’s nothing better than the hunt. I still get butterflies after 39 years, so I know I’m in the right business. It’s a calling. I created this; I’ve been doing it for so long and I still have the same passion and feelings. When those go away, I know I’m done.
[Editor’s note: Illisa’s Vintage Lingerie is in Gallery 92 of the Manhattan Arts & Antiques Center, open Wednesday through Sunday and by appointment. For information, 212-721-7039.]
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