Space and Timing

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EBM Vintage owner Carol Orr’s latest foray into vintage fashion started with a phone call. 

The voice on the other end of the line told her that the last of four sisters—lifelong bachelorettes with good taste—was leaving the home they’d all shared, and the house needed to be cleared. “I went in, and there were over a thousand pieces of clothing,” she says, laughing in amazement.

After acquiring the trove, Orr needed a place to store it. Meanwhile, her neighbor, the Institute Library, needed a tenant for its first-floor storefront. Upon hearing it was likely to be filled by a cut-price cell phone spot, Orr, a passionate Chapel Street booster who pays to wash the windows of neighboring businesses and fills the flowerbeds along the block, acted fast. “I thought about it for about a millisecond,” she says. “They needed a tenant. We didn’t need another cell phone store.”

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What was supposed to be inventory for her first shop has instead become Civvies, a vintage shop in its own right located a few doors down. Focused on apparel and accessories—which in turn frees the first business, EBM Vintage, to focus more determinedly on home decor—the mid-century bounty left by the four fashionable sisters, as well as many other finds, fills the large shop’s racks, cases, shelves, stands, trays.

As Orr and I were talking, the president of the Institute Library’s board of directors, Gregory J. Pepe, wandered in. “What a transformation!” he exclaimed. The stark white walls of the space had been painted a robin’s egg blue with a hint of green. Vibrant rugs had been tastefully placed atop dark-washed hardwood. Large maps had been hung, framing the items perched in front of them, including hat boxes emblazoned with the names of local haberdasheries of yore. A comfy fitting room area had been created at the back of the shop, appointed with vintage furniture no doubt on loan from EBM.

The effect is like stepping into the walk-in fashion vault of a midcentury socialite. The dressing room area shares space with racks of old-timey intimates: silky slips and garter belts. A pair of gleaming black riding boots caught my eye, as did a lacy, shell-like hat made for perching on the head at a rakish angle. Prominently displayed was a blue coat with a lavish fur collar, looking like something a 1930s aristocrat might wear to her murder trial.

At EBM Vintage, clothing had once occupied an area toward the rear of the store. “It was a little lonely back there. No one paid attention to it,” Orr says, and creating a more boutique-like environment was the goal at the new location. Orr’s favorite fashion eras, heavily represented at Civvies, are the 1940s and ’50s, in part thanks to the high durability of clothing made during those decades. (Her Millennial staff, she says with a laugh, are fans of the ’80s and up.) Orr also showed me some Edwardian blouses she was planning on displaying—ruffly, inky black and delicate.

Given the building’s long real estate, Orr has always had to be creative with the rear area at EBM Vintage—fostering endeavors like Breathing Room Yoga and, now, the New Haven Theater Company—and the same goes for Civvies. The curtain-covered doorway at the end of the store-proper leads to a large unfinished space where Orr and her team have set up a photo studio for online selling, and where they’re planning to create a sewing space for fixing up damaged pieces, a wood shop to repair furniture destined for EBM and a classroom space for aspiring sewers. “A lot of people in town are interested in sewing lessons,” she says.

Though no one who’s seen the inside of EBM and Civvies could doubt the style of Orr and her team, Orr insists she’s not a fashionista herself. “I wear jeans almost every day,” she says. Her employees may be a different story. In the center of the store, seamstress and designer Alyssa Breeden was wearing a mod orange-white minidress while removing the moth-bitten sleeves of a coffee and cream sheath dress.

Despite the thousand-piece discovery, Orr is always looking for new old inventory. “I’ve gotten the word out to my estate sale people to give me a heads-up” in case they find any particularly good troves, she says. And just last week, an Etsy seller of vintage clothes came into the store and offered to sell her stock to Orr, since she was pivoting to selling only buttons.

The appeal of vintage clothing, Orr says, is that it stands the tests of time and taste. “These,” she says, motioning to the racks surrounding us, “are things that people bought, collected, saved and cared for. This is not throwaway stuff.”

845 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun noon-6pm
(203) 772-1728

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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A California native and world traveler, Anne came to New Haven for graduate school and discovered that New England is as cold as everyone said it was. She loves reading books, playing guitar, exploring new towns and taking road trips but only as long as she gets to pick the music.

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