In Character

In Character

Perhaps like your own closet, Fashionista Vintage & Variety is crammed full of shirts and skirts, undergarments and shoes, hats and belts. But it’s unlikely your closet has so much fun, wacky, beautiful clothing—or staff who can help dress you for the big Halloween party.

To test the store’s costuming skills, I brought along two accomplices: high school seniors Meggie and Lexi. How well could longtime Fashionista salesperson Cara Malavolti transform them?

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Malavolti shooed the girls into the dressing rooms, where she’d hung up some ensembles for them, and a few minutes later, out came two gray-haired grannies in glasses and buttoned-up blazers. One wore aqua blue slacks, the other leopard print leggings. Both clutched their purses for a trip to the casino. At least, that’s the scenario Malavolti spun for them after she got over the shock of their perfect look. “Rita” and “Gretel,” they christened themselves. “How about some clip-on earrings?” Malavolti suggested to “Rita” before the pair of them posed for a photo.

Next up were matching Marie Antoinette gowns complete with curly 18th century-style wigs, glittery costume ball masks and fancy fans—one feathered, one floral. These getups inspired a courtly dance in the hallway. Finally, Malavolti and a little bit of imagination took the girls to the Roaring Twenties in flapper dresses with a black and white theme. A furry white wrap for Meggie, a bobbed wig and silver beads and earrings for Lexi and vintage headpieces for both completed the look.

Come in with an idea of your own, and Malavolti and the rest of the staff will help you put it together. If they don’t know the character you have in mind—a boy visiting the shop that morning temporarily stumped Malavolti with a request for a superhero she hadn’t heard of—they’ll do a little bit of research first. What you shouldn’t bring in is clothing to donate or sell. Fashionista isn’t a consignment shop, and they get most of their inventory from vintage shops that are closing or from others in the business.

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Though Halloween is a great time to stop in, Fashionista owners Todd Lyon and Nancy Shea say they do a steady business of costume parties as well as video and theatrical productions year-round. Customers come in for everyday looks as well. But if you need something you’re only going to wear once—a dress for a special party, for example—you can rent pretty much anything in the shop for a cash deposit of full price, two-thirds of which will be refunded when you return.

Usually, when a piece is worn just once, “then it goes into that coffin that we call a closet,” Lyon says. “It’s banished… It’s a real waste.” When you rent, Lyon explains, you don’t have to buy an ensemble you won’t wear again. There’s no need to launder it, either. Fashionista will clean it up for the next wearer. “You don’t have to own the stuff, and it makes you think differently about ownership when it comes to clothing,” Lyon says. In fact, she suggests shoppers think of Fashionista as an extension of their own closets.

Shea, who was an environmental planner in her pre-retail life, adds a plug for reusing. “We’re advocates for not buying new and definitely not buying things that are those synthetic fabrics that will never, ever, ever degrade.” Lyon even thinks about it from the party dress’s perspective: “They come to us, and they’ve been sitting in a closet for 52 years, and then all of a sudden they start going to parties,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing.”

The friends’ vintage retail venture began back in 2004 after they met—where else?—at a party. “We were just kind of musing about, ‘Hey, we should do a little sale someday and sell some of our stuff and make a little bit of extra cash,’” Shea says. They tried it once, “and it was a huge hit,” so they started doing a pop-up shop in Shea’s State Street apartment every six weeks or so. A couple years later, the pair took a storefront on Church Street. Shea’s idea was to rent it for a few months, sell down the inventory, “and we’d go back to what our real lives were.” Little did she know.

In 2010, Fashionista relocated to its current shop, on the corner of Trumbull Street and Whitney Avenue, and it’s been renting and selling costumes, special occasion wear and everyday finds ever since. Step inside and wind through the gold room and the pink room to peek in the front window, or follow a narrow hall to the blue room, full of shoes and accessories. Vintage carpets, curio cabinets and mirrors give the sense that you might be discovering treasures in Grandma’s attic: baubles and boas, cowboy boots and go-go boots, silk slips and lingerie, wigs and bags, jeans jackets and suit jackets and plenty of finely made, stylish, vintage clothing for men and women. And, of course, those Halloween costumes: everything from giant animal heads with full-body suits to a simple pull-on mask of Frankenstein’s monster. Meggie and Lexi’s complete Marie Antoinette ensembles, for example, would each rent for about $115, their flapper ensembles for $57 to $68, and their granny get-ups for $52 to $64 as Malavolti put them together, though different combinations are possible.

Customers are occasionally frustrated, Lyon says, by the fact that some items in the shop are labeled “NFS”: not for sale. Those are “our good earners,” she says. Take, for instance, a Sergeant Pepper jacket, a collection of 1970s men’s disco shirts (“incredibly rare”) and costume favorites like “Cereal Killer,” a bloody white jacket adorned with ripped cereal boxes. If you want to wear one of those most precious items, you’ll have to rent, not purchase.

But if your heart is set on keeping what you find, there’s plenty more to choose from.

Fashionista Vintage & Variety
93 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 11am-7pm, Sun noon-5pm
(203) 777-4434 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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