Noe Valley Voice April 2006

Alligators, Old Mink, and New Money

The Houtte Sisters Tell a Vintage Tale from Opposite Coasts

By Olivia Boler

Vintage clothing addicts, take note: If you spend an inordinate chunk of your free time scouring flea markets for those perfect pair of jeans or those glittering chandelier earrings that will make your ex wish he wasn't, there's a new memoir, Alligators, Old Mink & New Money: One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing, that is just the ticket for a virtual shopping fix.

The book, published by William Morrow in December, was co-written by Noe Valley resident Melissa Houtte and her sister Alison Houtte, the owner of Hooti Couture, an extremely successful vintage clothing boutique in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For those who know the difference between Pucci and Gucci, the story of Alison's love affair with clothes--both old and new, but mostly old--may open a new trunk full of trade secrets. But Alligators also has a rags-to-riches theme. It traces Alison's path, from her humble, rural Floridian beginnings, to her glam fashion modeling career, to her ultimate splash in the small business world.

The sisters tell the tale by hanging it on the hangers, so to speak, of the vintage clothes Alison has worn and loved. "It's part adventure story, part love story--clothes passion, that is--and part comedy," says Melissa, who did the bulk of the writing.

Scattered throughout the book are tips on shopping vintage, from how to spot collectible designer labels to how to negotiate a better price with a seller. Of course, the book also chronicles the not so enchanting side of vintage retail--slogging through musty closets, dealing with obnoxious customers, and suddenly needing to move the shop's location when the landlord declines to renew the lease.

Melissa, who lives on Eureka Street with her husband, Bob Doyle (and their 4-year-old black lab mix, Ernie), says the idea for the memoir came from all the time she's spent in her sister's New York store, which opened in the mid-1990s. "Every time I visited, I met some of her customers who love vintage clothes and accessories and who were always looking for the next great item. And I realized [Alison] had figured out how to tap into a diverse and very hip audience."

The first chapter begins with narrator Alison recounting her parents' history and her mother's influence on her sense of style. Alison, 45, is the youngest of five sisters and one brother, and Melissa, 55, is the oldest.

Fortunately, capturing her little sister's voice wasn't that difficult. "Maybe it helps that many people say we are quite alike and sound alike, although Alison is even more animated and high-energy than I am," Melissa says. She does admit that occasionally Alison would read chapter drafts and say with a laugh, "Melissa, I would never use this word in a thousand years!" or "This doesn't sound like me." But in the end, big sis got it right, as Alison's friends and customers confirm.

The sisters sold their book proposal in June 2004, and had about six months to pull together the finished product. Because they live on opposite coasts, Melissa sometimes got up at 6:30 a.m. to interview her sister before Alison had to get to the shop for its 11 a.m. Eastern Time opening. A freelance writer since 2001--and a seasoned journalist and author before that--Melissa works in a home office looking out onto her garden.

The phone interviews worked well, but the sisters did find it necessary to meet in person too, so Alison once flew out to San Francisco. On this trip, she discovered Guys and Dolls, the vintage clothing store on 24th Street owned by Graciela Ronconi (along with Vendima at 24th and Castro). The story of Alison's shopping adventure there made it into the book under a chapter titled, "The Thrill of the Hunt: Scavenging for a Deal." (See excerpt, starting at right.)

Since the book's publication, the Houttes have heard from many readers who appreciated the fairy-tale aspect of the story. Many of them, particularly women, dream of opening their own vintage stores someday.

Melissa's future plans include writing more books, but for now she's concentrating on talking up Alligators. The hardback United Kingdom/Australia edition just came out, and the paperback will be published in the fall. She's also busy building a web site, www.hooticouture .com, where photos of the New York store, Alison's modeling career, and their stylish mother can be found.

As for her own style, Melissa admits she dresses a little more conservatively than her younger sister, although she's fond of a faux leopard print bag, a gift Alison gave her in the 1980s that has become vintage over time. "Working out of my home office with regular jaunts to Fort Funston with my dog, my wardrobe is usually limited to jeans, sweaters, and a pair of Campers or Adidas," she says with a laugh.

On April 20, Melissa Houtte and Graciela Ronconi will hold a "vintage get-together." Called "A Passion for Everyday Vintage: An Informal Chat," it will be from 7 to 8 p.m. at Vendima, at 4100 24th Street at Castro. They will be talking about all things vintage, and autographed books also will be available for purchase.


from Melissa and Alison Houtte

l "If the word 'estate' is used, you will generally pay more than at a garage sale."

l "Make sure a zipper works, unless you're very handy with a sewing machine."

l "The quick fix for a purse handle" is an old belt.

l "If the underarms of a piece are heavily stained...keep moving."

l "Old fake furs are much more durable than the real thing."

l "If something appears clean but has even a hint of mustiness, Febreze is a quick, easy fix."

Alison Houtte's Adventure in
Guys & Dolls

This story about fashion hound Alison Houtte's visit to 24th Street in 2004 appears in the book Alligators, Old Mink & New Money, written by Noe Valley resident Melissa Houtte with her sister Alison.

I stood in the doorway of the little vintage clothing store on 24th Street in San Francisco, and already I could feel the adrenaline pumping, as if I was about to meet a blind date whose resume promised a cross between Pierce Brosnan's James Bond and Ethan Hawke straight from the set of Before Sunrise.

I had come to Guys & Dolls for two reasons: I'm always curious to see how other vintage sellers run their businesses--how they display, what kind of pricing and tagging they have, and which product categories are a priority within their space. And, just as importantly, I need to see if there is anything I can't live without--something that makes me feel beautiful, sexy or even outrageous, while helping me sell my vintage message at Hooti and anywhere else I go. I don't wear or carry something vintage every day of my life, but the totally no-vintage days are rare.

I have left many shops empty-handed, because of ridiculous prices or tired merchandise, but almost instantly my inner-vintage voice told me that wouldn't be the case today. First, there was the matter of leopard. Guys & Dolls has leopard-print carpet on the floor and leopard-print velvet curtains on the dressing room. The owner and I must be kindred spirits, I thought, bound by a passion for swirls and spots of black, tan and orange.

A quick glance at a few tags told me the shop's prices were comforting, too--every bit as affordable as Hooti's, if not more so. And even though the owner had sprinkled several new vintage-style items in among her old pieces, she had done it right. The store, small as it was, had as much electricity as any Emilio Pucci purse or silk undies. And while most of the labels reflected West Coast designers and stores, the merchandise was classic vintage, as likely to have been discovered in a Seattle attic as the barn of a Virginia horse farm. I was in heaven.

Was that the owner behind the counter? Maybe, but we hadn't made eye contact, so an introduction could wait. I wanted to shop first and talk shop later.

I headed straight for the first thing that caught my eye, a rack with maybe thirty beaded sweaters, suits and jackets, all carefully marked as to condition and estimated size. I started pulling several suits that might fit me, and as I ooohed and aaahed, Graciela Ronconi, wearing a handknitted orange-and-green Fifties poncho-like jacket, watched this feeding frenzy and smiled. Finally, I introduced myself as a fellow shop owner from Brooklyn who also loved leopard and was ecstatic to have found her shop. We chatted for a few minutes, but when a young woman came into the shop to buy a pair of fifties eyeglass frames she'd seen earlier, I resumed my hunt.

The first suit that worked was a camel-colored forties gabardine, a bit worn, but a near-perfect fit, though not for long if I picked up even three or four pounds. I particularly loved the amber-colored buttons and the lines of the pencil skirt, which had an unusual small centered pleat. The satin label was a first for me: Tailored by Saks of California. Despite a small hole on the front of the jacket, near the hem, this would be a great weekend outfit for the shop. The price: $85.

Next came a very unusual chocolate-bronze forties suit with embossed flowers in the same color. The satiny fabric, something that could easily work for day or night, was in good condition. This outfit had two labels, one for the shop that sold it--"Nelly Gaffney, San Francisco and Burlingame"--and one for the designer--"Coppola Designs, Deitsch, Wersba & Coppola." Again, I had never heard of these folks or the store. But I loved the details: champagne silk lining and the jacket's six original brown faux-crystal buttons. Overall condition: very good. Price: $88.

The next suit--I was a little out of control at this point--had been "Styled by Gino, Ridge Park Fashions, Inc., New York City." Whenever I see a label like this, I can't help but wonder: Was there ever a real Gino or Dino, or did someone simply think that an Italian name would add cache to the brand? The suit had wear and tear, but I could look past that because the "look" was irresistible, especially the three-quarter sleeves with winglike cuffs and the most distinctive little hip pockets that were just big enough for a very small hankie. Each pocket was trimmed with two V-shaped flaps that were topped by a short vertical row of gray buttons. The skirt was not quite a pencil shape; all the lining was a blush-colored silk. Price: $78.

As I laid the must-buys on the counter, Graciela began to write up my purchases, generously knocking ten dollars off each suit, though I had not asked if prices were negotiable. Then I spotted what was probably my best vintage purchase of 2004, a coat-and-dress set in three shades of gray with a Lilli Ann Knit label. Lillian Schuman had started a design company with her husband, Adolph, in San Francisco back in the thirties, and for decades they produced many beautifully detailed pieces, particularly wool coats and suits, often trimmed with fur. Their work has aged well and many designs have become still-affordable collectibles. But when customers first asked if Hooti had any Lilli Ann, I didn't know who they were talking about. Now I'm always on the lookout, especially for her forties and fifties designs. But this outfit is newer, probably mid- to late sixties, and it is as elegant as anything I've ever touched in a double-knit.

What gives this design its drama is its simplicity and its fur: A six-inch band of pale gray fox cuffs three-quarter bell sleeves on the coat. But these aren't just any sleeves, because the underseam has been left unstitched--giving the sleeves a capelike flow when I walk. The solid gray collarless dress--with the slightest A-line--buttons all the way down the front and is finished with a contrasting band of darker gray fabric around the bottom--the same dark gray as the outer coat. The pockets are hidden in the seams, so there is nothing to distract from the clean lines, beyond four big ridged gray buttons on the dress.

The minute I put it on, I felt like a sixties-era couture model, ready to walk the walk. And I knew that the minute the temperatures plummeted for the first time in Brooklyn, I would be out and about, happy to share my new vintage find with the world. Graciela's price: $140, discounted to $125.

My shopping--for me--was done for this winter. No matter how hard I hunted, I knew I could not top this.

Six weeks after I found my Lilli Ann, it was twenty-five degrees out the night she made her neighborhood debut.

My girlfriend Jay and I had planned a gotta-catch-up dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant in Prospect Heights, and I had been dying to give the coat and dress a "test drive"--to see what accessories would work best and if alterations were necessary. I paired the outfit with black Ralph Lauren equestrian-style flat-heeled, knee-height boots, and for extra warmth and one more shot of pizzazz, I added leopard-print rabbit-fur cuffs at the top of the boots--a nice counterpoint to all the gray. I finished the look with a tiny new faux-mink purse with a Chanel-style chain and a large black-mink pin on the dress, completing the black accent that had begun with the boots.

Early for our dinner reservation, Jay and I stopped first at Pieces, a hot boutique on Vanderbilt Avenue that's owned by one of the most stylish couples in Park Slope, Letitia and Calvin Smith. I know Letitia because of mutual friends, but we've never had time to talk business or clothes. Tonight, in an instant, that changed.

"I need that coat you're wearing right now," she announced, laughing as she, Jay and I all took a few moments to savor my slice of the past. Then Letitia got serious: "How much is the coat? When are you putting it in the shop?"

I smiled and shook my head. "This one's not for sale," I said.

Printed with permission from Alison Houtte and Melissa Houte's Alligators, Old Mink & New Money: One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing (New York: William Morrow, 2005).