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How to Expertly Shop Vintage Online Like a Costume Designer

From the pros behind the perfect throwback looks on "This Is Us," "Empire" and "GLOW."
Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) enjoy a pre-Netflix, VHS movie rental moment on 'This Is Us.' Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) enjoy a pre-Netflix, VHS movie rental moment on 'This Is Us.' Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Maybe you're obsessed with Mandy Moore's throwback berets on "This Is Us" (if you want a contemporary one, you know where to look); maybe you're integrating authentic '90s designer pieces into your 2018 wardrobe. Maybe you're just ready to blow your holiday money by hunting for one-of-a-kind finds — while not leaving the comforts of your own home (or your cubicle in your still deserted office). In other words: You want to shop vintage, but online

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But, like any online retail expedition, there are great benefits to be enjoyed (fantastic deals, unique prices) and pitfalls to avoid (weird sizing and suspect quality, to name a couple). So we went to the experts who are constantly sourcing online for vintage treasures for expert and, most importantly, proven tips: Hala Bahmet, who's non-stop shopping for decades ranging from the '40s to today on the hit NBC tearjerker series "This Is Us;" Beth Morgan, who amassed a treasure trove of '80s leotards and fought off hipsters for authentic mom jeans for Netflix's "GLOW;' and Paolo Nieddu, who is always on the hunt for high-end designer pieces from the '80s and to early 2000s for the supreme Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) on "Empire."

Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) in vintage Hermès on 'Empire.' Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) in vintage Hermès on 'Empire.' Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Start where the costume designers shop.

Obviously, Etsy and eBay are essential stops for all the costume designers and Nieddu and Morgan shop First Dibs for high-end designer finds and their discriminating vetting policies. Morgan and Bahmet are also huge fans of Recess LA for throwback designer treasures and exceptional non-designer finds. For the copious amounts of vintage she needs to procure for "This Is Us," Bahmet relies on the above, plus Regeneration Vintage and Voguely Familiar to round out her three personal go-to top sources. "They offer carefully and interestingly curated vintage items with a focus on great design spanning many decades and cultures — and excellent customer service," she explains. While the first two are more high-end (and higher-priced), Voguely Familiar offers pieces — conveniently categorized by item type and also decade — at $99 or under. 

"It's the little-sister shop of my favorite bricks and mortar vintage boutique, The Way We Wore," she says. "I've found so many treasures for my main actors online at Voguely Familiar and the prices are fantastic!"

Be as detailed as you can in your filters.

If you're searching via Google or within, for instance, Etsy, be as specific and creative as possible. "I'm always trying to cut through the riff raff," says Morgan, about having an end "goal" in mind. For instance, if she wants statement '80s earrings from the '80s, her search would be "1980s shinny earrings" or "1980s earrings with glitter." For clothing items, she'll include fabric type along with the category and add a distinguishing detail, like, "'80s wool knit sweater with beads." She usually will try a minimum of three or four different search term combinations to make sure she sees "everything" and doesn't "miss out on any hidden gems."

But feel free to browse, too.

Nieddu, however likes to browse and essentially see where the search takes him for the most comprehensive perusal, especially on First Dibs. He starts with a specific designer search, like "Bob Mackie," which then takes him to various specialized vendors that carry Mackie and also other similarly fabulous designers. "Then I'll go and look at their stuff [for] a mix of things," he says. Falling into that, say, Versace rabbit hole can be extremely fruitful (if not dangerous for the wallet) for his costume searches.

Carefully assess all the details.

Look for vendors that list as much detail as possible in the item descriptions and carefully read through, especially for fabric and quality information. Select First Dibs vendors will even detail the provenance and history of pieces to make the purchase even more meaningful. "Some will show, 'hey this was in an Yves Saint Laurent advertisement from July of 1981'," he says. "It's fun to know that. The Givenchy '90s gown [that Cookie wore to Hakeem's wedding], they actually had a runway still of it [on First Dibs]."

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For clothing, hi-res images are ideal to see a more true to life color of the item, plus scrutinize for quality. (Zoom in to check for imperfections and damage.) Also, it helps to see the item on a dress form or mannequin to determine the fit and draping. If those photos aren't available on a site, but a vendor lists contact information, send an email (or call) to request additional pics of the item on a body. 

The ladies of 'GLOW' in their '80s best. Photo: Erica Parise/NetflixPICTUREDSy

The ladies of 'GLOW' in their '80s best. Photo: Erica Parise/NetflixPICTUREDSy

Play detective when it comes to determining accurate (or close to accurate) sizing.

With differences in European sizing, the escalation of vanity sizing and just general evolution of physiques over the past century, finding the right fit (or, more importantly, avoiding the wrong fit) can be tricky when it comes to vintage shopping, especially when a dressing room isn't an option. Nieddu starts by making calculated assumptions. For instance, sizing on pieces manufactured within the last 10 to 15 years are probably comparable to contemporary fits. "When you get into the '80s or '70s pieces, it is a little tricky," he says, while adding that some experienced vendors might share an estimate of what the item might be in a contemporary size. 

Hopefully the vendor will list the measurements of the item in the description. But "sometimes it's a bit of a puzzle to sort out what they mean," warns Morgan. "It's important to make sure that they are measuring around the whole garment and not across the garment laying flat. The numbers are the best indicator. For example, if it says the waist is 14 inches that most liking is laying flat and should be doubled (ish)."  Nieddu sometimes will even use a tape measure to virtually "eyeball" and estimate the fit of an item on his end.

When in doubt, "don't be shy about contacting the store," says Morgan about calling or emailing the vendor with size clarification questions. Plus, there's always the option of taking a risk with the option of going to a tailor after — but only if you're betting on the piece being oversize. "I'm always fine if it's bigger, we'll alter it and we'll make it smaller," says Nieddu, who also admits to having quite a few unworn vintage skirts in his archives.

Don't be afraid to mix in some low-tech searching.

After perusing Etsy, eBay and the like, Morgan likes to do a general Google search to cover all her bases, starting with the desired item and time period. "Some of the sites that come up are new discoveries and can become your favorite," she says, about her search engine browse. "It's always the weird listing that has nothing to do with the search that has the gems."

Take advantage of your location, too, which can be especially fun you're traveling. "I usually include the city that l'm shopping in, too. If there is a store close by it's always best to go in. Vintage stores tend to only put a small percentage of their stock online." And don't be afraid to make that old school phone call. "If a shop has lots of things I like [online], I'll contact them to see if they have anything that isn't online or ask them to keep an eye out for me if there is something particular I'm looking to hunt down," Morgan adds.

OK, one more perfect beret, just because. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

OK, one more perfect beret, just because. Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Don't give up if it arrives and you hate it.

Possibly the biggest caveat with shopping vintage online: no returns. Again, it can't hurt to contact the vendor (or buy from a site with a clearly listed vendor with contact information). "Kindness and honesty is always my policy," says Morgan. "I explain the situation and why I need to have a refund. This usually works. Worst case you can ask for a credit to make a different purchase from them in the future."

Follow Paolo Nieddu on Instagram @pniddy and Beth Morgan on Instagram @patternattack.

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