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How I Shop: Carlotta Kohl

The stylish photographer shares her tips for finding the best vintage and the importance of shopping responsibly.
Carlotta Kohl at the Tiffany & Co. Paper Flowers event and Believe in Dreams campaign launch. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Carlotta Kohl at the Tiffany & Co. Paper Flowers event and Believe in Dreams campaign launch. Photo: Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

We all buy clothes, but no two people shop the same. It can be a social experience, and a deeply personal one; at times, it can be impulsive and entertaining, at others, purpose-driven, a chore. Where do you shop? When do you shop? How do you decide what you need, how much to spend and what's "you"? These are some of the questions we're putting to prominent figures in our column "How I Shop."

Photographer and erstwhile model Carlotta Kohl has relationships with the kinds of designers that would make any fashion fan jealous: She's worn pieces from Gucci, Adam Selman, Rachel Antonoff, Coach, Chanel and Dior. But when we meet for tea on a chilly winter morning, her two standout pieces — a top-handled carpet bag and space-dyed knit sweater with a scenic print — don't have high-end labels on the inside. They're some of Kohl's treasured vintage finds, unearthed from Etsy. The key to successful secondhand shopping, according to Kohl? Patience and a little bit of obsession.

"I'll find stuff in vintage stores, then I'll find out the technical name for it and I'll do a deeper dive online," she explains, holding up the bag as a recent favorite example. "It was in my cart for so long, and I pulled the trigger and got it, but I also got it in the summer, and you can't wear carpet bag [in the summer]."

Kohl brought her love of vintage into her recent collaboration with New York-based belt brand Beltology. For the brand's first foray into womenswear, Kohl designed disco-ready belts with rhinestone-encrusted buckles and stretchy, sparkly materials. "I wanted to make something that was festive, because it was for the holidays, but also wearable and that told a story," she explains. The Studio 54-inspired belts even come packaged in a velvet pouch that doubles as an evening bag, folding in Kohl's insistence that fashion shouldn't be wasteful.

While Kohl wears some of the biggest names in fashion and runs with a cool crowd — Petra Collins is a close friend; Jack Antonoff is her boyfriend; St. Vincent asked her to model for her latest (and Grammy-nominated!) album cover "Masseduction" — she undoubtedly has a style that's all her own. She fills us in on where she finds her inspiration, how she digs up the best vintage online and why she won't buy fast fashion.

Carlotta Kohl in Adam Selman at The Bloomberg 50 celebration. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Carlotta Kohl in Adam Selman at The Bloomberg 50 celebration. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

"I feel like [my personal style] really varies. I get inspired by movie, or a country singer, and it's very dependent on my mood. I feel like I have so many people that I look up to; I'll like what someone does at a certain period, like Brigitte Bardot in a certain time. For a really long time, I hated the '80s, and then all the sudden, I really liked it. I'm trying to figure out when that happened. [Laughs] I think I was watching '80s movies, like 'Heathers'; there's 'Risky Business' — I really love [Rebecca De Mornay]. When I was younger, I didn't really understand the outfits that much, and now I'm into bows and structured blazers. Movies really inspire. 

It's funny — sometimes I feel like I'll be into something a really long time and, I don't know, maybe I'm more aware, but I'll see it pop up elsewhere. I've always been obsessed with plaid and gingham, and there was a season where Prada did all these gingham dresses, and I was like, 'Ah, I need everything from here!' 

I also primarily dress for comfort, and I want to feel good in what I'm wearing. It's vintage-inspired with some classic pieces. After trying multiple different styles and looks, I figured out what looks good on me, what silhouettes, and I explore. I know that A-line, bias-cut dresses look good on me — like 1940s, 1950s. Then I play around with color and patterns. Everyone looks different in clothes — I just happen to know how I look in clothes. I just try to highlight the features that I like, and it took me a really long time to figure that out, just by trying on clothes, honestly. You see the same silhouettes being repeated in fashion, and if it works, it works. 

Here [in New York City], I feel like a lot of vintage is overpriced or really picked through. When I'm not traveling and going to vintage stores — I love vintage stores in San Francisco and California in general, or Portland — I'll go on Etsy or eBay. I'll get obsessed with gingham for a second, and then I'll look for [that]. But then that will bring me into another category where I'm like, 'Oh, I like Western-inspired rodeo swing dresses,' because I know that will look good on me, and it's also in the same sort of realm.

I also try to shop responsibly. I don't like to go to Zara or any place that is fast fashion — that is so wasteful and will fall apart in a second. I splurge on contemporary things that I know will last, and that compare with things that are less-expensive second-hand. I splurge on shoes, because I have bunions now from bad shoes. [Laughs] Also, you want your shoes to look good; I can spot a bad shoe. I'll splurge on shoes and bags — [though] my bag today actually is from Etsy — and pants, like a pair of jeans.

I like Opening Ceremony. I think it's really fun; some things I absolutely wouldn't wear, but I like how eclectic it is. I mostly shop online [on Etsy]. Let me just take you through the process: I'll go to a vintage store and I'll try on a dress, and I'll see how it's cut. I'll type in, like, '1950s novelty prints'; I'll just type in variations of the same word. Some people will describe things differently, so if you type it in a different way, you'll have more options. I was obsessed with '80s prom dresses, so for example, I'll type in ''80s party dress,' but then I'll also type in ''80s cocktail dress,' or ''80s formal dress.' 

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Then I'll go under vintage, looking at the measurements. If you find out your measurements, you're pretty much set. It can be a swing or miss. If it's a dress, there's some flexibility in that. It's really hard to shop for pants. The stuff that doesn't work, I'll give it to friends, honestly, or I'll donate it, but I never make huge purchases. It's always under a hundred.

I still want to look like me; things that I like from Gucci, maybe other people wouldn't necessarily like. I'll make it my own, so I'll get a purple Gucci bag that maybe some people wouldn't get. I still feel like, even though they have their own collection, you can make it your own. It's so much about personal taste, and how you pair it. I'm not going to wear a full Gucci outfit. 

I'll also look into where things are made. I try to do some research before, if I really like something. I like when things are made in New York, or [locally] when I'm going on vacation. I went to Italy, and instead of buying a bathing suit from a different place, I'd like to purchase locally.

I'll go on a job, and if I have some time off, I'll look for second-hand stores or vintage stores. For some reason, that just brings me so much comfort. I really like to buy second-hand. First of all, I don't like to wear whatever people are wearing; I don't want to see someone on the street wearing the same thing. I also think there's so many clothes out there; if you can recycle it, you're giving it another life. A lot of vintage pieces are better made. If they've lasted for that long, you know you're going have some good wear.

My friend did a collaboration with Beltology and I did the campaign for it. Through him, I met the owners of the company, and they asked me to photograph another collection. We built a nice relationship, and they were really easy about different concepts and gave me a lot of freedom, which is rare. People want moodboards and people are afraid to take risks, and they were just like, 'Yeah, go for it.'

Then they asked me to do a holiday women's collaboration. They'd only had men's collections before, but then my friend's collaboration was unisex, and they wanted to make the jump to women's. It just seemed like a natural fit. I'm really inspired by the '70s, specifically Studio 54, so I thought it would be really fun to make jewel-toned party belts. They loved the idea. They're stretchy, as well. We go up to a size 2X, but since they're stretchy it's almost honestly like a 3X, and that was really important for me, too, because I wanted everyone to wear them. 

My mom and I designed the bag; throughout the 1800s, people were wearing these purses, and they all have them in velvet, too, and then it became a disco bag. That was a big part of it. I wanted to make something that people didn't just throw away, that you can reuse. I just love that everything is made in New York; they're working with a family company, a factory that's been around forever. The whole family works there. That felt really special.

Absolutely, [I would do more collaborations]. I have friends who have lines, and I see what a headache it is, just from a production standpoint. If you don't have to worry about that, it really frees you to be able to focus on the creative.

Honestly, I've made so many bad purchases. [Laughs] I guess now looking back at it, I don't really have regrets, because it all kind of evolved and maybe it just wasn't the right time for it, but now I see it popping up. I would also go to thrift stores in the town I grew up in, and I wore the most insane things. [Laughs] It's really shameful. I bought this sweater that had a bunch of sheep running — it was disgusting. It was a really ugly sweater. I would have to say that was a bad purchase. Anything that I've bought at Zara or anywhere, I think those are terrible purchases because I don't even have them anymore. I was really into the crop tops for a minute, and I just gave them away. 

What did I love, and that I always wear? I don't know. I have so many clothes that are so sentimental, and it would be really hard to choose.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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