Dressed in a vintage cotton and lace Mexican wedding dress complete with ruffled crochet trimmings and bell sleeves, Wendé Gilmore, savoring a perfectly matched riesling, begins her life story at 18. That's when she ran away to the circus, where she would be sawed in half, turned into tiger, or perform whatever other transformation a glamorous magician's assistant was expected to undergo."It was the most incredible experience of my life," Gilmore said. "I would not change it for all the college in the world. I learned more about life — about responsibility, about performing, about myself — in the theater. It made me who I am."
But despite the thrills and promise of international travel the circus provided, the gods of fashion were beckoning and she was compelled to answer.
"A love for vintage fashion was something I was born with," Gilmore said. "I was always inspired by my grandmother, who was a fashionista and made her own clothes and dressed to the nines. I was always drawn to it. It was a calling."
When Hurricane Ivan ripped through the Caribbean, nearly wiping out Greneda, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, it eventually made landfall in Alabama and Florida. That September day in 2004, it added Sonja Tilley's near 20-year-vintage collection, her 15-year-old shop and her home to its wreckage.
"It rolled me out. I lost my business, my house. My whole collection just went sailing out to sea," Tilley said.
"But, you just start over."
Gilmore and Tilley are two major vintage vendors in the Southwest Florida. As fashions lean toward the quirky, the creative and the playful mixture of eras dating back to the 40s, sales at boutique vintage shops such as theirs are growing.
Gilmore owned two different stores around Florida before she came to downtown Fort Myers. Her shop, Vamped Up Vintage, at 2200 First St., is "the best move she ever made."
Tilley, a native of England, came to Naples after Ivan the Terrible, and began collecting vintage items again. She took over Audrey's Attic, 104 10th St. N., near downtown Naples. What began as — literally — a shop in an attic blossomed into a high-end consignment and vintage shop. Tilley dropped Attic from its name, and the customers trickled in.
"I had a standard customer base in Pensacola," Tilley said. "Not so much down here, but business is good. (I'm) lucky enough people bring stuff to me."
For Gilmore, vintage fashion provided a way of performing offstage. It's as though the world transforms into a stage the moment she slips on a timeless piece.
"I'm a very eclectic, passionate, theatrical, spiritual human being," Gilmore said of herself.
The passion for vintage seized control when she was 14.
"I started perusing Salvation Army shops, Goodwills, looking for dresses or suits from the 1930s or '40s," Gilmore said. "I still have the first one I ever bought, which was for next to nothing."
Incorporating the pieces she picked out — the ones that "spoke" to her and made her scream inside, "I have to have this" — made Gilmore the "odd one out" in school, she said. But she didn't mind, she was proud to mix jeans with a fluffy, crepe or organza blouse from the 1940s. And she was even more thrilled she spent less on her classic outfits than her friends did on their trendy looks.
Tilley's dressmaker mother first drew her to vintage fashion. The nostalgia of fabrics, textiles, cuts, feminine styles lost through the years kept her searching, looking, wanting.
"They were so glamorous," Tilley said. "And you don't realize how glamorous, until you look back. I just love fashion and pretty things — just love pretty things, and I could recognize the materials the styles, so I kept at it."
After the circus, Gilmore — who politely refuses to give her age — joined a traveling theater group. To satisfy her need to entertain through her dress as well, she amassed a collection spanning warehouses and states. Soon she had enough to fill a store, as well as stock a private collection of hats and Edwardian-era fashions for herself.
It was time to open a business.
Set on the second floor of the Frank Shops in downtown Fort Myers, across from Starbucks, the store has consignment and sale pieces to one side of the loft, and it's packed. Racks display dresses organized by era. They don't just hang; they cascade in rainbow spirals.
Headbands, mirrors, hairbrushes, clips, and gloves sit neatly on a classic chaise lounge and sitting chair, as though each item said where it wanted to be. Flamboyant red pancake hats, dainty, veiled flapper hats, small square hats resembling a rose bouquet, navy hats with grosgrain trim, even Prince's "raspberry beret," lined the corners and covered any inches left bare in the little shop. Two changing rooms, flanked by gowns and fur coats, complete the store's odd-shaped footprint, which is something like a peak laid flat.
It is Gilmore's haven, her happy place, her grown-up dollhouse.
Tilley, now 74, began collecting seriously in 1985, starting her collection with classic pieces from England. In 1990, she had more than enough to open a store, Secondhand Rose. Her shop in Pensacola was "wildly successful," Tilley said. College girls would stop by her store and pick up a few dresses and items before heading out for spring break.
"They didn't want to look like someone else — they came in wanting to look different," Tilley said.
At Audrey's, Tilley has pieces from the turn of the century — gowns that could have costumed the cast of "The Secret Garden" — to the sequins and shoulder pads of the 1980s, her favorite decade.
HISTORY ON YOUR BACK
As current trends playfully incorporate styles from previous generations, vintage fashion is gaining popularity, which has been fabulous for business, Gilmore said. But she's not in for the money, rather, it's the novelty of donning a piece of history and educating the curious shopper.
"I like to educate people on the eras, and why women wore what they wore and about the fabrics," she said.
For example, in the 1940s, the style was that there was no style. Fabrics were limited because everything was going toward the war effort, she said. Women's hemlines started to shorten not because of fashion, but to conserve fabrics.
Then, in the 1950s, the war was over and colors, sexy cuts and those short hemlines — such as the ones seen in AMC's hit series "Mad Men" — became a statement of femininity, Gilmore said.
Like Gilmore, Tilley enjoys sharing the stories behind the pieces, such as the military uniform-style dresses women wore fighting for suffrage.
Or the bustled, black dresses women wore during the Victorian era, mimicking Queen Victoria's mourning attire. A canary-yellow, chiffon dress with accordion sleeves, resembling a concert ensemble worn by Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, hangs in Tilley's shop, awaiting a young lady with a tiny waist to bring it back into daylight.
"They're all interesting pieces," Tilley said. "Makes you wish they could all tell a story. Oh, how I wish I could listen to it talk, the amount of work that goes into them, the handmade buttons, the crochet work, lace stitched by hand."
Gilmore's favorite moment in the shop is when she can transform a skeptic into a believer. With an eye for size and body shape, Gilmore is able to convince a woman to try on a piece and she knows she has sold it when the woman looks at herself in the mirror, twirls and says, "Ohhh!"
"Vintage clothes exude femininity," Gilmore said. "When you put something on and it feels right, fits right, it makes you feel your best. Don't you want to feel that way every day?"