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Victoriana's Secret 

A local line of accessories makes a case for old stuff

Published April 4, 2001 at 3:22 p.m.

If God is truly in the details, there’s a lot to be said for accessories. And when it’s said that “you really know how to accessorize,” it means you’ve got a talent for adornment that makes you look better than the sum of your parts. Whether you’re a goth queen or a Martha Stewart of fashion, whether Mom would happily show you off at the garden club — or not — your choice of little accoutrements says more than price tags and designer labels ever will.

So at a time when even the thrift-shop-chic crowd seems stalled in Austin Powers mode, what’s a gal to do if her tastes run to hits before her mother was born? Megan Humphrey and Barbara Porter have the answer. Both lifelong collectors of antique buttons, jewelry, linens and other fabrics, the two friends decided to get their minds out of the attic and turn their old treasures into, well, new treasures — for sale.

Formed less than a year ago, Vermont Vintage and Victoriana is the business name for a highly creative enterprise propelled by a fascination, respect and love for the decorative details of grandma’s — or great-grandma’s — era. The resulting products are barrettes, pins, earrings, pocketbooks, hats, even hatboxes, enhanced with erstwhile elegant doodads. Launching their wares at the Women’s Craft Fair last December at City Hall and a studio sale at home, the women have since set up a booth in the Burlington Center for Antiques on Route 7, and created customized gifts for individual shoppers.

“Somebody might want a purse in a certain color,” Humphrey explains, “and we’ll make accessories to match.” A deluxe set includes, say, a hat, pin, bag and barrette in coordinating colors and motif, packaged in a hatbox trimmed with rhinestones and ribbons. The prices are old-school, too, from $12 for a child’s barrette up to $55 for a shoulder-strap evening bag.

Needless to say, no two pieces from VVV are alike. And their charm lies not only in uniqueness but in the artfulness of presentation: arrangements of fashionable flotsam that reveal an eye for both beauty and whimsy.

“Barbara is good at color combinations,” Humphrey notes, pointing to button-encrusted barrettes with painterly hues. A former New York fabric designer with a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Porter has a talent for giving new life to old clothing, curtains, handkerchiefs and other threaded things. Case in point: a small shoulder bag defrocked, as it were, from a religious robe and dolled up with saucy decorations. Porter also makes large-scale wall hangings from old fabrics.

A former Burlington resident who worked in marketing and sales at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company and Chicago Bicycle, Porter has relocated to St. Johnsbury to be near a high-school-aged son. She plans to open a studio and retail shop there that will feature VVV’s creations as well as her own artwork and the odd antique.

“Barbara could probably fill a store already,” testifies Humph-rey, whose own Burlington garage and basement are full to bursting. Luckily, she adds with a wry smile, her “minimalist” husband isn’t bothered by it. Both women have scavenged from the usual places — flea markets, auctions, yard sales — for decades. With odds and ends from her own collection, which includes thousands of vintage postcards and hundreds of ice-cube trays holding buttons sorted by color, Humphrey also makes greeting cards. Sweetly feminine and nostalgic, they come in generic or occasion-specific versions — again, each one unique — and are available at Frog Hollow Craft Center on the Marketplace for about $4 each.

Humphrey, a gerontology social worker employed at the Champlain Senior Center, has encouraged her elderly clients to bring in their button boxes or other collections. But, she says, sighing at the irony, “It’s somewhat of a generational thing: They don’t think they’re anything special.”

But for every woman who’s ever huffed, “This old thing?” there’s another cast-off cache at the flea market. Creating new collectibles from history’s closets, Humphrey says, “is a way of honoring the past. That’s really important.”

She and Porter have yet to draw up a real business plan, and their assessment of sales so far is what Dubya might term fuzzy math: a vague “few thousand dollars.” But the future of Vermont Vintage and Victoriana is slowly taking shape. “I want to stay in social work and be able to afford staying in social work,” says Humphrey. “So it would be nice if extra income could come from the creative side.”

For her part, the city-savvy Porter is hoofing it in Manhat-tan, looking for new outlets, and for reps to market their creations. She sees potential in New York and California’s Napa Valley, where her sister lives. If all goes well, Porter can get back to creating her St. Johnsbury studio “so I can do everything the way I want to.”

“It feels like we’re just about cracking into new markets,” says Humphrey, who adds VVV will probably enter the large accessories trade shows next year, and develop a Web site. But Humphrey confesses she hasn’t bought a thing online. For her, like many collectors, the thrill is in touching, not just seeing, beautiful old things. “They really don’t make things like they used to,” she says. Vermont Vintage and Victoriana comes close.

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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