From punk to Pucci
By Orli Van Mourik
On a warm Friday afternoon in late November, antiques dealers from all over Manhattan gathered to display their wares at Pier 94. Among the stalls of Schwinn bicycles and retro furniture, Elin Wilder, a tall woman with a honey complexion and an abundance of chestnut brown hair, set up her booth. Replacing and adjusting the display a handbag here, an imitation brooch there it looked as though she were creating an exclusive, vintage boutique within this sprawling warehouse at 55th and 12th. There were boxes of silk scarves, a glass case with feathered hats of perfectly brushed felt, and several racks of vintage coats and skirt suits that wouldn’t look out of place in Doris Day’s closet.
The Stella Antiques Show had yet to officially open, but the warehouse was already teaming with women searching for treasures women carrying purses easily worth two months rent on Elin Wilder’s East Village apartment, who wouldn’t hesitate to slap down $150 dollars for a pair of Hermes gloves. This isn’t exactly the kind of company Wilder is used to keeping not that she’s complaining.
When Wilder launched her business, Unique Boutique NYC, in 2004, she already had a long, a storied career. Raised in Harlem by an African-American jazz musician father and a Swedish stay-at-home mom, Wilder’s biracial lineage marked her out as an unusual from the start. But rather than downplay her uniqueness, as many teenagers do, she seemed to revel in it. She had no interest in “fitting in,” which may explain why she was drawn to the Punk scene. While attending City College in the 1970s, Wilder grew obsessed with bands like The Ramones and The Clash, and found herself spending most of her time at Punk mecca CBGBs. Soon she abandoned college to become a full time music reporter for “Punk Magazine.” It was around this time 1976 that she moved to the East Village, where she still lives with her husband and two kids.
At 16, Wilder was rubbing elbows with Punk icons like Sid Vicious and Johnny Ramone, and crossing paths with now-legendary rock reporter Lester Bangs. By the time Wilder left “Punk,” she’d worked her way up to associate publisher. She went on to write a music column for “The New York Rocker,” and freelanced for publications ranging from “Creem Magazine” to “High Times.” She also started branching out into radio. By the early ’80s, Wilder was working for Don Imus at NBC a period she can only laugh about now. “Don was out of his mind. Everyone was doing a lot of drugs in those days,” she said, adding that Imus was so high most of the time it wasn’t unusual to find him “peeing in the phone booth.”
After radio, Wilder’s career path veered into photo syndication, but the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 would prove to be the biggest turning point in her life.
After 9/11, Samuel, the youngest of her two sons, developed intractable respiratory problems and she left her job to care for him. Killing time before Samuel needed his next dose of medication one night, she found herself on Ebay, looking at vintage clothes, as was her custom. Wilder had studied fashion in high school and her passion for clothes particularly couture and ready-to-wear from the ’40s and ’50s had never faded.
Designer clothes from the World War II era are cultural treasures in Wilder’s view, representing a period when women surged into the workforce and gained a measure of independence she believes sowed the seeds for the women’s movement in the ’70s. While surfing the Internet, Wilder realized that as this generation of women was passing away, their kids were offloading their clothes without realizing what they had on their hands. These garments were “infused with history” and Wilder wanted to share them with a new generation of women. The idea for Unique Boutique NYC was born.
Recycling high quality, U.S. made clothing in a time when people are amassing more and more low-grade clothing manufactured in sweatshops in Asia struck a political chord with Wilder as well. “I believe in quality over quantity,” she said, threading a satin sash through an Art Deco belt buckle. “We’re ruining this country; we’re ruining the environment; we’re destroying ourselves by buying too much of everything.” Beyond that, she explained, these clothes are just plain gorgeous: Fernande DesGranges suits, Guy Laroche dresses, Irene Galitzine coats, in a palette of colors that makes today’s couture seem drab by comparison.
Despite having been an active member of the community since the ’70s, inflated rents in the East Village barred Wilder from opening a store. Undaunted, she immediately started buying up the most beautiful, well-made products she could find, and reselling them through her newly-launched website and Ebay. Initially, her clientele was made up largely of fashion conscious professional women looking for a way to distinguish themselves from their Banana Republic-clad peers. Wilder fitted these women out in Chanel suits and Christian Dior cocktail dresses, quickly earning a loyal stable of customers.
Victoria Pryor-Masi, who teaches concept design at Parsons, was immediately struck by the breadth of Wilder’s collection upon seeing it so much so that she began borrowing items from Unique Boutique NYC to help educate her students about the history of fashion. “I admire her for her wealth of knowledge about fashion history,” Pryor-Masi says of
Wilder, “She knows so much in terms of correlating her garments with what has happened politically and socially during those times, I feel like one of her students.”
In late 2004, Unique Boutique NYC’s wares drew the attention of Mark Bridges, the costume designer for the recently released film “Fur,” starring Nicole Kidman. Bridges was having a hard time finding period appropriate clothes for Kidman, who at 5’10” dwarfs most of the women from Diane Arbus’ era. Wilder was happy to track down clothes that suited the actress she calls the “Grace Kelly of our generation.” She went on to furnish clothes for the soon-to-be-released Denzel Washington drama “American Gangster,” set in the ’70s. Amy Roth, the assistant costume designer on the film, says the thing that separates Wilder from other vintage dealers is her unerring eye for detail and her acute sense of history. “Elin knows how to hit the right note,” says Roth. “She understands character and she understands periods. She’d never just push a hat on me she’d explain what type of person would wear that hat.”
As her success grows, Wilder’s clientele has become increasingly upscale, and the need to open a shop is becoming more urgent. Most people aren’t entirely comfortable buying high-ticket items off the Internet, says Wilder: “There’s the trust issue, and you can’t try them on.” She is currently working with the Small Business Administration and plans to open a boutique by Spring 2007. Her dream is to have a salon large enough that women can have vintage clothes fitted in-house. She would also like to design a line of custom reproductions of some her most popular products, and, ultimately hopes to set up an internship program that prepares working class women with sewing skills for higher-paying jobs.
It’s unlikely, however, that Unique Boutique NYC will find a home in the East Village. With rents for storefronts hovering around $8,000 a month, Wilder simply can’t afford it. “People wonder why so many bars are sprouting up all over the Village,” she says, “It’s because nothing but a bar can survive on the rents that they’re charging.” Still, Wilder hasn’t entirely lost faith. “My heart is in the East Village,” she says, “I’m not resigned to leaving yet, because I’m a fighter.”
For more information about Unique Boutique NYC please visit UBNYC.com