Serial Entrepreneur Finds a New Market in Old Clothing

by Robert Moskowitz

4 min read

Decades of Fashion is the latest in a long line of business ventures for serial entrepreneur Cicely Hansen. Fascinated by vintage clothing and accessories since she was five years old, Hansen has been involved in fashion shows and expos, garment repair, and modeling virtually all of her adult life.

In 2005, she opened Decades of Fashion on Haight Street in San Francisco. The retail store, which sells apparel from the Victorian era to the 1980s, proved so successful that, in 2011, Hansen moved it to a roomy Edwardian building nearby she agreed to restored to its original grandeur. The new shop features 5,000 square feet of display space under 24-foot ceilings.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently spoke with Hansen (pictured) about her success in the vintage-clothing business.

ISBB: What inspired you to get started in this business?

Hansen: My grandmother was a fashion model in the ’20s. My mom was a model in the ’40s. And I was a model in the ’60s. I grew up in a family fascinated with costumes that enjoyed shopping for bargains. Mom let me collect vintage clothing, and it turned into a lifelong passion. I’m still fascinated by metal mesh purses and beaded dresses.

When I first came to San Francisco in the ’60s, lots of people were wearing vintage clothes like I was. My husband and I struggled to find a place to live, and [we eventually found] a huge storefront with a small apartment at the back. We took it, and I naturally put my vintage clothing in the store window. Right away, people started knocking on the door, looking to buy.

My business just grew from there. I diverged for a time into vintage lamp shades and also into horses and riding, which got me into the cowboy version of vintage clothing, including American Indian “warrior” shirts, cowboy hats, Roy Rogers-style boots, and more.

I also learned a lot from working with angel investors and venture capitalists to develop other people’s businesses and from exhibiting at hundreds of vintage clothing shows. I made a lot of connections with people who still do business with me.

How do you market your business?

I am busy networking and “getting out there” all the time. I do fashion shows for a lot of different groups, working with Turner Classic Movies’s 2012 Film Festival, the Queen Mary vintage fashion shows, the Niles Silent Film Festival, NorCity’s film noir festival, and many others. I also wear vintage clothing at lots of events, and people are fascinated with the look. They want to talk about it.

Did you change your business model after you opened?

Every day is different. A big change came when we moved one-and-a-half blocks along Haight Street to this new location. Suddenly, things that had been selling started collecting dust, and things that hadn’t been selling started flying out the door. Part of this is because we went from 1,700 to 5,000 square feet, so we can display [our merchandise] differently.

What advice would you give to someone starting a retail business?

Learn to do everything you can by yourself. Get a true grasp of what is current, as far as retail trends in your business. Keep costs as low as possible.

When I had my feed store, during my cowgirl period, I slept on the floor there, so I could clean the place and restock the shelves before we opened, to save on employee expense. I did the same right here with Decades of Fashion. Today, my employees know that anything I ask them to do, I have done myself. I also took very little money out of the store, so I could maximize my investment in additional [inventory].

How do you get the vintage merchandise?

Some of it walks in the door. People bring me treasures they don’t want any more. But I’m selective. Yesterday I turned down several people who didn’t have exactly the kind of vintage clothing I wanted.

Also, I grew up with Mom shopping for vintage clothing all over the country because my dad was a pilot in the Navy and we’d move quite often. We’d go to church sales, estate sales, everywhere there might be vintage goods. I learned the good places to shop. I also get vintage costumes from buying out theaters and costume shops that are closing down.

I’ve also become quite good at getting out stains, repairing and restoring vintage clothing until it looks as good as new. When I restore a vintage dress, for example, I can do it using an authentic zipper still in the original packaging.

Who are your customers? Do you get repeat business?

People come to us for custom parties, theme parties, re-enactments, and just to look good. We immediately ask them what they’re looking for and what their budget is, and then we style them so they will be stars when they get to their party. They have such a good time that they come back and buy more, and they send their friends and family, too. I probably dress 500 people for Burning Man. You never saw so many Louis XIV characters, pirates, and space-prom queens.

If you could turn back the clock and start over, would you do anything differently?

Yes, I’d buy every American Indian piece I ever saw. I’d save more of the goods I bought. I’d have stored more ’20s pieces.

Photo by Mark Madeo.

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