The first time I saw Painted Bird I was, unfortunately, unable to get in. I’d bowled up to Milford when the shop was closed so instead I stood outside the windows peering in like a weirdo, torturing myself with the vision of colour, pattern and fabric I could see. I swore that day that I would return, and I would try on All The Things.
My opportunity came in the form of a family holiday to Omaha and Auckland in March this year – luckily, I have a very understanding family and they didn’t mind when I threw a trip to Milford into the itinerary. Because I’m a ruthless individual I then doubled down on the family’s goodwill and set up an interview with Steph, keen to know more about this wonderful world of vintage goodies.
The first thing to know about Steph is that she’s equal parts glamorous and ethical. Dressed immaculately in red (vintage) leather trousers, a grey (vintage) silk Dior blouse and a pair of beautiful earrings, she’s a walking poster child for the argument that vintage can still look incredibly modern. I coveted the heck out of her entire outfit. The longer I talked to Steph, the more impressed I was by her values – wanting to give treasured items a good home, making sure customers don’t feel pressured (and do feel gorgeous) and committing to running a business that’s sustainable and ethical.
She’s also on a mission to overthrow some of the false conceptions about vintage fashion. For starters:
- “Vintage is always tiny”. False! Women didn’t magically all change proportions at some point in the past 20 to 30 years. From the smallest, almost pre-teen sized mannequin to a modern size 16, there’s vintage across a range. Ingeniously, Steph keeps all her stock sorted by colour instead of size, since labels on vintage clothing are unreliable in terms of size, but yellow is yellow forever.
- “Vintage clothes smell…ick”. Not if they’re cared for and cleaned properly. You know how you sometimes get that weird smell in op shops? Yeah, that’s not Painted Bird. The clothes are immaculate, Steph will tell you how to care for them, and in fact if it wasn’t for the labels in the dresses and the styles, you would have no way to tell that these clothes are old. They smell new, and they’re in great condition.
- “If you wear vintage you will look like you’re in a costume”. You can if you’d like – there are definitely outfits to be had that are more retro than others, but as evidenced by Steph herself it’s more than likely you’ll buy something to build into your existing wardrobe and give it some pep in its step. You don’t have to be “into vintage” to enjoy beautiful clothes, and in fact you don’t need to know anything about vintage clothes to look awesome wearing them!
- “Vintage is expensive and you have to treat it like it’s going into an archive”. Yes, you do need to look after vintage clothes but only like you should look after any of the clothes you buy – if you respect that someone, somewhere went to the effort to make the shirt on your back, then you will wash it appropriately *wink*. Vintage can actually be a cheaper way to access unique design and good quality construction. Unless you’re buying highly collectable items (which you may need to give some additional care), then a pristine vintage dress won’t set you back much more than $100-$150. And nobody else will have it!
(Small aside here - when I say "vintage", I'm talking about clothes that are pre-1980. Anything after that I would refer to as "pre-loved" or "thrifted" without calling it vintage. Things that look like pre-1980 styles but which are manufactured after that date, I would call "retro", for example, a mod-style dress from 1996. Steph's vintage stretches back through several decades of preciousness).
What I didn’t know that day looking through the window is that there’s an Aladdin’s Cave of extra vintage goodness in the back of the store. If you ask for help or are looking for something specific she will happily go out and grab something special just for you – sadly, it is not for public fossicking. I was really curious to know where Steph found her beautiful stock, since I can tell you that not all vintage is created equal. There are a few key sources, all of whom are a result of relationships Steph has built up over time. They include European vintage dealers who Steph has dealt with over years, local women who have collected couture and high end clothes over decades and know that they can trust them to Steph to care for them and find them a good home, and sellers around New Zealand who contact Steph from time to time with good finds.
Steph must take her vitamins every day because she knows where everything is in that storeroom and pulled out treasure after treasure for Mum and I to coo over (and try on, in my case). If I owned that store half the stock would go home with me, so I asked Steph how she resists temptation. Again, it comes down to her concern for the customer and the clothes. Steph explained “I don’t want people to see me wearing something one day, and see it on the rack the next, so anything that leaves here has to be something I really want in my wardrobe permanently. I also don’t believe in over-consumption, so I’m really thoughtful about what I add to my own collection”.
Like many of the women I’ve met in New Zealand’s fashion industry, Steph is passionate about sustainability in fashion and, as a result, wants to make sure that vintage clothes have a good long life. Her customers – from local teens going to school balls, all the way through to a 90-something year old woman going to a wedding – know that buying something from Steph means that you’ll get something unique, and something ethical. There’s no horrendous working conditions, there’s no widespread pollution, and in fact wearing vintage means more clothes are kept out of the waste cycle for longer.
The other benefit of buying your clothes from someone like Steph, who really cares about them and values integrity, is that she’ll work with you to find just the right thing. It was impressive to watch her in action as I tried on beautiful garment after beautiful garment, as she constantly refined the choices and fit to help me find the two beautiful pieces I ended up buying that day (stay tuned for their reveals!). I will be making a point of visiting Painted Bird again – perhaps a twice-annual pilgrimage? – because although Steph was generous and told me where to get the good vintage in Wellington…she’s just a delight and I want to go back to that rainbow space and have another dress up session with her!
Painted Bird can be found online here, or at 164 Kitchener Road in Milford. Make sure you check opening hours - Steph is running a ‘family first’ business and keeping Sundays closed for family and Mondays closed for sanity! Those hours are available here. If you want more vintage fashion, check out Painted Bird on Instagram and Facebook too.