Mila couldn’t have matched the restaurant better if she’d tried. Clad in a white cap and trousers, a blue and white striped tee, and denim jacket paired with a vintage Chanel bag and colorful scarf, she arrived at nautical-inspired Bondi Sushi restaurant in NYC toting several bags filled with garments. She had just come from a customer who wanted fringe cowboy boots, she told me, settling in under electric blue waves hanging on the wall. “They were too small,” she said, but she wasn’t disappointed. In fact, Mila told me that she could hardly keep her Vintage Riot items in stock.
Created by Polish model Mila Majewska in 2018, The Vintage Riot is an online boutique offering carefully sourced vintage garments from all over the world. I’ve been a follower of The Vintage Riot instagram from the beginning, the platform where Mila makes all of her sales. “I’ve recently changed my strategy,” she said. “I used to wait to post new pictures once I had them perfectly photographed, but I was losing flow. So I started posting imperfect photos from home, and clothes are really selling through stories overnight! I usually wrap at 2 am, I’m a night owl, and by the time I wake up in the morning I have so many messages, but I try to be fair and give to whoever DMs first. I don’t have a lot of followers yet, but everyone who does is very engaged.”
Engagement is the key to Instagram these days, so Mila is doing something right. As we ordered sushi rolls and kombucha, Mila kept drawing me in through her bright and intelligent way, exciting and charming me with her knowledge and passion. “I really like to speak to the history of a garment or fabric and share that with others, so I’ve been doing a lot of research,” she told me, her face lighting up. “For instance linen; it’s thousands of years old, linen was the first cloth! It’s pretty incredible. I want my vintage to be fun and informative.”
Though The Vintage Riot is barely a year old, Mila has fully grasped and streamlined her niche. “What makes my store stand out,” she told me, “is that my pieces are according to trends. I know because I’m a model, I style, and I research and sources pieces according to the trends that I see.”
By the time our sushi arrived, we were ready to dig in to the questions I’d prepared. Mila’s responses have been lightly edited for brevity and cohesion.
When did you start buying vintage for yourself?
Since I started modeling, for over 15 years. I started my career in Milan and came across so many vintage stores and I fell in love. I was invited as a guest to Vivienne Westwood’s fashion show and I went in full vintage; an orange polka dot blouse, high waisted shorts, handmade shoes from an Italian brand. In the street the photographers jumped on me, taking pictures and asking, “Who makes it? What are you wearing?” I made the top page of the biggest online magazine at the time. They called it ‘The Italian Job,” the inspiration for fashion week. I had a blog back then, when blogging was new, with my best friend who is also Polish, called Spy My Style. It was well known in Milano and we used our connections to conduct interviews with top models and shoot their street style.
I worked in London and found great inspiration there as well, everyone dresses vintage. Everywhere I travelled I always looked for flea markets. I’m a big fan, I love to support local vendors and craftsmanship.
Growing up in the 80’s in Poland during Communism, I had to be resourceful. Even in elementary school I dressed very mature and weird but I didn’t care about comments. I wore blazers with shoulder pads when I was 7, I wish I still had them! My dad would take me shopping and would buy what I picked out for myself. I’ve always had a sense of fashion, I take my love for fashion from my history. My grandparents were tailors during the Second World War and were forced to make uniforms for the Nazis. When my grandfather died, my grandma continued the business. She had a stand in the local market and always had a line of customers because she made the best pants in the city.
What prompted you to start Vintage Riot?
I’d been planning to for a few years, but I was always too busy and too scared to put myself out there. I’d been selling stuff for 5 years on Tradesy and eBay, not just vintage. I started clearing out my wardrobe, I was a shopaholic when I arrived to New York, and I wanted to rediscover my wardrobe. I noticed, “Stuff is selling fast!”
Changing to vintage came naturally. It was my personal style and I became more aware of how destructive the fashion industry is. It’s the second most polluting industry in the world. I started with vintage denim, my favorite is from Paris. It’s fun to offer people items that are already circulating. You can look cool and it’s going to last, you’re going to value it. You have to take care of your clothes- just like your body and skin- hand-wash your favorite pieces. I have a good personal relationship with my clothes. I wish I had a bigger apartment for a walk-in closet. Now, I barely shop for myself. I shop my closet before I shop in stores. Places like Rent the Runway are great, they were on to sustainability before it was popular.
I’m happy where fashion is going, it all looks vintage. A few customers that like expensive brands are addicted to my store because they can mix vintage with high end. One even said, “This blazer looks just like the Chanel one I wanted.” And it’s $150 at Vintage Riot versus $3,000. Today, you’re not going to buy a silk shirt the way it used to be made. Now they aren’t thick, just one layer of silk, unless it’s handmade or from a niche brand. But overall the quality of clothes is not good anymore, it’s no longer cool to say your top is from Zara.
Where do you find your pieces, where is the best vintage?
Paris for silk, leather, and jeans. New York for western style pieces. Milan for Italian brands, of course. I try to buy where I travel, ideally between New York and Paris. I went to Portugal and was able to source some things, though vintage there is overpriced and hard to find. I love having a story behind each piece and being able to tell customers about how I found it. Recently I sourced items from this guy at a Paris flea market, he had connections from going backstage at fashion shows in the ’80’s.
Personally, choosing a vintage piece comes from an emotional reaction, so how do you decide what to buy?
I have a special connection with clothes. I see something from far away, notice the pattern. I take it out, touch it, check where it’s made, if it’s clean, note the condition, look for natural fibers. 99% of my pieces for Vintage Riot have natural fibers; wool, silk, linen. I’ve ditched polyester, it’s bad for the environment. I instantly know if I love a piece, I get butterflies in my stomach! Sometimes I’ll really like something but if the condition is not good, the fabric isn’t great, I have to let it go.
How can people shop Vintage Riot?
The best way is to DM me. I’m currently working on a website. Customers can use Venmo or Paypal and I ship the next day. My customers are friends, friends of friends, and they trust me. Hopefully my website will be ready this year, I have a friend working on it for me.
Do you prefer to model the garments or to creative direct another model on a shoot?
I prefer creative direction. I love to model because I know how to seek the mood, but it’s more fun to see it on someone else, to style them and be able to admire it all. I bumped into a client of mine on the street and she was wearing head to toe Vintage Riot; an Armani blazer and a Moschino shirt, paired with her own Chanel flats. My customers are cool girls. Sometimes I give styling advice, which is why I love to meet in person (and to let her customers try things on before they buy, hence the fringe cowboys boots she brought to our lunch). You can buy vintage for the same price as some items from Zara and instead you’ll have amazing quality, something that wasn’t as massively produced.
What’s been the most difficult part of starting your own enterprise?
Fear. Nothing was difficult but myself. I wondered, “Are people going to like it?” But that was also motivating. And also time, I didn’t have time before to do it properly. Now, 90% of my free time is devoted to sourcing, shooting, meeting with customers and people on how to find a bigger exposure for my store. I wish I had more time, more hours! But I have a pretty good balance in my life.
The most rewarding?
To see customer wearing Vintage Riot is the biggest satisfaction. By implementing vintage into their already existing wardrobes, you’ve saved someone from supporting high street fashion and massive corporations, helped save the planet. It’s also important to organize your closet; colors with colors, blouses with blouses. You can shop your friend’s closets or pre-owned clothes. I just borrowed a friend’s dress for a wedding.
What advice do you have for models who have other interests beyond modeling?
I’m in my 30s and it took me a few years to discover my passion, I have way too many! It’s important to focus on what you’re really good at and what you know, and then it’s pure pleasure. You do have to work hard, though, get out of your comfort zone. If you know what you’re doing, you’re going to succeed. Don’t get discouraged though, beginning is hard. The other day we had a shoot, we all got up early on a Saturday, the makeup artist and photographer were sick, I was a little bit hungover, but I’d rather be doing something productive and create. I’ve spent too much time in my head, I know models freak out when they don’t work. In the end it was a blessing because it was how I had time to work on Vintage Riot and bring my baby to life.
Find a niche, don’t be too general, be specific. For me, I source quality fabrics according to current trends, that’s my niche, not just any vintage. Listen to what people are saying, it’s very important to listen. Try to save your money for your projects, to invest in your idea. Look for communities that can be of help to you, there are so many, like Model Activist, Remake. Be around like-minded people, they may give you new ideas or help you, even recommend someone else or sponsor you. My business is all through word of mouth. Encouragement gives me the wings to do more. I love to encourage people who put themselves out there.
Beyond your website, What’s next for you and Vintage Riot?
I’m focusing on production, I’ve already done a few shoots. I’ll be producing for my friend, a Polish designer, in October. We’re shooting in New York and it will be 100% produced by girls!
I would love to place my products in boutiques, cool stores in soho. I also have a new project in the works, a mini-capsule collection for a Polish designer, New York and Paris inspired. 10 pieces, natural fabrics, affordable, organic cotton. I’m also styling a video with Remake, (Mila is an ambassador) supporting different talents in the sustainability industry.