A little more than 10 years ago, Claudia Baumgarten was operating her first solo venture, a craft store that sold local and handmade artisanal goods, when a serendipitous encounter with a customer changed her business forever. A former Tulane professor stopped by with a trove of vintage fashions collected on travels to exotic locales in Asia. Would Claudia be willing to sell the clothing in her shop for a percentage of the profits, the professor asked? Baumgarten agreed.
"She was a lovely woman," Baumgarten remembers. "Every week, she would ... come by with more fabulous things." And thus Miss Claudia's Vintage Clothing & Costumes (4204 Magazine St., 897-6310; www.missclaudias.com), which Baumgarten credits as the oldest continuously operating vintage and costume boutique in the city, got started.
To Baumgarten, her merchandise represents New Orleans's sartorial history. "Almost all of our vintage merchandise is purchased here," she says. "We get calls from people cleaning out their closets who have amazing things from their grandmothers or mothers, all with a very Southern style." Many pieces are relics of the bygone era of department stores like Maison Blanche, when local ladies wore fur with impunity and "took trips to New York to buy day dresses," Baumgarten says, laughing.
These days, Baumgarten sees a wide range of clients who are hungry for chic, wearable history. "We get young girls in here who love everything because they've never seen it before," she says. Some of her most devoted shoppers are men stocking up on retro hats, tuxedo jackets and anything with the Mad Men vibe. "With vintage, selling happens in phases. Sometimes we'll sell a lot, sometimes we won't," she says. "Fortunately right now, what's in style — plaid and houndstooth, for example — coincides with what we're carrying."
The store is crowded with visitors on a Thursday afternoon, some trying on costumes and wigs, all on the hunt for something unique. "I'd like to move to a bigger space eventually," Baumgarten says. "I have a private collection that I'd love to showcase." She also dreams of hosting a vintage-centered fashion show at a museum.
"I started a business because I wanted to work for myself," she says. "I started selling vintage because I liked it. I'm happy I did." If the delighted squeal of a nearby costume-seeker is any indication, it seems her customers are happy, too.