Experts have said that retail is dead, but not according to Richard Wainwright. A Current Affair, the cross-country vintage fashion and jewelry show that Richard co-founded and produces, draws hundreds of shoppers to its bi-annual shows and has expanded into a year-round retail store. He joined the Jewelry Journey podcast to talk about the treasures that customers can uncover at his shows. Read the episode’s transcript below.
Sharon: Hello everyone, welcome to the Jewelry Journey podcast. Today I’m pleased to be talking with Richard Wainwright, co-founder and producer of A Current Affair, a retail trade show focused on vintage fashion, including vintage jewelry. You can find A Current Affair in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. In addition, Richard founded a sister show, Pickwick Vintage Show, in Burbank. He also has two retail vintage outlets, one on each coast. We’ll learn all about his ventures today. Richard, it’s so good to have you here.
Richard: Thank you so much. I’m so happy to be with you.
Sharon: Tell us about your jewelry journey, in the realm of vintage fashion and vintage jewelry. I read that you started out buying vintage jewelry for a jewelry store or a fashion store.
Richard: Really, I got started buying vintage jewelry just for myself and my own collection, not necessarily that I wore it, but I was always fascinated with jewelry and it was an accessible entry into the world of vintage and fashion. From a young age, I would go with my grandparents to estate sales and garage sales and would pick up jewelry. They thought I was crazy and didn’t understand why I wanted it, but I started buying jewelry because I liked it.
The way I got started selling vintage was I set up at the first-ever vintage show I did. I brought a bunch of my jewelry, because I thought it was a good way for me to thin my collection that had grown over time. It was all costume jewelry, and right away, I had people buying a lot of jewelry and saying what a great collection I had and what a great eye I had. It all evolved from there.
A few years into selling, I hooked up with a store in Manhattan Beach and I talked to them about doing a collection of vintage jewelry for their shop. They didn’t sell vintage; it was a contemporary boutique, but they liked the idea, and I worked with them for about five years curating a collection. That went really well. The store closed for other reasons because the owner went in a different direction with her life, but that was a lot of fun, buying for the store and interacting with the local clients and finding out what they wanted.
Sharon: Were you also buying vintage clothing at the same time?
Richard: I wasn’t buying vintage clothing as early as I was jewelry, although I did buy vintage clothing for myself from when I was a teenager because I was a rebel and I wanted to have something unique and different than everyone else. I was always buying vintage clothing for myself, but later, when I started selling at vintage shows, that’s when I started buying for resale.
Sharon: What prompted you to start A Current Affair? That’s a big step to take.
Richard: I didn’t know it was a big step when I took it, but I was participating in shows and I saw an opportunity in the market, that no one was approaching this world from a fashion perspective. It was always from a super-vintage perspective and I thought, “I want to invite my friends to this and make them feel like it’s a good time,” so we started the show with that mind. We started with 19 dealers, all of whom were my friends. We wanted to make it feel more like an event. The first show we ever had was on a Friday night and then on a Saturday day; it was a two-day thing. It’s grown tremendously since we started nine years ago, but that was the initial show. We never planned for it to go to other cities or to have 70+ vendors in each city and to do pop-ups between the shows. We never even knew it would go beyond one event, but that’s how it started.
Sharon: Did you start in New York or out here?
Richard: In Los Angeles.
Sharon: And you hold them now in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Brooklyn, right?
Richard: Yeah, we hold them in downtown L.A., in the San Francisco Bay Area—we’re actually at Richmond Point, which is in the East Bay—and in Brooklyn at Industry City.
Sharon: And once a quarter, once every six months?
Richard: Seasonal, so we do a spring show in all three cities, a fall show in all three cities, and then we do a holiday show which is the first weekend in December. That one’s only in Los Angeles. We’re hoping to expand to another city probably next year.
Sharon: What prompted you to add the Pickwick Vintage Show?
Richard: The first show I ever did was in this venue that had been around for 30 years, but the promoter lost interest in it and over time, it started to die out. It became smaller and smaller, to the point where it wasn’t really worth attending or selling at. Vendors dropped away and I kept hearing from people how sad they were that this wasn’t a place for them to sell or to shop anymore. Finally, the promoter sent out a mass email to everyone who had ever been involved in the show saying that she was closing it, and it was because of low dealer interest. Well, I knew there wasn’t low dealer interest and it just wasn’t being nurtured the way it should be, so I decided to start a new show in its place in the same venue. I called it the Pickwick Vintage Show because the place where it is is called Pickwick Gardens. We started smaller. We started with maybe 40 vendors to test the waters and the first one was a big success. Basically, right from the start it was successful. We do four shows a year and we’ve been doing it now for four years, and people love it.
Sharon: I always look forward to it. So, you’ve seen your shows grow in size and in number. What do you think is driving this growth? Have you seen more competition in this area?
Richard: I think that people value special things and special experiences. I know there’s this story out there that retail is dead. Well, what we have is a retail show and our show certainly isn’t dead. In fact, they’re growing, so the only thing I can attribute it to is that we are providing something that can’t be found anywhere else. I make sure to encourage all of the vendors that do my shows to hunt down and find really special things, to hold them for the show, to preview them through their social media channels and to make sure that people know they’re bringing something really special, so when people come, they know it’s going to be a different experience every time. That’s the beauty of vintage. It’s all chance. You never know what you’re going to find. I think that’s a big part of the reason why the shows have been successful.
Sharon: I think that’s a good point. There’s a lot of fun in it when you don’t know what you’re going to find. You can’t go looking for something in particular.
Richard: I think there are people that buy all kinds of things. You go with friends and they find the things they like, and then you find the things you like and you compare. The other thing that’s fun about it—a lot of times friends of mine will say, “I can’t go this time because I can’t spend any money,” and I say, “It’s not all about spending money. You can go and just have fun.” For me, part of the fun is just looking at things, even if you’re not there to buy. The sellers are so knowledgeable, it’s almost like going to a museum where you can shop. I love that part about it. There’s always more to learn. I love talking to the dealers and learning about their collections and what they buy and the history behind the pieces. I was an art history major, so part of my passion is learning the history of things. That’s one of the big parts of being at the show, even if you’re not there to buy.
Sharon: That’s a very good point. I know when I’ve talked to you or pulled something off the racks, people know the history, and you learn, “Oh, that was a big brand in the 60s.” Then, you go home and Google it and find out all about it. They are very knowledgeable and it’s a lot of fun. It’s not how vintage once was, either. I remember when I was a teenager and people were wearing things that looked very, very vintage, like they’d been around the block, and it’s not like that anymore.
Richard: Fashion has changed so much, but everything is derivative. You could be wearing something contemporary or you could be wearing something that’s actually vintage, but I think the aesthetic of what people look for now all boils down to a unique look. People are trying to stand out and have their own look or their own identity, and the mix is what I love about vintage. You can combine things from different eras; you can combine vintage with new, and to be honest, I think you get such a better value out of buying vintage than buying new.
Sharon: That’s definitely true. Which is your largest show?
Richard: Our largest show in terms of attendance is the New York show. I think it’s for several reasons, but the main reason is because there’s such a huge design community in New York, and also New York is a little bit starved for vintage. There aren’t as many shops as there used to be and there aren’t as many shows as there used to be. The appeal of our show, not only in New York but also everywhere we do it, is that we make sure to bring people from all over the country, and in some cases all over the world, to the shows. A New York vintage buyer that’s coming to our show, they’re not buying from fellow New Yorkers they might see at other shows or where they might be able to go to their store. There certainly are some New York dealers there, but we’re also bringing people from the Bay Area; we’re bringing people from the middle of the country, from Florida, from Chicago; we’re bringing in a few dealers from London. It’s a really special experience. Especially now with the age of social media, if I’m in New York and I follow someone who’s a seller in San Francisco, and I think, “Oh, one day, I’m going to make it to San Francisco and visit this person’s shop,” but then one day, they post and say, “I’m going to be in New York this weekend. I’m showing at A Current Affair.” That’s their opportunity to show these collections from all over the world. Everyone has their unique perspective and identity and it’s all brought together under one roof, which is the really beautiful thing.
Sharon: I know when I talk to some of the dealers out here at your L.A. shows, they tell me, “Well, I’m not going to be around next week or next month because I’m packing up to go to A Current Affair in New York.” It’s something that they’re really excited about.
Richard: It’s a bit of a traveling circus for sure, but we have a lot of vendors who do all of our shows. It’s really fun to travel along with everyone, and everyone has a great experience being together in different cities and comparing notes on the different types of shoppers, like who the San Francisco customer is versus the New York customer. That part is really fun.
Sharon: I know exhibitors really like to be included in your show. I know not everybody can, but what do you look for in a potential exhibitor?
Richard: This is one of the issues we have. Because we have a successful show, there are so many people who want to take part. Unfortunately, we only have so much square footage to fit everyone in, but when a space opens up, the main thing that we’re looking for is that the vendor has their own unique look and approach to vintage. It’s not everything and the kitchen sink; it’s a very curated collection with a distinct aesthetic. That’s the main thing. The other thing is that they have an ability to promote the show. They have an Instagram following; they’re active on social media; they send out email blasts. My feeling is if you don’t do those things, it’s not really a business; it’s more of a hobby. I find that the people who are more serious and active are the ones who, every time they show up, have a brand-new collection. They are more engaged with their customers, and overall it lends to a better experience.
Sharon: I think it’s important to mention that it’s not just people who are buying for themselves who attend. You have other dealers who come. I know because by the time I get there, if I get there later in the day, I have a feeling that I wish I had gotten there earlier.
Richard: We have a wide cross-section of customers. We have retail customers who are there to buy for themselves or buy gifts for their family and friends. We have designers who come to shop for inspiration, and that could be anything from an inspiration for a sleeve design or a print or a color combination. Then we have stylists who buy to have unique things for their clients or a red carpet. We have personal shoppers who buy specifically for certain women or men who don’t have time to shop for themselves or who don’t know how to shop vintage. We even have costume designers who come because they are working on a period film.
I just got an email today from one who’s working on something. She had a list of very specific things that she’s looking for and said, “Even if you don’t have these items, maybe you know someone who does.” I reminded her that we have Pickwick coming up, so she’s going to come and look there for herself. The point is that we have a very wide cross-section and people are buying for all different reasons, and that’s also really interesting. I love talking about the collection that I’ve built as a vendor with my customers, but then I also love talking with the customers about why they’re buying it. “Why are you buying this piece of jewelry? Do you collect mid-century, brutalist, brass jewelry? Why did you gravitate towards this?” or “I’m working on a period film and I’m looking for hippie jewelry.” That interaction is something that you’ll never get online. When people say retail is dead because everyone’s moved online, I don’t think it’s true for the vintage world as much, because what we’re creating, both as sellers and as buyers, is a human experience.
Sharon: That’s a very good point. You have two retail outlets. Tell us about those.
Richard: We opened last summer a retail store in New York at Industry City. It’s at the same venue where we hold the show in New York. Because the show is so overwhelmingly popular, we thought it would be great to have a permanent outlet for these customers to shop. We get a lot of emails and messages from people who say, “I don’t live in New York, but I’m going to be there this weekend. Is there any chance you have a show this weekend?” And chances are we don’t, because we only have the show two weekends out of the year. We thought, “Well, why don’t we have something where people can shop year-round?”
We opened the store last summer. It’s a 1,300-square-foot retail space, and the concept is that it’s not just one person’s collection, but it’s a combination of things from our community of sellers. At any time, we have 12 different sellers who are contributing items for the store and those sellers rotate over time. It’s a really interesting mix of people who do everything from worn-in denim and T-shirts and heritage looks, to someone who does early 1920s, 1930s beautiful dresses, and then someone who does designer vintage. We have a small collection of fine jewelry that is curated by Samantha Knight, who does her own collection in addition to curating vintage chains and charms and watches and things like that. We have additional vintage jewelry from Marteau, who skews more to ethnic jewelry from the Middle East and India and the Far East and Mexico. She has a really impressive collection of modernist silver, so we love having her in the shop. It’s a really nice mix, and it’s a small capsule of what you would experience at the show.
Sharon: Sounds enticing. How about out here? It’s your own store out here, isn’t it?
Richard: Well, what we have here isn’t even a store; it’s a showroom. That’s in the Cooper Building, which is where we hold the Los Angeles show. I have my own showroom, and I’ve invited other sellers to set up their own showrooms on my floor and on other floors. I think we’re about ten of us that are set up here. We hold appointments and trunk shows and things like that, and it’s fun. We have a group text going with all of the sellers, so when one of us gets an appointment, we text everyone and say, “So and so is coming on Thursday. Whoever’s going to be here, let us know and we’ll bring them around so they can shop with everyone.” It’s a non-traditional retail situation. It’s by appointment, but people really love it. It’s a nice way to have one-on-one time with your customer.
Sharon: Wow! Do you have regulars?
Richard: Yeah, we have regulars. It’s a lot of stylists who are buying for editorial or events for their clients. We have designers from all over the world who come. When they come to Los Angeles, they have their spots they like to go, maybe on Melrose or on La Brea, then they do a day downtown and come to the Cooper Building and spend the whole day, because there are so many of us to see. Then we have retail customers who reach out a lot of times on Instagram to say, “Can I buy this?” Nine times out of ten, they say, “I’m going to come down and try it on and I want to see what else you have.”
Sharon: It sounds like a lot of commerce, which sounds fabulous. Richard, thank you so much for being here, and congratulations on your shows. They’re fun from a lot of different perspectives.
To everybody listening, you can find links to everything we discussed in our show notes at TheJewelryJourney.com. That wraps up another episode. If you like what you heard and would like to hear more, you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. We’ll be back next time with another thought-provoking guest giving us their professional take on the world of jewelry. Thanks so much for listening.
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