As a California native, Karen Ellman might be expected to have little regard for anything old.
But she always loved “things with past lives.” When she moved East, had 2 kids and stopped working, she went to estate sales. She found herself digging through closets — and found a new passion.
“The fabrics and colors are so different from today,” Karen says. “These clothes aren’t ‘made’; they’re constructed. You can’t find that now.”
She began buying vintage clothing — “rescuing it from landfill.” In one house she discovered 1950s dresses. Her research into items like these led Karen to “vintage websites.”
In 2004 she set up her own sales site. She called it Vintage Virtuosa (the word means “female virtuoso”; Karen likes the reference to creativity and aesthetics).
As the site grew, she was asked to personally view estates. “It was an adrenaline rush to be invited by a niece or granddaughter who had saved these things,” Karen says. “I heard their stories. It was like a lesson in history or sociology.”
Now — in a reversal of the trend that saw brick-and-mortar stores add online presences, and defying an economy that has seen many Westport businesses fold — she is setting up a vintage clothing shop in Colonial Green. Vintage Virtuosa — the same name as her website – will open “any day now,” Karen says.
“I want to see these items on people,” she explains. “I look forward to seeing people try them on. I want to connect with the people who buy vintage clothing, and share it all with the community.”
Karen sees the store as a natural extension of her longtime volunteer work here. She was president of the King’s Highway PTA, and co-president of the townwide PTA Council.
“I met so many smart, motivated, capable women in the PTAs and on town boards,” she says. She learned a lot about business from them. Now, with a sophomore at Staples and an 8th grader at Coleytown, Karen has time to put her knowledge and talents to work.
In addition to dresses, Vintage Virtuosa will feature handbags, jewelry, and items like place settings.
Karen sees her store’s customer base as “everyone from high school and college girls up through moms who want something different, and appreciate good design.”
Vintage clothing does not mean looking like “a museum piece,” Karen notes. She is concentrating on the 1940s through ’80s. There’s plenty of color; there’s day and evening wear, cocktail dresses, sweaters, and much more.
“I want to listen to what people like, and what they want — and I’ll respond. This is all about the thrill of the hunt.”
It’s a thrill for Vintage Virtuosa customers — and for Karen Ellman, its founder, owner and new storekeeper.