What is Vintage?

Here’s an interesting article about how Chanel is suing the New York vintage clothing store What Goes Around Comes Around for selling ‘vintage’ Chanel. The company is citing unfair competition, false advertising, and trademark infringement.

What Goes Around Comes Around has been in business for 25 years and has a very chic looking online website where all their merchandise, by various makers, is sold with clear catalogue-quality photos. Everything is in top condition and appears unworn. It doesn’t look like your typical vintage shop, but that’s because the owners spend a lot of time making it that way. They are trying to make used clothing a viable part of the contemporary fashion market, and so the goods have to be fresh and wearable.

The shop’s goods mostly date from the last 25 years, which Chanel says isn’t vintage, citing the Federal Trade Commission as defining vintage as being at least 50 years of age. I looked it up and the Federal Trade Commission does say “A vintage collectible is an item that is at least 50 years old.” However, the trade commission’s concern is not with the definition of vintage, but rather confusion in the marketplace over what is an antique, vintage collectible and reproduction. The general thought is that something becomes vintage after about 20 years. eBay, Etsy, and the Vintage Fashion Guild all follow that idea of about 20 years to call a garment or accessory vintage.

The term vintage is loose. It is used in the wine industry to describe a particularly good year (not relevant to any particular age – last year could be vintage.) It is used by car collectors to refer to something similar, but does also require at least 25 years of age. The term is also used by Oriental carpet dealers to refer to non-antique carpets (a nice way to say used but quality). The term vintage in the used clothing industry is in itself a vintage term, popping up in the mid 1960s when vintage clothing boutiques started opening up for their hippy clients. However, the term is not set in stone — Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous quips that her clothes are vintage as soon as they come back from the dry cleaner.

As for the rest of the claim by Chanel against the vintage clothing store. They cite finding one counterfeit Chanel bag amongst their stock, but that is why the shop has a guarantee of authenticity for their merchandise, so in case this happens, you can return the bag without problems. Mistakes can happen as there are some very good Chanel fakes out there, and the store obviously has a good reputation, otherwise it wouldn’t still be in business 25 years later. As Chanel is known to be uncooperative and will not authenticate any Chanel item unless there is also a proof of purchase receipt from a Chanel dealer, it seems Chanel itself isn’t exactly an expert at identifying their own goods.

This lawsuit is a case of David and Goliath. Chanel looks silly for making a big todo over one fake purse and the definition of vintage. Chanel says the store damages Chanel’s reputation, but I think silly lawsuits are doing that just fine.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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2 Responses to What is Vintage?

  1. Lynette says:

    Sorry, a frivolous comment: Poor Madame Chanel looks like ‘La vache qui rit’ in that photo …. Someone took that photograph who obviously did not like her.

    And more to the point, re vintage and cars. After 25 years you can apply for your historic vehicle license plate, but you would only call it a vintage car really if it was a collectible. Couture clothes obviously are collectibles, and who is waiting for 50 years?

    • Jonathan says:

      That is definitely not Chanel’s best angle… It was the historic vehicle license plate I was thinking of when referring to vintage cars. I can think of several 25 year old cars right now that probably don’t quality as ‘vintage’ for lack of quality…. a K car comes to mind!

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