All Photos: Temniet Mesgna
Words and Interview: Mare Lewicki
The Deal: Every other week, we go to a thrift, vintage, or consignment store where we interview the store owner and speak to them about anything related to fashion and the style of the store.
Previously on “Other People’s Clothes”:
This week, we spoke to the owner of Mercedes Bien Vintage, Mercedes Bien, along with Allyson Behnke, who opens the store on Saturdays. The store was opened 3 and a half years ago and we asked the ladies for their takes on style, trends, and more importantly, vintage. We not only were given the chance to talk to them for a bit, but we were also able to play dress up! Mercedes Bien Vintage is located on 18th street in Adams Morgan and is only open on Saturdays and Sundays.
Why did you name the store after yourself?
MB: Well, I had been running and operating a vintage store in Georgetown before I had my children and I had always operated as Mercedes Bien. It just seemed the most logical [to name it after myself] and I just kept with it. I had signs made already from years ago when I had the store. Before the store, I had a stall at what is now the Dean and Deluca store on M Street, and the Georgetown flea market on Wisconsin Ave.
So it was more of a stand then?
MB: Yeah. Well I had the stand at Dean and Deluca, then the store, then the flea market. I set up on the weekends. I got to meet and see a lot of people and so I got used to that. I’m very much a free spirit so I was given the liberty to do what I want with it. When you have a store, you have overhead. It’s like having a baby; you have to think about it constantly. It’s great to have a store; it’s great to be able to display and showcase the collection and add to the overall fabric of the city.
One thing that really caught my attention when I was researching Mercedes is that there is no website. Why is that?
MB: I am very low-key so I don’t feel the need to have a website. I think what it is too, is that I’m only open on the weekends and I don’t want to irritate people by having this full presence when I’m only open on the weekends. It really is worth coming in on the weekends. When I started here, I didn’t know how long I was going to be here, so, I just do my own thing and I’m not quite as ambitious as someone who may be just starting out. This is just what I have done all my life, and what I do, and what I think I do really well. I handpick everything in here. Everything is in amazing condition. I have studied textiles, at the University of Maryland, and I also sew. I always think of things to be worn for now and that’s my niche. I really am attracted to things well made. I try to have everything made before China, and you’ll find that this stuff is really well made. The biggest thing too, is the fit. I’ll try everything on and I put a lot of work into finding this stuff.
Do you typically go thrifting and that’s how you find these clothes or do you have people who will come in and ask to sell their clothes to you?
MB: Well, I used to have a store in Georgetown a long time ago, and when I had the store in Georgetown, I had a lot of people that would come in. I had a whole different kind of store as well… I had a nice arrangement but my favorite thing to do is to buy someone’s estate, someone who has saved their wardrobe. I was lucky enough to do that this week! I have to really process it in. I check everything! If it needs a hook, for example, I’ll put it on. I shorten things… I do whatever needs to be done. Going back to the question, I guess my favorite way to find clothes would be through an estate sale. You are always on the lookout though. You have a sixth sense about this. People always say “you have a good eye,” so to be able to pick out things… That’s what it really is. It is an eye for fashion and finding things.
AB: I feel that Mercedes has a really good eye. She has the ability to go through estate sales and thrift stores and find the most unique and well made pieces. We do have people come into the store sometimes to show Mercedes their items, but we are not consignment. If you look around, you can see that what is put on the walls for display has a uniqueness to it, a great fit or is well put together. Mercedes has an eye for classic, timeless, and awesome items. The quality of her selection really speaks for itself. Sometimes thrift clothing stores have tons of different racks and you have to go through it all. Here, the pieces are picked with thought and put together meticulously.
MB: I’m the most meticulous person I know! When I have seen other dealers at Estate sales, I’m just really a bit more picky. I have seen fashion, even in the vintage fashion, change. Today, it seems that younger people feel that fashion is defined by brand…..it’s much more complex than that….quality, individuality and timelessness of true fashion: it’s a formula that allows one to mix vintage with contemporary fashion for a truly unique statement!
What would you say then is your own personal style?
MB: If I had to have a label, I don’t know what the label is, but if I had to have one, I guess I would be more bohemian. I like to be comfortable. You would never catch me wearing a pair of high-heels in the middle of the day… I would do them at night. I dress sensibly… I wear a lot of black. I love black but I also like to spark it up with color. I take time to get dressed. I have to try things on, like anybody else. It’s an art form and I just know it when I see it…..I go from jeans and cowboy boots to summer dresses, to cocktail and evening wear pretty seamlessly. I try to have fun.
Do you have any inspiration then for your style? A particular decade which you like to dress more like?
MB: I am open to them all. Everything was so handmade, and say 100 years ago, the beautiful laces from the Victorian era looked pretty neat… A petticoat with beautiful lace… You go into the 20’s and 30’s, and you just had elegance exemplified! The 40’s were a great decade for tailored clothing and you can look back at some of those movies and it looks so well made. Everything was well proportioned and put together! 50’s… Well I love the sun dresses and the prints! 60’s were fun and pop! There was the pop stuff going on and then there was the Jackie O… very structured kind of clothes. Both are great! 70’s are fun, fun! A lot of polyester started then. Polyester was actually a very expensive fabric when it first came out because it was new! It was almost a miracle fabric. A lot of it is made from tree pulp. Then, we move into the 80’s. The 80’s were interesting because the 80’s were almost like the 40’s in that the 40’s had those shoulders. They weren’t as big as the dynasty shoulders from the 80’s, but that’s what we’re seeing now in fashion. Women are finally discovering where there waist is too! It is so refreshing because it is the best part of your body and it just feels so balanced and perfect for having a belt on.
Have you always been a fan of vintage fashion?
MB: Yes! All my years! I am the longest running vintage owner in DC, nonstop.
Could you tell me then what is your favorite part about vintage fashion?
MB: It’s sexy, sensual and very, very unique. It is also made very well.
So you are really opposed to the whole “Made in China” ordeal?
MB: Well, it is really hard to find clothes these days that aren’t made in China, unless you are shopping at a vintage store. It is really great for someone to be able to create their own style with the assistance of vintage pieces. You can mix it up with other pieces! You are going to find vintage pieces in here that look amazing. That just tells you that they are really well made. They last! You have a 50’s dress here that is in perfect condition because it is really well made. When you put it on, it’s going to fall right. Most vintage clothes will look better on, than when it is hanging. You see that the workmanship is just amazing.
What would you say to someone who is skeptical to vintage fashion? How would you tell them to go about learning vintage fashion?
MB: I would never try to sell somebody something that they weren’t into. If someone wants to learn more, then I would have them try some things on! I think the type of person you are speaking of is someone who isn’t quite confident. I would say vintage clothing is more for someone who is comfortable with themselves, but confidence can be built up! The more you try different things, the more confident you become and it is like opening a whole new door to a whole new being because you find that you are paying attention to your imagination and to what makes you an individual. We all are like lambs… We all want to be safe and, you don’t have to be loud or something to be a character. To see someone go by with individuality is just refreshing! It’s an inspiration to others around you and it’s an inspiration to yourself! I love turning people on to new things….and the new things I’m turning them on to are often old things.
Would it be safe to say that you really enjoy and appreciate people who have and know their own style, rather than just buying what is on the runways or on a rack?
MB: For sure! You know, when you’re in Junior High School, that is when you wanted to be part of the group and look like everyone else. When you get to be past 20, you should definitely know your own style. The only way you are going to be able to find your own style is by visiting a vintage store and experimenting! Fashion repeats itself and you are going to be right in fashion with finding a vintage piece that fits in with today’s style, yet that has a little edge to it. That is what my job is! I keep aware of fashion. I have never been a slave to fashion. I’m actually turned off by a lot of things I see with the labeling in fashion, where for instance, you’ll watch the Academy Awards and the question won’t be what are you wearing, but who are you wearing. It has gotten to a point where I find it to be vulgar. The dress should stand on its own. Everyone is just following the same formula, so break out of the formula and find a whole, rich world which is more creative and more fun!
AB: Everyone has a different body shape and everybody has a different way that they can carry certain things and it takes a certain confidence to break out of the trends and to find your own style but when you do, it is the most liberating feeling ever!
MB: You’re celebrating! It is a creative experience and you realize what it is to be an individual! The more you do it, the more empowering it is. Like I have said before, it really is an inspiration to those around you!
In the following pictures, we asked them to dress us up! And they do. Summer inspirational: