Visit: 4390 Main St, Philadelphia, PA 19127
Story and Photos by Julie O’Boyle for The Style Line
“All things lovely.” Truer words could not be spoken of Millay Vintage –
located just outside of downtown Philadelphia in the picturesque neighborhood of Manayunk. Stepping over the threshold of the cheerful blue and white storefront, one is instantly given the feeling of having entered into the (crushingly beautiful and expertly curated) closet of a dear friend. And in many ways, you have. Behind the counter sits Mary Spears, owner and operator of the online and IRL outposts of Millay Vintage and the embodiment of what sets Millay apart from the vintage-modern crowd. Mary’s approach to her personal style is mirrored in that of her shop, “I don’t put anything on the racks or shelves of my shop that I myself wouldn’t wear or own,” she explains in our interview below, “I’ve trained myself to have a high standard of quality for what I allow on the racks of my storefront.”
With a background in American Literature – the name ‘Millay’ pays homage to American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay – Mary stocks her shelves with pieces both modern and vintage that reflect the muse of Millay, a woman who Mary describes as “smart, romantic, independent, and classic with a tiny dash of the avant-garde.” A description that could very easily be used to describe the shop owner herself. On a rainy Philadelphia morning, Mary welcomed me in to her world to discuss her love of vintage, her personal style ethos, and the story she aims to tell through the decades of classic pieces that line the racks and shelves of her store. Learn more about her in our interview below.
Hi! My name is Mary Spears
and I run the online vintage shop MILLAY Vintage, which offers a curated selection of wardrobe and home goods for the modern romantic. I currently live in Philadelphia with my saucy Chihuahua, General Gazpacho, and handsome husband, Will. Just a few steps from my apartment sits my brick-and-mortar storefront, which doubles as a retail space and my photography studio for the webshop. Beyond that, I’m a shameless ‘90s-television addict, love a good mimosa at any hour, and have learned that there is no day bad enough that a good puppy Instagram account can’t fix (yea, I’m looking at you @dogsbeingbasic, @piggyandpolly, @harlowandsage — it’s my rabbit hole of happy).
Just a few years ago you were living in Boston, attending Boston College for your master’s in American Literature before you made the decision to start selling vintage full-time. What made you decide to shift your focus to fashion, vintage in particular? Was it a tough decision to leave academia behind?
You know, you work so hard to get into a good graduate school program, so it’s scary to decide that path is not the right fit for you — but it didn’t take long for me to realize academia wasn’t for me and wasn’t making me happy. I was specializing in American Literature and focusing on women writers and feminist theory — which I loved, but talking about issues in a vacuum and writing long papers about them wasn’t how I wanted to explore those ideas any more. And on the side, I was doing this totally separate thing as a creative release: finding and selling vintage goods to earn a little extra money while in school. Pretty quickly, I was much more enamored with this little side project of mine that was taking off, and it was just one of those intuition things – to jump and make it my career.
In retrospect, I see the connection between the two more clearly, what I was studying and what I’m doing now. Finding the beauty in forgotten objects and in the politics of clothing; how they expressed gendered freedoms and limitations and expectations of their time are a manifestation of what I liked studying in school, so there is definitely a thread there — a connection– that I appreciate. But truthfully, on a day-to-day level, I just like pretty things. I love fashion, I love interiors, I love playing with romantic ruffles, layers of chiffon. I love creating and styling and think that pretty for the sake of creating loveliness is enough! I sometimes feel tired of over-intellectualizing what I’m doing: In short, I love lovely things, I come alive in creating loveliness, and I love that it’s a contagious thing when you share it with others.
There are some excellent fashion and style outposts in Boston, but I think there’s a general misperception of what New England style encompasses (namely very preppy and/or practical).
Did you see a gap that needed to be filled in the fashion and vintage landscape of that city? Were you responding to a specific need?
Honestly, not really. My market was online, so I wasn’t really thinking too locally (versus now, where I’ve since added a brick-and-mortar and do take my local audience much more into account). I just put myself out there, first on Etsy, then on my own site that I built, and feel really fortunate that all across the US and around the world, people were finding my little e-shop, engaging with it, and appreciating what I was offering. Boston was and will always be such a special place for me – and the stereotypes of it being waspy and preppy are definitely misconceptions. There is a really vibrant and supportive creative community there, an open-mindedness to try new things, to experiment, to innovate, that I certainly saw reflected in fashion and interior design in my time there as well. It was a perfect city to fall in love with the mix of history and new, and I’m forever grateful for that cocktail it provided me with and the people I met there – the support that city gave me was so important to where I am now.
You mentioned that opening a brick and mortar storefront meant responding to your customers on a more localized level – how does your consumer base differ? What things to you keep in mind now that you operate a physical storefront that you didn’t necessarily need to consider before?
Hands down, modern relevancy and persistently showing how each item I select fits into today’s wardrobe is the challenge at the storefront. Online, people who love my aesthetic or love vintage found me and found my webshop organically. But at the storefront, it is a lot of organic, random foot traffic that stumbles into my store, whether or not they have a predilection towards vintage. In fact, many times customers come in loving the store, loving the window display, and then being surprised because “they don’t usually like vintage or used clothing.” My work is at taking away those connotations from the clothing, and instead showcasing everything in a way that is about providing the best of the best from the past and present that I can find. In person, my focus has to go a lot more towards merchandising and personal styling where that seems to take less precedence online. I’m still navigating the intricacies of both worlds — the physical storefront and the webshop — they are both stimulating and creatively challenging but are most definitely two different animals.
In a lot of ways I think your passion for literature is reflected in the way you curate Millay Vintage – there’s a storyline there, a thread that connects the multitude of decades represented on the racks and shelves. Are there certain criteria you keep in mind when selecting pieces for the shop? Is there a ‘Millay Woman’? If so, who is she?
Well thank you so much, those words mean a lot! The name of the store is actually somewhat inspired by one of my favorite authors: American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She was the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923, a feminist activist, and was just strikingly beautiful. So she is definitely influential in the type of woman I consider as the muse of MILLAY: smart, romantic, independent, and classic with a tiny dash of the avant-garde. I really try to create an experience that simply celebrates beauty, because I truly believe that surrounding yourself and dressing yourself in the things you find lovely is empowering in how it brings you a sense of peace and pride in yourself and to confidently and authentically express yourself.
Whenever I’m browsing the racks or clicking through your site, I’m always impressed in how you so seamlessly blend eras – you manage to make a 1990s dress look perfectly at home next to an Edwardian blouse and antique Kimono, for example. That being said, are there certain pieces or silhouettes you steer away from? Are there decades that just don’t make sense in the story you’re telling?
I genuinely believe that there is beauty in every era, every decade – even the often-avoided 1980s – and I make it a rule to not disregard anything due solely to its origin of date. On the flip side of that though, I work hard to not grab vintage just for vintage’s sake: not all vintage is good, and certainly not all vintage fits in the MILLAY story. So instead, I focus on quality fabrics: silks, linens, cashmere. I focus on flattering silhouettes, quality construction, designer pieces that have stood the test of time, and on mixing and matching these pieces to make them feel unique and timeless. I mean, truly, what is more timeless than a 1910s top and 1960s skirt, and modern shoes? Mixing those elements not only takes the costume element out of vintage, but also proves that if it looked good in the 1910s, 1960s, and now, I can guarantee it will still look good in ten or twenty years. So go ahead, invest and treat yourself, because these pieces will be workhorses that can be continually reinvented in your wardrobe over the years.
Is there a piece you’ve personally invested in recently that you’re particularly excited to have added to your wardrobe?
I’ve been a bit shoe obsessed lately because I love how a good pair can add so much personality to your outfit, but I also need a pair that are comfortable enough to run around to appointments in, schlep around the city and then be on my feet all day at the storefront. My shearling-lined Rachel Comey boots got me through winter, and I just added a pair of J. Crew Collection pumps, DVF peep toe suede pumps, and some Emerson Fry flat mules to my spring repertoire. I also just treated myself to a colorful Schiaparelli vintage silk scarf, since I can wear it in my hair, on my arm, around my neck or on my bag, and pared-down Elizabeth Suzann silks have adding some nice layers to my more ornate and frilly vintage lace favorites. Essentially, I’ve created a little modern capsule to mix in with my constant rotation of vintage, and have been working at experimenting more with colors and layers in my own styling.
Your selection has such a graceful quality to it, which I think is reflected in your personal style as well. Do you feel your personal style is influenced by MV?
And vice-versa, are the pieces you’re curating for the shop influenced by what you’re gravitating towards personal style-wise?
Absolutely! It’s a hard line that I’ve yet to find on what separates Millay V. from me, and me from Millay V. For instance, I don’t put anything on the racks or shelves of my shop that I myself wouldn’t wear or own. This brand is my baby, there is a lot of me in it, but I’m also constantly inspired by what the brand has become. Seeing how customers interact with and create their own stories with pieces from the shop constantly unveils new tricks and ways to play with my own wardrobe. It’s a totally beautiful back and forth that keeps me excited and loving my job day after day.
You’re originally from Atlanta, lived in Boston, and moved to Philly a couple of years ago – how have your experiences in these very different cities impacted the direction of your store? Have you faced any unexpected challenges creatively as you’ve moved from city to city?
While I’ve moved up and down the east coast a good bit now, the shop started as a webshop in Boston, and matured into a bigger webshop and storefront in Philly, and I’ve had such different experiences in each city. Boston and Philly have been interesting to be in – they are both such historical landmarks, and in that way offer a lot to be unearthed, but they are also incredibly different. The brick-and-mortar has been a new challenge. I jumped first and have been building my parachute on the way down as I go (to loosely quote Sophia Amoruso). The brand had built a name for itself online, it had a loving community, but offline, no one knew MILLAY. I had to start from scratch in a lot of ways, showing and explaining to people here in Philadelphia what we are all about. And it’s a skeptical group here, so I had to be super confidant and consistent in my offerings, in elevating vintage beyond its kitschy or costume-y reputation – and almost a year in now, its been a really rewarding experience. To see people understanding and connecting with the aesthetic at the storefront, experimenting with new pieces, falling in love with a tangible bit of history, has been so exciting and touching, so incredibly motivating!
You opened your brick and mortar shop just under a year ago – how has creating a physical space for Millay Vintage helped it to evolve?
Opening the storefront has really pushed me to be more and more cohesive about what I’m offering and how everything item relates to each other: what story everything is telling. In short, it has pushed me to be even more intentional about what I pick and why. Frankly, having a physical retail space wasn’t something I was working towards, but the right space opened up at the right time and I trusted my gut and jumped, and I’m so glad I did. It has challenged me and made me ask new questions, and in doing so I’ve expanded my offerings to include modern makers (all U.S. based, women-owned brands, by the way!), and I love that women from the past and present assist me in creating a beautiful, modern look.
Since making the transition to selling vintage full time, how has owning your own business affected the way you approach your personal style?
How do you see your style evolving in the coming year?
It’s made me analyze my own closet and my own investments for my wardrobe with a much more scrutinizing eye. I’ve trained myself to have a high standard of quality for what I allow on the racks of my storefront and what I offer online: longevity, quality, relevancy, and timelessness. Before, I would stock my own closet with things that I thought were good, because they were just for me. But now, I shop and curate things for customers that I only want to provide the very best for.
The Style Line was built on the premise of discovery, exploration and transit. With this in mind what is your “The Style Line” in your wardrobe?
When you open my closet, it’s a heady cocktail of special vintage relics of the past and modern pieces I’ve carefully been selecting and investing in – and my style line is that exploration of how to marry the two harmoniously in what I wear everyday. How to create new combinations, how to reinvent it all. How to make the modern pieces feel timeless and the vintage pieces feel relevant. That sense of discovery and exploration, experimentation, is the most exciting challenge because it truly feels like everyday I am putting on this powerful display of who I really am, what I really love… I am literally wearing the story I’m writing as I write it, if that makes any sense.
And that sense of individuality, fashion as honoring the past and forging through the present, style as a statement of expression is why I do what I do: to empower myself and help other women feel excited and empowered by what they wear.
What are you most excited for in the months to come? Any new or exciting plans for the store or personal projects you’re working on?
Until now, I’ve been doing everything myself: making logos, designing and building out the website, sourcing, cleaning, repairing, photographing products, writing copy for listings, etc. etc. I’ve been fortunate enough to be growing at a healthy pace and have been looking for ways to hand off some of my tasks this year – so I am currently working with a creative director on some new graphic designs and branding concepts for the store. I also just wrapped up a project I’m super proud of: our latest lookbook — the 2016 Pre-Spring Campaign — in which I got to assemble and work with a dream team. Whitney Hayes is a photographer who’s work I have followed and admired greatly for a while now, and getting to work with her while traipsing around NYC was a dream come true for me. I just have to pinch myself that MILLAY is letting me create with and work with other creatives that have inspired me along the way – and that I get to create and bring my own vision to life while I do that. I still feel like I’m dreaming sometimes… feel free to pinch me awake.