This Startup Founder Is Changing the Way You Shop for Vintage

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Chairish co-founder and CMO Anna Brockway, via Chairish

The vintage game hasn't changed much in the past hundred years. Certain styles go through phases, design fans become obsessed with them, they sell off their much-loved stuff to other design devotees to make way for new pieces, and the cycle repeats. While that's the exciting part, what hasn't changed much are the difficulties and annoyances involved with this process. Buyers and sellers both off and online have always struggled with vintage shopping, whether it was to do with locating the pieces themselves, or bringing them home, or getting in contact with those that would be interested in their wares.

Thus, when Chairish arrived on the scene two years ago, it was filling a void for design lovers that desperately needed to be addressed. The site, which functions as an online marketplace for gently-used vintage pieces, brings a tech twist to the old methods of consignment stores, antique fairs, and Craigslist, giving all retro-loving buyers and sellers the ability to easily connect and carry out transactions all in one place. The idea came to co-founder and CMO Anna Brockway because she herself knew the frustrations of this kind of shopping intimately: as a true vintage fanatic, she used to be among the fray of buyers and sellers looking for those perfect pieces, and encountered all the little issues along the way that made the process, well, so much less fun. Fascinated by how Chairish has changed the vintage shopping game, we chatted with Anna about all things vintage, from the best kinds of pieces to buy in vintage, to why, if you're looking to buy furniture, the reasons you should always, always look to vintage first, and how vintage can lend a certain fearlessness to your style. 

I like to think of Chairish as revolutionizing Craigslist for design lovers. How did you discover this as a niche that still needed to be tackled?

The site was developed based on my personal experiences, as I’m a vintage furniture fanatic and was having tons of trouble sourcing, buying, and selling things easily. When we started the site two years ago, finding stuff was really based on a hunch. Offline, there were consignment stores and retail locations, which worked, but you still had to get in your car and drive around and hope they would have something you wanted when you got there, which was time-consuming and inefficient. And then online, your choices were eBay and Craigslist, where you had to filter through pages of junk to find the one or two gems that might work for you, maybe. And then on top of that you had to figure out how to negotiate price and pay the person, go pick the item up or have it shipped to your house—it was just full of hassle.

So, the impetus behind starting Chairish was to take that process and through the power of the Internet make it all much simpler. The idea was to make it easy for anybody from collectors and dealers as well as vintage stores and private individuals to buy and sell pre-owned and vintage stuff in a really turn-key and easy way.

How does Chairish curate which items end up on the site?

We have a team of pros who review and pre-approve every item that’s posted on Chairish. There really isn’t any substitution for good taste and erudition. That requires humans!

Mid-Century Modern is huge right now, as are knockoff versions of classic designs. Why buy the real deal?

So there are three reasons why buying vintage makes the most sense. The first I think is subjective, which is taste level. We just firmly believe that vintage is cooler. So pieces with a story, pieces with patina, pieces with a history—they add character, style, and individuality to a space like nobody’s business.

The second one is value. One of the things we spend a lot of time mapping and understanding is the value of furniture over time. The day that you buy your furniture—let’s say you buy something new—you pay $700 for something. The minute it arrives to your house, it’s now worth about $150. It’s sort of like the car business, in that the minute you drive a brand new car off the lot, they say you lose about 75% of the value of the car. In furniture, what we’ve seen is that you lose about 90% of the value of the item the day it gets delivered. Even if it’s still in the box, even if you’ve never sat on it—even if you’ve never got the plastic off of it!—the value drops wildly the minute the new piece of furniture arrives. Over the course of time, for pieces that are built to last, slowly the value will increase. Then, thirty to forty years out, you start to see pieces that have increased their value. So, from a financial standpoint, buying new furniture is one of worst decisions you can make, because you lose value on it immediately and you have to wait a long time to reclaim it.

The third is timing. Very few places carry inventory anymore. It’s not common to walk into well-known retailers such as Restoration Hardware, Crate & Barrel, you name it, and walk out of the store with what you want. You can go in and order, but nobody carries inventory, so you’ll be waiting anywhere from three weeks to eighteen weeks to twenty-four weeks to get something delivered. Since vintage by definition already exists, you’re not waiting for it to be pre-made, waiting for it to come—it’s already there. So speed, and ability to get something quickly is hugely advantageous.

And the fourth reason I think worth talking about is the sustainability factor. The world doesn’t need more stuffing and wire. There are a lot of beautiful things that already exist out there, so it’s better for the planet.

That’s how we look at it. There’s the style factor, and it’s where a lot of interior designers and home decor people go first because they love the look, and we do too. But from a price, speed and environmental standpoint, there are huge advantages to buying vintage and pre-owned as well. I mean, who wants to wait twenty four weeks for a sofa? It’s ridiculous. You need to sit down! [laughs]

What are the best kinds of pieces to buy in vintage? Why?

I think one of the easiest ways to experiment with vintage if you’ve never bought it before is to start with smaller pieces. Start with accessories, start with art, start with cocktail tables. Start with things that are easy to change out and what I think are important in a space because often it’s smaller details that really add character, and vintage is a great way to do that.

I would also say the larger items in a room—sofas, tables, dining tables—are pieces that have incredibly long wait times and are super expensive when you buy them now. So anybody considering a purchase on that level would be nuts not to look at vintage and pre-owned first for all the reasons that I just described. Why wait, why pay, why create something out of nothing for your house, when you could get something cooler, quicker, and cheaper that already exists? When it comes to buying larger items, I think it’s at least worth checking out what the options are in vintage first.

Via shopchairishlive on Instagram

We're huge fans of your live Instagram sales! Out of all the vintage sales you've held in different cities, which ones had the most interesting finds?

One of the things that’s been really fun about this business is that I have the ability to travel a lot as we expand in cities around the country. And each city has such a unique flavor and style. I can think of a very specific look that goes along with West Palm Beach in the Miami area, for example, versus a city like Nashville, where we’re going next, or a city like San Francisco, or LA, or in places like Connecticut and Massachusetts. One of the ideas behind the Instagram sales is to allow people to shop these legendary, treasure trove flea markets that exist around the country but are hard to get to. The idea was to give you an arm-chair travel and shopping experience and do the work for you, and to present pieces that represent the unique flavor of each location.

So we try to pick things that are interesting and reflective of the regional taste, but then there’s just the stuff that everybody likes—like you know, honestly, brass is just hot right now. Everywhere we go, we see a lot of brass, regardless of the market, and we always include that in our sales. Textiles also seem to do really well with us. And in particular things that feel hand-crafted, things that feel touched and handmade, are really interesting right now. And we see that in all different markets.

But specifically, in a place like West Palm, we did a lot of art cloth, which is a very specific fabric and print style that tends to look very retro Florida. Then we have other pieces that are more LA bohemian, more African-looking textiles that represent the feeling of Venice Beach and have more of that bohemian feel of some aspects of Southern California design. So, there are some categories that tend to work well, but how they’re interpreted and expressed in each market can sometimes vary based on the regional aesthetics of that market, and that’s been super fun to watch.

What is your favorite era to buy vintage from and why?

I’m a Mid-Century fan. And I am also increasingly becoming a fan of the Memphis style from the 80’s, specifically in pottery. I’m also a fan of Gustavian, or traditional Swedish looks. I’ve always appreciated the palette, the powder-y finishes and matte looks. That works for me every time.

So those are the three I’d say are my guilty pleasures, but one of the things that’s been really fun about this business is that all day long I get to look at beautiful things that surprise me, and to develop an appreciation for things that maybe before I always liked but didn’t understand. For example, this happened to me with Brutalism. When I studied it before from an architecture point of view, I always found it really dour, and heavy, and, kind of scary, and thought it didn’t age well. And now I look at some of the Brutalist pieces from more of a decorative perspective in homes, and I feel like I see them in a different way. Because in home, you can mix it with other styles and looks to create really interesting juxtapositions and balances. I now find they can add a gravitas to a space that I think is really interesting.

So I think that while those are my three guilty pleasures, one of the fun parts of the job has been to see all the possibilities that are out there, because we offer a such a wide range of looks and styles and try not to focus on any specific genre.

What do you think vintage adds to a space?

I think what’s great about vintage is that you have the ability to play with unexpected combinations. When you go into those big catalogs and you look at “new,” it can tend to look like a McLiving Room, like you’ve seen it all before. It’s the ability to create those surprises, and that personalization and character, that make it interesting. Great designers have always done that, but I think it’s sites like Chairish that have made it more available for people to play with style and have fun.

It’s funny—I feel like many years ago, when most people bought their furniture, it would get delivered and they would live with it for the rest of their lives. My background is in fashion, and I’ve noticed that as fashion has become more of an expression of your unique style, people are starting to take that perspective into home. They want change, they want freshness. They want their homes to reflect a personal style and not a dining room set they committed to on a Saturday twenty five years ago.

So I feel like another great thing about vintage is it allows you to have that flexibility with style and to create, refresh, and to be constantly be thinking about your home. You can make it a place that you want it to be, and not a place that you have to be.

What is the one thing you think people should keep in mind when incorporating vintage into their home with pieces they already own?

The one thing that you always have keep in mind is scale, and it’s the hardest thing. I’m a fan of, when it comes to larger pieces, taking the time to get out the blue tape and map it out on the floor and really think about things like height. You have to spend the time looking at that before making a decision.

And the other thing is—I think people should just try things! I’m always surprised by how timid people can be when it comes to choices in home decor. And it’s like, Why? Why are you so afraid? Because the best rooms and spaces I’ve been in are the ones that really surprise you. When you see things together and you say, “Wow, I would never have done that,” but you know the people, and you’re in the space, and you know their style, all of the sudden you realize, This is wicked. I totally get this. I feel like vintage can allow people a level of fearlessness in their design, which is really important to great style. 

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