By Tammy Scileppi
Longtime Long Island City-based business owner Helen Uffner loves all things vintage, with a collection that began from a young age.
“I would save my babysitting money and go to auctions on Saturdays and buy whatever tickled me that I could afford,” Uffner said. “From a young age I always scoured thrift shops and became entranced with antique clothing and the spectacular handwork that went into making these pieces. It never occurred to me to wear the items I collected – I regarded them as works of art.”
So, who is this stylish New Yorker? Uffner owns the only vintage clothing rental company in Queens. In fact, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing happens to be the oldest and largest of its kind in New York City, and this year, they’re celebrating 40 years in business.
Since 1978, her successful business has been the go-to source for numerous clients — costume designers, stylists, photographers, artists, and fashion designers — who come from the world of film (“Out of Africa” to “The Greatest Showman”); television (“Boardwalk Empire” to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”); theater (“The Color Purple” to “War Paint”) as well as opera, ballet, publishing, advertising and art.
But the business’ 40-year milestone has been bittersweet for its frustrated owner.
Due to Long Island City’s changing landscape and whopping rents, Uffner has had no choice but to search elsewhere for a new space to house her massive collection, which lives in a 6,300 square foot loft located at 30-10 41st Ave. Though she has faced many challenges in recent years, Uffner said she isn’t giving up hope.
“Production costume budgets have been getting more and more prohibitive and design companies have been slicing their research budgets too, so it becomes harder to remain comfortably solvent,” she said. “Our value is in our inventory, whose value rises yearly, as it becomes more and more rare. On the other end, rents have risen tremendously, so costume businesses are being squeezed at both ends.”
Her rent recently went up 25 percent.
Despite her hectic schedule, which has included quick fittings for an emergency scene recently shot for the new Martin Scorsese film “The Irishman,” as well as ongoing appointments to look at potential spaces, she took the time to talk about her recent projects.
“I got involved with the Scorsese film because I’ve worked with Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (“The Aviator” and the upcoming “Mary Poppins Returns”) many times… so when this period feature came along, her team called. It’s hard to believe, but we have been working on this film since August and they still drop by weekly for last minute items,” Uffner said.
Currently, Team Uffner is working on several other films for Netflix as well a few other television series, with everything from “Saturday Night Live” to Ryan Murphy’s upcoming “Pose.” They’re also very active in the theater scene from New York City to Rochester and also work with magazine shoots and editorials.
Uffner has legacy of dressing the stars, including the likes of Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies,” to Beyonce in “Cadillac Record,” Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg in “The Color Purple” and Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa.”
How does one build connections in the entertainment industry?
In Uffner’s case, it was knowing the right person.
“A friend with a SoHo vintage boutique was approached by Woody Allen’s costume designer, who was looking for 1920s clothing for the film ‘Zelig.’ My friend sent the costume team to my apartment, where I had one clothing rack full of 1920s clothing. They bought everything,” says Uffner, who recalls having an aha! moment after feeling saddened that she had to start her collection all over again.
The budding entrepreneur went from working out of her apartment and storing 600 cartons of her burgeoning collections in 11 warehouse spaces, to finally moving everything to a loft on Manhattan’s West 37th Street. After 10 years there, the building was sold to developers and was going to be torn down, so she scrambled to find a new home and finally found her current space at Queens Plaza in Long Island City over 10 years ago. The rest is history.
Uffner’s remarkable collection — which is not open to the public — is a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind vintage gems. Each item seems to tell a story about the past. And unlike today, fashion mostly dictated what people wore over many decades.
In her search for a new home for her veritable vintage museum, she has been looking in Queens, the Bronx, and beyond.
“The problem is that costume designers travel mostly by subway, so my business has to be close to public transportation and Broadway. When running around for costumes, fabric and trim, designers can’t take over an hour each way plus a half mile walk to travel to Brooklyn, for example, to pick up items they need, and carry garment bags and shopping bags such distances easily. Time is money,” Uffner said.
She said the costume designer industry has been “tremendously helpful, posting pleas for help for me in union papers and Facebook trade groups, asking each other for any leads for space for me. No-one wants me to close. New York productions need me to remain open for business to serve productions here, though we also service productions across the country and abroad.”
So, what does the future hold for Uffner’s empire?
“For my business, I don’t know. I am considering all options, but may result in the collection being shipped to the west coast or being bought and auctioned or sold off… and that would be a sad ending to my 40 years-worth of collecting,” she said.
It’s important to Uffner that her business remain here on the east coast where she still hopes to find an affordable space or a local opportunity.
“The entertainment industry in New York City is booming — the city boasts billions being brought in by productions, but without the ancillary costume industry businesses, the emperor will literally have no clothes,” she said. “New York needs a costume rental house. We have lost more than a dozen costume companies in less than a dozen years, primarily because rental prices are so prohibitive. Our industry, which includes rental houses, costume makers, milliners, dyers, pleaters, fabric stores, undergarment sources, trim stores and shoemakers will soon disappear. Los Angeles has a plethora of costume houses, New York might soon have none. That is outrageous.”