Desert Vintage came from Tucson to the Lower East Side. It’s already right at home.
One afternoon in late February, the owners of the new Lower East Side vintage boutique Desert Vintage were musing about their customers. “Our clientele will wear Philo-era Celine trousers with an Edwardian top,” said Salima Boufelfel, who owns the shop with her partner, Roberto Cowan. “It’s never just ’90s Prada or a turn-of-the-century lace collar. It’s the mix of these different elements that tell a larger story. It’s a mash-up.”
Ms. Boufelfel, 34, and Mr. Cowan, 32, are both natives of Tucson, Ariz., where they own the original Desert Vintage, which has steadily amassed a cult following of designers, stylists and destination shoppers since 2012. Their weekly collections go on their website on Fridays, and items like a beaded dress from the 1920s or an Yves Saint Laurent floral smock dress from the 1970s or a silk dress from the Row that is just a few seasons old often sell in minutes.
Ms. Boufelfel did costuming for high school plays and started sourcing outfits for characters at vintage stores. She met Mr. Cowan in 2009, when they worked together at a Buffalo Exchange in Tucson. They began dating a year later.
“I think of us as long-term collaborators,” Ms. Boufelfel said.
Mr. Cowan’s family is from Mexico City and Sonora. “I grew up with my grandmother and mom, who are glamorous women, and was given a sewing machine at age 13,” he said. “My dream was to move to New York and go to Parsons, or I wanted to move to Paris and open an antiques shop.”
The goal of owning a shop in Paris was one they shared. Ms. Boufelfel had worked for vintage dealers while she took college courses at the Sorbonne. In 2011, they spent four months in Paris and intended to go to Los Angeles to investigate visas to move to France.
But first they stopped at home in Tucson, and there they got an offer they couldn’t refuse. Kathleen Lauth, who had opened Desert Vintage in 1974, was looking to retire. “She started it when she was around 23 or 24 and saw herself in Salima, who was that age, and I was 21,” Mr. Cowan said.
Ms. Boufelfel said, laughing, “I feel like we grew up with the store.” Mr. Cowan nodded in agreement. “We were kind of fearless,” he said. “I kept thinking that we had to do it differently from other stores. We have to make sure it feels modern and accessible to people around the world.”
Mr. Cowan shot photos for their Instagram and website on models with minimal, if any, makeup, undone hair and unexpected styling combinations. A gold sequin blouse from the 1930s is buttoned just once over a bare chest and paired with black trousers and Mary Jane shoes. The styling showed how folk blouses and opera coats didn’t have to look like costumes in a period piece.
A turning point came in 2014 when they set up shop as a vintage pop-up at the V.O.D. boutique in Dallas. “The response was so overwhelming, it took us aback,” Ms. Boufelfel said. “It was a ready-to-wear customer who didn’t know how to mix it — they weren’t women who would walk into a vintage store — and they would say things like, ‘Your styling has inspired me to wear an original ’30s dress and not feel like it was a costume.’”
An early fan was Emily Bode, who bought clothing online from Desert Vintage — she went through a phase of buying Edwardian whites — before founding her own line, which is known for its vintage and antique fabrics. “There’s not that many people who sell vintage in such pristine quality and who carry Celine, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and obscure designers and rare and fragile pieces from the 1800s and 1920s,” Ms. Bode said.
She met the couple in 2016 when she bought a red silk skirt from their booth at A Current Affair, a traveling vintage clothing show, and they soon became close friends. “At that point, there weren’t that many people our age in the vintage game,” said Ms. Bode, who was driving home from a quilt auction in New Jersey. “When we were at auctions, we were pretty much the only people there under 40.”
It was when she opened her Bode store on Hester Street in 2019 that she started lobbying for them to open a shop nearby. “It was so clear it works for us, and we have a similar customer as Desert Vintage, one who has a shared love for antiques and histories,” Ms. Bode said.
After looking at several locations around Chinatown and the Lower East Side, they signed a lease at 34 Orchard Street. Ms. Bode’s husband, Aaron Aujla, and his business partner, Benjamin Bloomstein, who own the furniture and interior design studio Green River Project, were enlisted to transform the space.
“It’s kind of like doing a portrait of someone,” Mr. Aujla said of the design process. “Over the course of the last five to six years of traveling with them, having them at every Bode show, every store opening, I really know who they are as a couple and as an entity, as a business. I wanted to paint this picture of them as romantics and historians, and their vision of the past as holistic and beautiful and contemporary and relevant.”
“We wanted them to feel like it’s their home in New York, and our home is around the corner, and so is our store.”
The first mandate: You can’t transplant Tucson to Chinatown, so their Manhattan space would be a departure from their airy and minimalist Arizona boutique.
One inspiration was the studio of the artist Louise Bourgeois. “Having a kitchen in the studio and bed in the library felt very New York,” Mr. Aujla said. So they ordered a claw-foot bathtub for Desert Vintage, which, at the opening party in late February, was filled with ice, Dom Pérignon and dozens of stems of tuberose.
In the renovation process, ceilings were taken down and walls were painted a cream color to play with the museum-grade lighting. A speaker was hidden behind a vent in the bathroom. Green River Project built mahogany wood furniture and objects for the store, and photos of Mr. Cowan and Ms. Boufelfel, postcards and a lucky $2 bill are placed around the store. There’s a round three-seat settee upholstered in the same corduroy fabric Bode uses for trousers.
Design teams have come to the vintage fairs Mr. Cowan and Ms. Boufelfel have participated in and to Tucson to source patterns and textiles.
“When Salima merchandises a rack, she makes it feel like a full collection,” Mr. Cowan said. “There was once a designer who was so impressed with how it was presented, she took the whole rolling rack away from our booth.”
Now, with Desert Vintage in New York, Mr. Cowan and Ms. Boufelfel are already considering potential third locations. “Los Angeles,” she said. “And Paris is always an idea.”
Where Fashion Stylists Shop for Vintage – The New York Times