A Vintage Connoisseur Finds Old Clothes to Sell to the Stars

Cameron Silver was ripping through the racks of previously owned clothes at one of the city’s largest vintage shows, on West 19th Street on Jan. 30, when Mary McFadden brushed by him.

“Oh,” he gasped, spotting the designer, then quickly turning away from her. Mr. Silver, 29, specifically buys clothes by Mary McFadden-and other couturiers popular in the 60’s or 70’s-and resells them for huge mark-ups. He got $1,200 for a Mary McFadden gown with a macramé bodice and Fortuny pleats to the floor from another designer. He won’t say who.

“She is having a fashion moment,” he whispered about Ms. McFadden. “The Fortuny pleat. It looks right again.” Then he darted toward a black and silver coat on a rack nearby.

Mr. Silver is at the center of the latest vintage craze: 20- to 30-year-old couture styles that look modern. He travels from Los Angeles, where he opened a pricy secondhand store called Decades on Melrose Avenue in 1997, to New York’s secondhand shows to the Paris flea markets to London’s Portobello market with a mental Rolodex filled with the personal tastes and favorite labels of actresses, rock stars and New York debutantes.

He buys designer clothing, fixes it up and resells it for double or triple what he paid for it. Halston, Geoffrey Beene, Hermès, but also Paco Rabanne, Courrèges and Pierre Cardin. If a client doesn’t want what Mr. Silver finds for them, the next Pucci- or Gucci-needy woman on his list gets a shot-or it ends up in the store where just about anybody can add it to their wardrobe, if they can afford it.

He deals almost exclusively in 60’s and 70’s garb and was pushing hippie couture before it ended up on the runways last year. “I have bought some 30’s flounce dresses,” he said. “But, in general, it looks too period. I don’t think modern fashion people want to look retro. We have edited it in such a way that most people have no idea Decades is a vintage store.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Silver got caught between actress Cameron Diaz and Friends star Courteney Cox when he found an original mid-1970’s Diane von Fürstenburg wrap dress. Both actresses had put in informal orders with Mr. Silver for a vintage variety of the signature dress Ms. von Fürstenburg herself reintroduced in 1997, but he spoke to Ms. Cox first. She wore the $200 wrap dress to the premiere of The Hi-Lo Country in Los Angeles in December. Mr. Silver sold Ms. Diaz the stethoscope-style Pierre Cardin necklace she wore to accept her best-actress award at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on Jan. 10.

Mr. Silver also found the gray dress with white bow Téa Leoni wore to the premiere of Playing God in 1997, the Rudi Gernreich cream and black dress Marcia Gay Harden wore to the premiere of Meet Joe Black last summer and the Ossie Clark designs Kirstie Alley favors for her character on Veronica’s Closet .

Mr. Silver’s father’s 1960’s Gucci loafers will be seen on the feet of Brad Pitt in this spring’s The Fight Club and Ms. Cox will be decked out in head-to-toe Silver discoveries in The Runner , a film opening in the spring. He has also dressed Vonda Shepard, the lounge singer on Ally McBeal , Molly Ringwald, Tracey Ullman, singer Marilyn Manson and his girlfriend, actress Rose McGowan, and hairstylists Ronnie and Vidal Sasson, among others.

His clients turn to Mr. Silver for help. Like Lily Pulitzer? Mr. Silver will e-mail you: “Subject: Lily P.” “We have had Lily P gowns at Decades. Everyone is mad for her men’s stuff again, too (very Gucci spring) …” Clients (new or old) can page, e-mail, call (cell, office or home phone), whenever they like.

He is also on call when the well-dressed want to clear out some space in their closets. He acquired a 70’s beaded Chloé dress (Oscar potential) and two crocodile Hermès Constance bags (which he will sell for $5,000 to $6,000 each) from the closet of a “famous person’s wife” just days before boarding the plane to New York. The woman had read about Decades in Town & Country magazine and invited Mr. Silver into her home to rate and raid her closet.

“A lot of my decisions are based on what is happening in contemporary fashion,” Mr. Silver said. “When everybody is using techno fabrics or the, quote, Sporty Spice look, I am interested in doing the opposite. It might look wrong today, but it becomes the fashion trend tomorrow.”

Mr. Silver crashes on a “chic cowhide” on the floor of a friend’s place on East 22nd Street when he’s in New York. On Jan. 29, he woke up, dressed in nonvintage (Tse cashmere sweater, gray contemporary suit, Prada shoes, Gucci leather jacket, Prada coat, Prada bag) and hustled over to the opening of the show on West 19th Street. The doors opened to the public at noon, but designers like Donna Karan, Vivienne Tam, Anna Sui, Norma Kamali, Betsey Johnson and Jill Stuart (all in attendance) and V.I.P. store owners like Mr. Silver were allowed in early to get the best picks. The scene was part wrestling match, part cocktail party.

In New York, Mr. Silver has a following among fashion editors, serious collectors and the twentysomething children of the rich and famous. He comes to town every two months or so to comb over the inventory of the city’s secondhand clothing dealers and cater to his New York clients. He attends this show, the Metropolitan Pavilion Vintage and Antique Textile Show-which is organized by the same people who run the flea market on Sixth Avenue every weekend-four times a year and fashion auctions at the William Doyle Gallery and the 600-vendor Pier Show in late March.

This trip was mostly about Oscar dresses. His budget was $10,000.

“I got here at 11,” said Mr. Silver, a little out of breath later that afternoon. “I jammed through and pulled what I liked. It was so crowded at noon I had to get out of here.” He doesn’t like to pay as he shops-it slows him down. So he puts things aside with many of the 45 dealers who know him (and his mother, Margot Silver) by name.

“I go a little crazy,” he said, describing his New York behavior.

After the first go-through, Mr. Silver left the show for the showroom of Keni Valenti, a private dealer on West 30th Street, to meet a New York client who collects used Geoffrey Beene. He was not being paid. “They are like family, the clients,” he said. “I have the best job in the world.” He hosts a Passover seder every year for clients and costume designers in the Beverly Hills home he inherited when his grandmother passed away. His mother makes the brisket.

At 3 P.M., Mr. Silver returned to 19th Street to look the booths over again and pay for the things he put aside. Liz Goldwyn, the 22-year-old daughter of Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn, wandered over to ask Mr. Silver about a pair of brown suede Capri pants with fringe just above the ankles.

“I am feeling fringe, so I want them for my store,” he said. “If you don’t get them, I am buying them.”

Mr. Silver met Ms. Goldwyn, an intern at Sotheby’s fashion department, when she bought a rare Rudi Gurnreich kabuki-style dress-mixed knit with several prints and a “slightly Asian feel”-at Decades. They became fast friends. Ms. Goldwyn also works with 29-year-old New York designer Susan Cianciolo.

“It is a good fashion piece,” he told her.

Ms. Goldwyn collects burlesque costumes and bathing suits. “I photograph myself in them,” she said.

She decided to buy the pants for under $100. “I don’t have any practical things,” she frowned. “I am the kind of person who wears feathers to the deli.”

Sidney Goldman, the head of publicity at Frédéric Fekkai and another good friend of Mr. Silver, has gotten up as early as 5 A.M. to shop vintage shows with him in Los Angeles. Ms. Goldman was once convinced by a signature e-mail from Mr. Silver to purchase a $600 Gucci bag which she didn’t even know she wanted. He sent it to her to check out and she bought it. Gucci just reissued an updated version of the bag-a zip-up sack with a single shoulder strap and buckle-for $495.

“He has an eye and he knows what you might like,” Ms. Goldman said. Mr. Silver does a lot of business this way. He calls it mail order.

Ms. Goldman was at the show with her boss, whom she tried to convince to buy a Gucci vanity case ($400); he didn’t. Mr. Fekkai bought two old issues of Vogue ($60) instead, one with Jane Fonda on the cover.

Mr. Goldman eyed a bottle-green snakeskin purse.

“I am feeling green,” Mr. Silver said. “It is such a millennium color.”

“So Cameron,” she said. “Any Hermès?”

“Nothing.”

“Any Gucci?”

Mr. Silver steered her toward a Gucci purse near the vanity case and moved to a booth run by Cherry, a store on Orchard Street, where he bought a pair of Western-style, orange, glittery bell bottoms for $165. The pants may work for Lisa Eisner, a Los Angeles-based photographer, who is one of Mr. Silver’s clients and closest friends.

“Everyone wants to look like a rock star,” he said, adding a $50 glam-style men’s jacket (shiny black with a silver pattern) to the pile.

Next, a pair of Gucci pants with the signature leather horse bits on the pockets ($85, “a steal!”) and a very feminine light purple and orange signature Missoni pattern wrap sweater ($125).

“Aren’t they amazing?” he asked of the pants. “I have another pair like these in tweed. I may wear them tomorrow. They are the best thing at the show!” He opened his checkbook. “Do I get super-duper V.I.P. price?” he asked, pen in hand.

The pace quickened as he gathered his morning picks: a $150 dress by Biba, a 30’s-influenced British designer from the late 60’s and early 70’s (“So in the moment,” Mr. Silver said); a modern-looking Stephen Burrows cranberry silk jersey wrap dress for $250; a $450 light tan beaver men’s fur coat from the 60’s, by Stanley Blacker for Sciapparelli, which looks like a camel hair peacoat.

“Not a lot of men look good in fur. If I can get a fur that doesn’t make me look like a pimp …” His eyes lit up. “Should I wear it with my Gucci pants?”

Open-toe boots with fringe ($90); a Lily Pulitzer men’s bright pink patterned suit for $65; some 20-year-old, never-worn Levi’s, that look like pants Gucci was selling last year; a Pucci two-piece outfit-sleeveless top with matching pants-with an awkward neckline he will have to fix ($250); a cashmere sweater, dyed mauve, with a fox collar ($75); a purple suede leather jacket ($115); a few purses and some women’s suede heels in a Gucci logo pattern, with a buckle ($130).

At another booth, tons of hippie couture-peasant blouses for $50 or $60 each, a fringy purse, a fringe suede jacket for Tracey Ullman ($150) and a serious find, tan North Beach leather pants with large Western whip stitch, in great condition for $200.

“We are feeling fringe and whip stitch,” he said, referring to himself and to Tracey Ullman.

“I wonder where you put your thing in these pants,” he asked.

“What thing?” asked Ms. Goldman.

“That thing,” he said, holding the pants near his crotch.

Everyone laughed.

But Mr. Silver left disappointed. No Oscar dresses and only a few more hours to pick through the racks on Saturday.

“There will be a lot of naked actors,” he said.

Stripped down to his black Diesel undies (“I have an underwear fetish!”), Mr. Silver stood in the middle of his friend’s apartment trying on everything that would fit his slim 6-foot 2-inch frame. He had already checked in with his partner, Dana Allyson Greenberg, a former costume designer for New Kids on the Block, back at Decades in Los Angeles.

A stylist for Vanity Fair came in to pull anything Pucci for a photo shoot with Bette Midler. Someone came in looking to dress Liv Tyler. Another to look for clothes for Third Rock From the Sun’s Kristen Johnston.

He was happy with his purchases and making predictions. “A poufy leg of mutton sleeve looks so wrong when you look at contemporary fashion,” said Mr. Silver of the gathered-at-the-shoulder style. “But that shock to the system is what gets us excited about fashion. It is going to be reinterpreted. I can’t wait to see how Miuccia Prada or Tom Ford are going to take that and make it look 21st century. A year ago, I couldn’t look at the sleeve without it being an assault. Now, I am obsessed with it.”

He pulled on his new Schiaparelli fur coat to head to a local diner to refuel on chicken souvlaki and onion rings. There, he worried that he had a belly (he loves that New Yorkers eat) and said that he would like to retire in five years to design with Ms. Greenberg or to work for a label like Emilio Pucci.

It turns out that Decades is Mr. Silver’s second career. When he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in theater in 1991, he became a well-known professional cabaret concert recording artist. He even cut a German cabaret album for the Walt Disney Company’s Hollywood-Entree Records. He has said he is 27, but so did a music review in The Washington Post in 1997. “I’m feeling 27 this year,” he said.

Before U.C.L.A., Mr. Silver went to Beverly Hills High School (of 90210 fame) where he was president of the glee club, the Madrigals. “You know, all that loser shit. Oh my God! Don’t make me sound like a Beverly Hills kid,” he said, his voice lilting. “I really work hard, I swear.”

When Mr. Silver was singing, he would be stuck in odd cities for several weeks so he began to shop to pass the time. “I was frustrated because no one was doing men’s vintage seriously. I found that a lot of the stores that did high-end vintage were stuffy, not accessible. After a couple years of touring, I had a lot of clothes.”

So he put together his collection, rummaged around in fellow singers’ closets, and hit his mom’s friends up for their old clothes. “I was getting burnt out on singing; I was getting all of the reviews and all of the press and not becoming famous and I didn’t want to become a demi cult figure,” he said.

So he opened Decades in June 1997. “I had some savings and we got some money from some friends. It didn’t cost a huge amount.”

Then, rather quickly, “My whole social circle came about through the store. Everyone gets kind of connected and the world is so small that suddenly you know everybody.”

Shortly after noon, Mr. Silver-in a dark blue coat with a mink collar (a blemish on the Schiaparelli kept him from wearing it again right away)-hit pay dirt. He found a Halston that screamed Oscar-a beige silk jersey gown reminiscent in style to Madame Grès. The vendor was asking $1,500. He got it for $700.

His mother, Margot Silver, was there studying her son at work. She claimed she flew into town to go to the theater with her husband, who sat by the entrance waiting patiently all day.

Ms. Silver tentatively made suggestions. She thought the Halston would look good on Nicole Kidman.

“I don’t even know her,” Mr. Silver said. “Maybe my mother has connections I don’t.”

He was thinking the Halston may go to a nameless client, or to Cameron Diaz. He is friendly with Ms. Diaz’s stylists-identical twins Nina and Claire Hallworth. But the beige-gray color will be a hard sell. It may make her look washed out on TV.

Mr. Silver purchased a fur stole for $350. “One of the Dallas ladies will want it.” He tried on a fur coat. He looked like a pimp. He didn’t buy it. He quickly purchased a pair of beaded Giorgio Sant’Angelo harem pants for $120.

The frantic designer-and-assistant buying circus was dying down. Most of them, like Anna Sui and Donna Karan, were there the day before. One woman who said she was buying for Donna Karan left with 10 stuffed bags. The designers were there looking for inspiration-something to be copied, or ripped apart and studied or just a new color.

“There is nothing new to do until we live on the moon,” Mr. Silver said.

When Diane von Fürstenburg relaunched her wrap dress business, Mr. Silver sold her two or three of her own vintage dresses at $200 each. One of them was a python print, which Ms. von Fürstenburg used again.

Mr. Silver was still going, his mother at his heels. The dealers know Mrs. Silver by sight and many know her by name. “I am Mom to everyone,” she said. Her favorite Cameron Silver story is about the day she was in Decades trying on a white pair of shoes (size 6 1/2). She turned to the man next to her, a “rocker type, with tattoos on both arms” and asked what he thought. He gave her his honest opinion. When he left, she asked who he was and her son told her it was Marilyn Manson.

At 2 P.M., Mr. Silver prepared to leave. He had spent only around $5,000. His parents had missed their chance to see a matinee. He was heading back to Los Angeles in a few hours to help former fashion model Peggy Moffitt dress for a photo shoot with the Los Angeles Times Magazine .

Mrs. Silver pointed out a beaded suit. Mr. Silver shook his head. “I like a cocktail suit,” she said.

“She has 80’s radar,” said Mr. Silver.

He is not interested in the 80’s. Not yet.