Garb Vintage is a sustainable vintage and pre-loved clothing business set up by friends Ali Wilson and Emma Caswell. The business was established during the pandemic. Many people in Leeds will know Ali through her work as a photographer. We caught up with her to chat about her latest venture…
DIY Leeds : So Ali, you and Emma Caswell have recently established Garb Vintage. Do you want to tell us a bit about yourselves and the business?
Ali: Sure! Most people would probably know me from being a photographer in Leeds, which is something I’ve been doing for about twelve years now. And I’ve been working professionally as a freelancer for over seven years. In January, myself and my good friend, Emma Caswell started a new vintage clothing venture called Garb Vintage.
The name Garb is just another word for clothing. It basically means a distinctive style of clothing. So we chose that name because it’s quite quirky and different. Also, I suppose it fits with the idea of how we want to develop our style.
I’ve been wanting to sell vintage clothes for quite a while, I’ve thought about doing this for at least five years, I just didn’t really know how to go about it, and how to do it properly.
Before we started Garb Vintage, I sold clothes on eBay for years. I hate seeing stuff go to waste, and some stuff I think would be better having a new home. But I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. Then somebody told me about Depop, so I started selling clothes on there. After that, I ended up maintaining contact with people that I bought stuff off and following them on Instagram and buying clothes from them through their Instagram profiles. That led me to following loads of different vintage clothes sellers and basically I buy most of my clothes from Instagram, rather than from the usual retail websites and shops.
Seeing all that was a good bit of research for me – just watching somebody successfully sell clothes on a social media site rather than on an e-commerce website – it was a lot more casual and less commercial.
After that, I started building up a collection. I travelled a lot before the lockdown, and I was going to places in Europe, like Berlin, Budapest and Kiev, and finding pieces in all these different places I visited, and I decided that once I built my collection, I’d have a crack at selling the clothes as a proper business.
I did my first little vintage stall at The Imaginarium’s New Year’s Eve party in December 2019. It was good, but it turned into a bit too much of a party environment. But hopefully, once restrictions are eased, we’ll do more stuff at that venue, probably during the daytime, and also do pop ups and fairs at other places.
Our business concept is basically just for us to sell unique and quirky vintage clothing, and to contribute to a more sustainable fashion industry in the process. We also just want to have fun and enjoy what we do as well, because we both – myself and Emma – we’ve always loved vintage. We love buying vintage stuff. We have an ongoing joke that we’re foragers. So we’re always hunting for something special. We’re always looking for the next exciting thing. We like the idea that what is one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
So obviously somebody might not want a piece of clothing, so to sell it on to somebody who may want it, and it can continue on its style journey and add to theirs. That’s a great thing.
Also, we want to keep it sustainable because it’s no secret really how polluting and exploitative the fashion industry is, and in the process of setting up the business, we’ve been learning a lot about the fashion industry, its ethics and its impact on the planet. And it’s driven us to think about how we want to run the business as sustainably as possible. So rather than throwing a garment away, we’re encouraging passing it on to somebody else, and someone who might appreciate it more and give it a new life.
Another thing is that we want to keep all our marketing materials and packaging eco-friendly – like reused, recyclable, biodegradable. We try to do the best for the planet. And we’re constantly learning when it comes to all that. So the journey is just beginning for us with sustainability.
DIY Leeds: You mentioned the Instagram vintage clothing community earlier. Would you like to tell us a bit more about that?
Ali: As I’ve set up the business I’ve started following other sellers because it’s good for inspiration, and also because I like buying stuff for myself.
I’ll follow different people, different Instagram sellers, and they’ll follow you back, and they’re really supportive. They’ll comment and share your stories, and the same with us. And you know, we have absolutely nothing to gain from it, it’s just a really nice supportive community. There’s no negativity. It’s not ruthless and competitive. I think it’s like that because everybody’s got their own style and all the items are so unique. It’s about appreciation.
DIY Leeds: Your main line of work is photography. You were a prolific events photographer on the Leeds scene. Do you think that a lack of work in this area due to the pandemic spurred you on to start Garb Vintage?
Yeah, basically due to the pandemic, about 80% of my photography business isn’t really happening at the moment. Because I tend to work in the events industry, I’ve found it really difficult like many others who also work in that industry. I’ve had to find a new full-time job in the meantime, which I’ve been fortunate to do, and it’s a full-time position working from home as well. But having a full time contract job was not something I ever planned on doing. I was like, ‘Whoa, no, absolutely not!’ Because I love being my own boss and having the freedom of working freelance and working on projects that I choose and value. But at the same time, having this stability now is something I’ve needed. And I’ve enjoyed the stillness of just working from home. I’ve moved to a new house as well. So it’s been nice being at home quite a bit more and enjoying my home. However, I need a creative outlet as well, and that’s where Garb came into the equation.
I guess you could say the pandemic has spurred me onto to find a new career focus. I’d always planned to set up a vintage clothing business, but I procrastinated a lot, and then lockdown hindered a lot of stuff as well. Like going out and purchasing stock. And then I had to move out of my house during lockdown, and I left all of my stock in my old house and moved in with my boyfriend. So it was a bit difficult sort of trying to set things up with all of my property in a completely different place. It was a bit of a nightmare.
I got really fed up in the first lockdown. I felt like I wasn’t being creative. I just wanted to pick up my camera and go and do some photography, but I just felt really uninspired. I like traveling, and I couldn’t really travel very far. I’m not really into doing landscape photography. I tried it for a couple of weeks and it’s not me. So it felt like my creativity was gone. So by the time the next lockdown happened I was kind of like, do you know what – I need to get my backside into gear and get this vintage thing started. I was just craving that creative output.
I think it was back in August last year, I was having a chat with Emma and she was also fed up with her job. The conversation led to her say ‘I really want to do something different. I want to do something creative.’
Emma wanted to start learning how to make her own clothes and eventually start a clothing brand. So I mentioned the idea of starting a new vintage clothing business, and we just started throwing ideas to each other, and then we thought why don’t we do something together? It would be really nice to have that support for each other. We’ve got a really similar vision. Let’s do it.
So Emma came on board and that’s how Garb came about. And it’s been good to start the journey with her because like I said, we’ve got that really good support for each other being such good friends. We’ve both got different skill sets and different ideas, but it’s good merging them together, bouncing ideas off each other. And yeah so we’ve ended up combining forces because of lockdown.
A lot of good things seem to have come out of how awful it’s been – I’ve noticed a lot of people improvising and setting up little side hustles and stuff. Little home bakeries, crafts businesses, loads of things like that. And social media has been a big asset with things like that.
DIY Leeds: You obviously have a personal interest in fashion and generally dressing well. Have you always been interested in the fashion industry?
Ali: Yes, always. I think ever since I was about eight years old, I’ve just loved dressing up. As soon as I was allowed to wear my own clothes without having to ask my mum what to wear – which would sometimes be absolutely hideous – like hand me downs from my sister. Hopefully she won’t read this.
But yeah – ever since I was allowed to choose my own clothes, which was when I was around eight years old, I was like ‘Right, can I go to this shop and get this’, and I was just obsessed with clothes and style. I’d spend all my pocket money, and any money I’d earned on weekends from jobs when I was a teenager, on clothes. It got to be a bit of a joke how much I’d spent on clothes in my lifetime.
I never followed the path of studying fashion design because I came from a really small town. And back then, in the nineties, I always just used to think that being a fashion designer was something that was out of reach for me. I was so unsure of myself and just very young. I wasn’t very confident. I just thought that wasn’t something like that was attainable for me.
So I didn’t really follow that, which I sometimes wonder why, knowing what I know now, and obviously having more self-confidence and knowing what I’m capable of achieving. But at the same time, the path I’ve followed has taken me to where I am today.
In my early to mid twenties I did loads of bar jobs, then I got fed up and decided to do something creative instead. So I went and did photography at uni, and I had the idea right from the outset that I wanted to do fashion photography because I was always interested in fashion. I never thought that I’d end up with a vintage clothing store, though. So at the moment it’s because it’s all very new for me, it’s a lot of hard work and learning, but I think I’ve got a good work ethic now, much more so than when I was younger. Having to actually study for a photography degree gave me that sort of mindset of you work hard and you get out what you put in.
DIY Leeds: As you said earlier, we’ve seen a lot of small businesses established during this strange time. How have you found starting a new venture during the pandemic?
Ali: It’s not been too bad. I think online shopping has definitely thrived. Because you can’t go out to shops. And I think also, a lot of people, if they haven’t lost income, have bought things because it’s made them feel better in this current situation.
In other ways, it’s hindered us because we want to go out searching for stuff – you know, vintage wholesalers, charity shops, other vintage shops and vintage fairs and stuff. And obviously none of that is happening during lockdown. So that’s hindered us buying stock. We’ve had to buy stuff online, which is a lot pricier. So it knocks your prices up as well. And as a business that’s difficult because you’re like, I don’t want to charge too much and put people off.
It’s also hindered us with doing photoshoots. We’ve had to improvise. So myself and Emma have had to do the photos ourselves between us. So she’s been shooting quite a lot of stuff with me modeling, and then the rest of the time I’ve had to do the modeling, styling and shooting myself.
DIY Leeds: Any favourite recent finds?
Ali: One notable one is is a cream and gold Joseph Ribkoff jumpsuit. I’ve been discovering lots of stuff from this guy just recently and he’s a really sick Canadian designer. His designs are really amazing pieces from the nineties and I’ve got quite a few bits from him now. They always have great details – buttons and lapels and shoulder pads, of course, which is something I love.
That’s something I kept for myself, and I managed to get to wear it just before the second lockdown hit. I kind of knew it was coming and Luke [Luke Foulkes, Ali’s boyfriend] was DJing at Distrikt. So I put that on and I just felt absolutely amazing.
And stuff that isn’t from my personal collection… One thing that I love is it’s like an Oriental robe. I’ve just actually listed it on the site today. It has got flaws and signs of wear because it is an aged item so that’s expected, but it’s a stunning piece. The colors are beautiful. The embroidery, just the detail of the buttons. I bought that from a lady in the Ukraine. In Kiev. I tend to buy quite a lot of stock from her, and I’ve been to her shop when I visited a couple of years ago.
So that’s one of my favorite finds I think, but I’ve decided that I’m not going to keep it. I’ve got to let it go. And someone else has got to have that and make a new home for it. It’s hard to be brutal with yourself because so much of what you buy for stock you would love to keep.
You always make excuses of why you shouldn’t let it go. But I read somewhere that if you can’t make five outfits with something, and can’t think of somewhere to wear those outfits, you need to let the piece go.
DIY Leeds: Do you have a favourite style or fashion era?
I love a bit of the seventies. Big chunky platforms, all of the chunky shoes, the dagger collars. I’ve just described my dad in his wedding picture.
And I like all the glitzy stuff. The style of glam rock and the style that you see in like old photos from Studio 54, like some sort of glittery jumpsuit. And Elton John’s sunglasses collection from the seventies is something I’d probably kill for.
I love the eighties as well. Very colorful, some very vibrant and wacky sorts of patterns during the rounds. But I also love the eighties because it was when like power dressing became a really big thing. I love a bit of androgynous style, mixing elements of masculine and feminine styles into like my outfits. And really sharp, massive shoulder padded suit jackets. I just think they’re great.
What plans do you guys have for the future?
Once restrictions are lifted we can actually go out hunting for stuff. Also, we’d like to start holding and taking part in events. Vintage fairs, pop-ups, stuff like that.
And we want to keep focusing on learning more about sustainability. Reusing and recycling. What you spend your money on says a lot about you, and it’s good to see on social media the number of vintage, thrift and pre-loved shops and sellers that are out there. Not just for fashion. But yeah, I think people are starting to wake up to the damage and environmental cost of cheap high street fashion. So yeah – we just want to keep doing what we’re doing and make a positive impact where we can. And hopefully get it to the point where it can be a full time job and not just a side hustle.
Interview: Roya Brehl
Photos: Ali Wilson Photography