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February 2, 2010

Chicago Manual of Style—2/2/2010

Thrifting isn’t an activity for those afraid to get their hands dirty. Though there’s a definite thrill in searching for buried treasures hidden in boxes overflowing with vintage clothes, accessories, and photographs, thrift stores are often dusty, musty, crowded, and disorganized. If you hardly have time in the morning to throw together an ensemble of stained cords and a wrinkled button-down, you might not have what it takes to sift through piles of sometimes-smelly stuff. When you do stumble across a can’t-live-without-it item, you have to make sure that it’s not irreparably stained or ripped. Then, once you get it home, you have to carefully wash out layers of caked dust and a few decades worth of funk. Although I love the eco-friendliness of thrifting—better to buy old clothes than to support the energy-guzzling mass production of new ones—and like to imagine the clothes’ history, I don’t enjoy the hands-on aspect of thrifting.

“Looking at a thrift store is overwhelming and time-intensive,” says Deborah Umunnabuike, a fourth-year in the College and co-founder of the Internet vintage fashion emporium Avant Gaudy. Her useful Web site, which she started with her sister Jessica in the summer of 2005, stocks high-quality, fashion-forward vintage items, solving all of my thrifting conundrums. On buying trips throughout Chicago and the rest of the Midwest, AG staffers wade through rack after rack of vintage goods and handpick chic pieces in runway-ready condition. The clothes are awesomely outlandish pieces, which Umunnabuike describes as “avant-garde sensibility for the new guard,” and are targeted to hip teens and twenty-somethings with a strong sense of personal style.

As Avant Gaudy’s success suggests, vintage clothes are anything but outmoded. Avant Gaudy staff scours blogs, pores over fashion magazines, and scouts merchandise at various clothing stores in order to forecast emerging trends. “We look at publications like Women’s Wear Daily to look at what colors and styles will be popular for the coming season,” says Umunnabuike. “References in fashion designers’ collections help us figure out what will be important next season, which in turn tells us what we need to be looking for,” she added. Last summer, the company hosted an internship program where merchandise buyers searched for vintage items that reflected the ’80s glam aesthetic reintroduced by contemporary designers like Marc Jacobs and Christophe Decarnin. To capitalize on the ’80s homage taking the contemporary runways by storm, Avant Gaudy stocked short dresses, sequined pieces, and sky-high shoulder pads, all of which they were able to sell successfully this fall.

However, there’s a fine line between looking chic and looking crazy, so in addition to their online store, Avant Gaudy also features a blog that shows customers how to prevent their ensembles from appearing costume-y. “Most people aspire to look great, but aren’t fashionistas. The blog is a mouthpiece for advertising, but also shows people how they can wear current trends in an accessible way, like by taming down crazy dresses with tailored blazers or sweaters,” says Umunnabuike.

Umunnabuike, a political science major, believes that there’s an overlap between her academic work and entrepreneurial endeavors. The ability to prioritize, think critically, and effectively manage her time, which have become crucial as she works on her B.A. paper about black youth and music, are also important in the business world. “At the U of C, you’re taught to analyze a situation, figure out what’s important, and ask questions. That’s the kind of thinking you need to run a business,” says Umunnabuike. The resources and networking opportunities at CAPS and the Booth School of Business, where she had temporary office space last summer and had the opportunity to seek mentors, helped Umunnabuike get her footing in the fashion world. Whether working on a midterm or selecting items from Avant Gaudy’s 500-piece inventory to feature on the company’s web site, the skills she has honed at U of C have served Umunnabuike well.

As graduation rapidly approaches, Umunnabuike has stepped down from her position as CEO. Though she’s still involved with operations in a consulting capacity, the company is now helmed by Marife Nellas, a recent college grad from Creighton in Nebraska. Umunnabuike has her sights set on future entrepreneurial opportunities, but wants to take some time after graduation to hone new skills. “I caught the entrepreneurial bug and want to be running my own business long-term, but want to spend some time in [the] corporate world to gain credibility and experience,” she says. Whether she’s running her own business or revitalizing pre-existing brands, this stylish girl is poised to take the fashion world by storm.