May 6, 2005

Alumna's boutique draws crowd for its vintage apparel

Tiffany Nicole glides around her apartment, which doubles as the Garment Room, her vintage showplace, in a pink dress with gold bracelets jangling. Offering her four customers a platter of chocolate-covered strawberries and homemade lemonade served in martini glasses, she is entirely in her element. With a sweet twang in her voice, Nicole, who was raised in Georgia, declares herself a "southern peach" with a penchant for aesthetics. Immediately establishing herself as the gracious hostess, it is clear that Tiffany Nicole is not merely nostalgic; she is nostalgia.

Walking into the apartment on 63rd Street is like stepping onto the set of an old movie. "I am all about vintage," she proclaims, and this is no understatement. Her living room is outfitted with vintage abstract paintings and vintage brown leather couches that lend the space a 1950s air. Vintage bottles of liquor fill her alcohol cupboard, which displays a postcard-sized 1920s advertisement for Vermouth.

For Nicole, The Garment Room has been a lifelong project. "I've been collecting clothes since I was 15 or 16. I didn't know what I was going to do with them. I was always just known as ‘the clothes girl.' I just collect clothes."

After years of digging through remnants at thrift stores, estate sales and grandmothers' closets, Nicole's collection of vintage clothes began piling up and her friends took notice. "One day, one of my girls came over, and asked ‘Is this stuff for sale?' and that's how it started." A year later, after teaming up with a tailor, Nicole is watching The Garment Room grow into a word-of-mouth Hyde Park shopping phenomenon.

It is her complex relationship with Hyde Park that drew Nicole back to the neighborhood, which is home to a lackluster retail scene, at best. Nicole was a U of C dropout. "The University was very tough for me," she said. She briefly flirted with psychology, sociology, and public policy concentrations. But the University, still in its pre-COVA days, did not fulfill her artistic leanings. "I need color. I just wasn't getting a chance to create at the University."

So in 2001, after three years at the University, Nicole went to New York, where she attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. But that was not quite right either. "New York was too saturated. I couldn't think. So I decided Chicago is a happy medium. It's clean and it's healthy. I still feel very attached to this community. So I want to be here."

Nicole returned to Hyde Park in November 2004 to open The Garment Room, which represents her effort to connect students to the wider Hyde Park community—the one that extends south of 60th Street. "I'm trying to bring people in. It's that whole railroad track thing. This side, that side. It's stupid. These are your neighbors."

Her efforts seem to be working. Despite the fact that Nicole works a 9 to 5 job during the week and only shows her clothes by private appointment, about 100 students have ventured beyond 60th Street to check out her vintage wares, which she has lovingly reconstructed and redesigned. "I like for girls to come over and have fun. This is a resource for women. You can come over here however you want and play dress up. It's only for us."

Spending time in The Garment Room does feel like a game of dress up. Weaving through her apartment, four University students try on a variety of Nicole's creations, including a wedding dress, which Nicole converted into an A-line summer dress and a beaded gown from the '80s that, after Nicole's redesign, looks "very flapper-esque."

As they try dresses on and evaluate each other, the girls' voices coo similar flatteries, like "That is sooo adorable" and "Oh, she's right. It makes your butt look amazing." And there then are the usual dressing room deliberations: "Where could I wear that dress?" and "Stand on your toes. Imagine yourself in heels." And finally the usual desperate and futile attempts, "I can't zip it." "Try as hard as you can." "There's just no way." "We could take out your pancreas." "No, it's my bones, maybe if we take out a rib."

Progressively, as the afternoon slips by, all four girls, surrounded by a mélange of artful gowns and skirts that speak of past decades, get caught up in a different sort of nostalgia. They bemoan in a steady refrain, "Women used to be sooo skinny."

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