Whether picking out a special piece from her closet or helping a customer find the right outfit for an occasion, Angela Larson lets the history of vintage clothing shine through.
By Lara Damabi | December 29, 2017
Treasure hunter, storyteller and stylist are just a few of the hats Angela Larson wears in a typical day. Larson, 52, is the owner of Swish Vintage, a treasure trove of vintage finds in the heart of downtown. Located in Manulife Place, her shop carries an eclectic mix of clothing, accessories, furniture and home decor. It was in 2003, after 20 years of working in the retail industry, that Larson decided to open a store of her own. “I wanted to create a job for myself where I could execute my own vision, rather than follow someone else’s,” Larson says. Known for her platinum blonde locks, killer eyewear and ability to wear several decades in a single outfit, Larson embodies what it means to love the past yet remain current.
How would you describe your personal style?
Unorthodox traditionalist. I am still drawn towards classic styles and beautiful textiles, but the way I would wear a dress is with jeans, for example. I would take something that’s a classic piece and put my own spin on it.
What does good style mean to you?
I think good style is kind of like good manners; it’s about making that effort. I talk to people all the time and they’ll say, well, I’m not working in the public like you are. And I’ll say, but you’re in the public. I can see you. It’s about putting yourself out there, and you’re seen all the time, whether you feel you’re seen and acknowledged or not.
Do you have any style pet peeves?
The list is too long (laughing). I don’t like when people say they don’t have the occasion to wear fill in the blank. I always say, well, make the occasion. You’re the only person who can make that happen. I think that if we all wore beautiful clothing out to dinner, then everybody else would follow suit. There’s no reason why you need to have pajama-level comfort all day, every day. Especially downtown. Downtown [Edmonton] used to have a formality about it. You had to wear your downtown clothes.
When I was young, David Bowie. I thought his style was just outrageous and fantastic. Same with Prince; I loved Prince and the incredible outfits he used to wear, but it didn’t necessarily influence how I dressed personally. That was stage and that was drama and that was theatre. I have so many customers and there are so many women in this city who have amazing style and I think we all inspire each other. It’s the fun of that ever-evolving and changing fashion scene here. Young people are still so amazed that so many of these clothes came from Edmonton.
When did your interest in vintage begin?
I think I was probably 14. It was all part of the music culture. I was a punk rocker and in love with the fashion and that whole scene. And, at that time in Edmonton, there were some really fantastic vintage stores.A lot of the time it was also for financial reasons. When you’re a young kid with no money and you wanted to look fantastic, vintage was the way to go. I still remember the first outfit I bought. It was a 1940s two-piece suit that I bought at a little store called Small Indulgence that used to be on Jasper Avenue. I had that outfit for years and years.
What are your favourite pieces in your closet?
I have a Thierry Mugler tuxedo that I think is just a piece of art. I have a rhinestone choker that I bought in 1983 at a store called Coopers of Hollywood, which was a jewellery store on 101st Street. It cost me a month’s rent. I wore it at my wedding and I’ve worn it more times than probably anything I’ve ever owned. I also love my wedding dress. It was a 1960s ivory shantung gown that I got on eBay. It’s the high of the find, for sure. I love every single thing that I get in my store, and then I move on to the next thing. But that’s fashion.
Is there an era that you particularly love?
No. I love every era. I’ve only recently started embracing some of the ’80s again. Usually when you live through that time, you don’t want to go back, but there are some good ’80s pieces out there. I think, with every era, it’s about making it contemporary. Loving a piece from the ’40s but bringing it into 2017 and embracing it in a different way, instead of keeping it in that time-frame.
What is the biggest challenge selling vintage fashion?
The size of the clothes is a huge problem because people are progressively getting bigger. If I could fill my store with a size 10 I would be laughing, but that’s not a reality. I also think the lack of formal occasions is a problem. I have so many beautiful formal gowns and dresses and we just don’t have that formality in our city. There’s also label-obsessiveness. With genuine, beautiful vintage, it’s not about the label. So many beautiful garments were made by hand and they don’t have a label, and to me that makes it even more charming.
What’s the best part about your job?
Meeting the women who owned the clothing. That would be number one. I feel like I’m a caretaker to other people’s treasures, and I think it’s important that I find a new party for these dresses. The stories that people tell me about when they wore an outfit – the shoes that matched, how they wore their hair, what they were drinking at the Hotel Macdonald – it’s a whole history and other world. It’s a part of life that we never hear about unless you’re lucky enough to be in my business where you get to hear those stories. I feel very fortunate.