Le Vif: A vintage shop like a regular shop
Le Vif in Paris is one of the most curated vintage stores around.
What do I mean by that? Well, it has a particular view on the clothes it offers - in terms of quality, style and origin.
It sells Americana, normally American-made. There’s no British military or French workwear. That could be quite narrow, but the period covered is large, from the 1930s to early 2000s.
It also sells clothing of a certain quality. Things are worn, but they’re never close to falling apart. There might be the odd paint splash, but nothing is stained.
That’s in contrast to thrift stores, where the priority is price and the bar is often much lower. It’s also different to fashion vintage, where what’s in vogue is the priority. That’s the kind of store you see most of - around Brick Lane in London, or The Vintage Store further north.
Other vintage shops have different priorities still, I think. Some, for example, value rarity more, collector’s pieces. There clothing tends to be a lot older and, often, less wearable. A World War 2 shearling is a beautiful object, but if you wear it a lot, it will rip.
I’m picking this apart because I think it shows why Le Vif is quite unusual, and why it’s one of my favourite vintage shops to visit.
“Curated is a good way to put it,” says Arthur Menguy, pictured above, co-founder of Le Vif alongside Gauthier Borsarello.
“Having only American-made clothing sets a baseline for quality, but it also sets a kind of boundary for us. It’s always tempting to buy different things, to broaden. But you can lose your identity that way.”
Another way to look at it, is that Le Vif is more like a regular shop.
A normal shop manager doesn’t pile up stacks of whatever they can get their hands on, like a thrift store. They buy according to a particular aesthetic, and also change every season.
“I think that’s the thing that makes us most different,” says Arthur. “In a couple of weeks we’ll change a lot of this stock around - both to reflect the season and to keep things fresh.”
“We also bring in clothes when we find a trend or a particular style interesting. Carhartt double-knee pants are a good example, or those fleeces on the shelf - though I think we brought those in before the trend really started.
There have always been thrift stores and flea markets in Paris, but not many vintage shops.
“I would often find great things in the flea markets,” says Arthur, “but it would be very random. You’d find this great pair of red-line Levi’s, right next to a three-year-old pair made in Turkey. That kind of searching can be fun, but it’s not how most people want to - or have time to - shop. We wanted Le Vif to be simpler.”
You can probably place most second-hand stores somewhere along this spectrum. Broadway & Sons in Gothenburg, for example, tends to have greater volume of clothes and is less tightly edited, I find. The vintage you sometimes find in a RRL store is the opposite: there’s very little of it, but it’s often the perfect age, size and style.
Curation is then sometimes tied to price. You pay someone to do a lot of hunting, and because it’s a popular piece it's more valuable still.
That doesn’t mean everything is very expensive - I picked up a pair of 1977 jeans for €200 at Le Vif, for example. It just means this isn’t thrift any more - you’re buying the clothes because you like them or because they’re unique, rather than to save money.
“Second-hand clothing has gone through waves of popularity over the years,” says Arthur. “But often the reasons have been different.
“In the 1970s, for instance, vintage became popular as part of the hippy movement. The motivation there was to consume less, to re-use and to live a cheaper, simpler lifestyle.
“Bell bottoms became identified with that movement because they were readily available in thrift stores - naval trousers that had a wider bottom to make them easier to roll up. It was only later that they became a fashion, and later still that brands started making them.”
So why has vintage become popular now? “Price is still a factor for younger people, as is sustainability. There’s a fashion element, particularly with the nineties. But I think there’s also still an interest in heritage clothing - traditional pieces that feel more authentic or characterful.”
This range of motivations might be why there are so many different types of vintage store today, from a simple reseller to a fashion shop to a collector of militaria.
Le Vif is one particular type, with a geographic focus, a certain style, and a desire to make buying vintage easier.
All of them appeal to me, which iswhy I love visiting so much.
Photography: Alex Natt @adnatt. I'll cover what I bought, and indeed have bought elsewhere, in a separate post.