Spontaneous browsing at Malena’s Vintage Boutique.

Congratulations this week to Malena’s Vintage Boutique on their 20 years on Gay Street. In some ways, 20 years at something must feel like both yesterday and a lifetime. 

“Can you believe it’s been 20 years?” I ask Malena’s Vintage Boutique owner Malena Martinez just ahead of the pending milestone. 

“I can’t believe it,” she says with a laugh – and I believe her, but when she starts talking about what’s changed – man, does it feel like a different era. 

When Malena’s opened in 2003 there was no Etsy or Instagram. TikTok wasn’t even a glint in its founder’s eye – now it’s dominating sales. Mail orders were for cross-country clients only. Now it’s so easy that a Philadelphia teen in want of a vintage vibe for prom can request a shipment. 

“When I started out, I was selling on eBay and I would have to go to the post office and print labels. Now I can download a shipping label and have it picked up at the store,” says Malena.

Retail functionality has also been revolutionized. 

“Then a point of sale system would have cost $4000 and a computer. Now I just need an iPad and some barcodes. People come into my store and pay with their watch,” she says. 

It’s modern retailing for this vintage maven who has found herself shuffling priorities over the years. In 2015, she started calculating her environmental footprint which by her estimates has saved nearly 99 million gallons of water, 458,975 lbs of CO2 emissions, and 77 tons of clothing from landfills over the years.

“There is a different impact buying vintage than buying new,” she says. 

To limit impact even further she reuses and recycles materials as best she can. She collects used Amazon boxes from a fellow business owner and drops off dry cleaning bags at the grocery store to be recycled.  

“I started doing all that stuff really just to save money as a new business,” she says. “Now it has become a part of our mission.”

It’s a mission that also includes relentlessly pursuing vintage fashion. Last week she traveled to upstate New York collecting 700 pieces from a closing retailer. She then shares her new treasures with the world in her popular Instagram reels. By doing so, she has quietly grown into a global force in the industry. From her Gay Street base, she routinely presents and ships her one-of-a-kind finds to Hollywood costume designers and international collectors alike. 

“Like, who?” I ask. “I can’t say,” she says. Nondisclosure agreements and such, but it turns out there are a few she can mention. 

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? She’s outfitted there. Peaky Blinders? My fave. She’s there too. Also, the Washington Plumbers (watching now) and Netfilx’s Philadelphia-based, The Servant.

Typically these extra special pieces are housed in the private showroom next door but this weekend those doors will be open to the community in celebration of 20 years in the books.

“I honestly still love it,” says Malena, and I believe her. 

Malena’s will be celebrating June 2 and 3 with extended hours (open until 9 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday), sales, and drinks to toast with. There will also be lots and lots of fresh merch – “We just bought 700 pieces from a vintage seller in upstate New York,” says Malena. The bulk of these will be ready for discovery come Friday. Cheers to 20, Ms. Malena!

Originally published, June 2, 2023

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