Rosemary Mac Cabe

Hemlines, heels and haute couture – your daily dose

Portland: a vintage shopping Mecca

I was in Portland a couple of weeks back and, when I returned, a wrote a piece about my vintage shopping experience. It was published in The Irish Times but, in case you missed it . . . IF YOU …

Thu, Dec 8, 2011, 11:30


I was in Portland a couple of weeks back and, when I returned, a wrote a piece about my vintage shopping experience. It was published in The Irish Times but, in case you missed it . . .

IF YOU HAVE preconceptions about Portland, Oregon, they may involve hipsters on fixed-gear bicycles, a laid-back cafe culture, handmade everything in various shades of hemp and underground movements which, by the time you hear of them, will have become Europe’s mainstream trends.

For the uninitiated, know that those preconceptions do ring true – down every street in Portland there seems to be a cyclist, leaning his or her bike up against the railing beside a cafe, dressed head to toe in scruffy, hemp-alike clothing, campaigning for change – but there is so much more to this rainy city than meets the eye, namely a thriving, thrilling vintage clothing selection that would make the best markets of Milan green with envy.

It stands to reason that Portland, so obsessed with recycling, upcycling and sustainability, would play host to a thriving industry based on the reusing of clothing, but these are no ragged hand-me-downs. Instead, a week in Portland yielded vintage delights better than most ever found in or around these shores, and at, predictably, a fraction of Irish prices.

Portland is divided into quarters, but those of you visiting need not overly concern yourselves with geography. Grab a bike or, like so many of the town’s inhabitants, put your environmental credentials slightly to one side and drive; either way, on wheels is the best way to soak up Portland’s relaxed, hippy vibe.

On Mississippi Avenue in northeastern Portland lie many of the city’s best shops, cafes and restaurants – and Animal Traffic (00-1-503-249-4000) should be your first stop. It’s a vintage-slash-western boutique, meaning it sells amazing, authentic vintage dresses, jackets and jeans alongside western-style chambray shirts in all shapes and sizes and, when I visited last week, more Christmas jumpers than you could shake a sprig of mistletoe at.

Photograph courtesy of the inimitable Annie Atkins, of Tom, the owner of Animal Traffic.

On the same street, Flutter (00-1-503- 288-1649) houses a delightful collection of odds and ends: bric-a-brac, vintage clothing, furniture, cushions, bird cages, perfumes, postcards, jewellery and the fluffiest, fattest cat you have ever seen. It’s a hoarder’s paradise, a place where you could easily while away an hour leafing through copies of unusual books such as The Moustache Grower’s Guide (one for next Movember, perhaps?).

If you venture further afield, Flutter has a sister store, Eden (00-1-503- 222-2285) on NW 11th avenue that owner Cindy Rokoff describes as “Flutter’s older, classier, wackier sister”.

Before you leave Mississippi Avenue, be sure to take a trip to Lovely’s Fifty Fifty (00-1-503-281-4060), an Italian salad and pizza joint that does some of the best dough this side of Naples and serves its own ice cream, either soft serve or scoop, in home-made cones. Be prepared to wait for a table, but have faith, it will be worth it.

NE Alberta Street is another vintage and shopping mecca. From one end of the street, looking down will yield a view not unlike in some western movie – the buildings seem to be on stilts, that good ol’ American Foursquare style that calls to mind scenes from Little House on the Prairie or, at times, There Will Be Blood, although without the violence.

Alberta is referred to as an arts district with good reason; along the street are all kinds of resourceful individuals, selling their wares, from Ampersand Vintage (00-1-503-805-5458), a gallery, bookshop and archive selling vintage photography, postcards and collectible books to Billy Goat Vintage, where 1940s nightdresses are selling for a song ($15/€11) and vintage sunglasses, as well as, of course, a variety of cloth goods – 1950s prom dresses, anyone?

Also on Alberta, albeit slightly off the vintage track, is PedX shoes (00-1-503-460-0760), a locally- owned women’s shoe store that sells, well, shoes – including covetable styles from Jeffrey Campbell and Toms – but, more importantly, the counter-top jewellery selection is almost worth the airfare on its own. Hand-beaded friendship-style bracelets (below), pendants and lockers made by local producers may be pricey (bracelets started at the $80/€60 mark), but they sure are beautiful.

Not to hark on about food too much, but while on Alberta, check out Pine State Biscuits (00-1-503-477-6605). It sells biscuits, but not as you know them – soft, crumbly, savoury – and scones, but not quite scones, with fried chicken, bacon and egg sandwiched in between.

It would be a sin to be in Portland and not stop by both of the city’s institutions, or, rather, one current institution and one future. The former is, of course, Powell’s (00-1-503-228-4651), arguably the world’s best bookshop, where second-hand and new books sit side-by-side on groaning library shelves. Sections are divided by colour and category, but forget all of that and just get lost wherever you find yourself wandering. The rare books room is quite a treat.

The latter is Duchess (00-1-503-281- 6648), a custom men’s suit-maker run by a group of friendly, smiling ladies who will look after your every need. If you don’t have the eight to 10 weeks it takes to wait for your finished suit, Duchess will arrange delivery – and it also has a selection of off-the-rack items for sale in-store, including the most beautiful high-waisted trousers, complete with suspender buttons, for a song at $75 (€56). Check out, too, the selection of vintage cufflinks and bespoke handkerchiefs. Perfect stocking fillers.

One point to note when shopping in Portland is that you’ll soon lose your hurry, as it will be shared by absolutely no one. On day one, a 10-minute queue to pay for a dress seems ridiculous, particularly when standing behind just one person, chatting amiably to the lone woman behind the counter. On day four, however, a 10-minute chat with the lone woman behind the counter about the weather, the bicycle helmet you just bought, the fried chicken biscuit you ate, the weather . . . well, that seems just fine.