Amy Abrams founded Artist & Fleas with her husband in 2003. At the time this sort of vintage and one-of-a-kind marketplace was not nearly as trendy as it is today. Abrams saw a way to bring her love of vintage shopping to the masses and were really ahead of its time to foresee the success of such a place. Artist & Fleas started in Williamsburg Brooklyn, and has since expanded to include locations in Chelsea Market, Downtown Los Angeles and Venice, California. Abrams purchased her first vintage piece 20 years ago and has amassed a closet full of stories of exotic finds from around the world. Abrams and her team have created a true community of artisans and vintage lovers with her marketplace – the idea to find something special and truly unique has infiltrated the thousands and thousands of visitors that trek to Artist & Fleas each year.
Do you remember your first vintage piece?
Of course! The first vintage piece that I remember purchasing over 20 years ago was an ivory hand crocheted cardigan with a matching tank top in a vintage shop in Chicago. It was in pristine condition and it was a perfect fit. I remember thinking that I cannot believe I am spending $65 dollars on this but I loved it so much and I knew then and there that I would not be able to find it again as it was truly one of a kind. That feeling of scarcity coupled with uniqueness and the gotta-have- it feeling have fueled many of my vintage purchases ever since!
Your closet must tell some stories! Can you tell us any exotic stories about your far-flung pieces you’ve found shopping the world?
I love finding an incredible vintage piece while traveling. It is such a great way to mark that time and experience almost the way having a souvenir would help capture all the memories of an adventure. One of my favorite pieces (and places to visit) comes from Israel. I love hand embroidery and I have purchased a few stand-out embroidered pieces over the years. One is an incredible Bedouin wedding dress. It is made from a cotton/linen material and it has red embroidery throughout the dress. It is truly exquisite and I often think of the bride who wore it for her special day. Israel is a crossroads for so many cultural traditions that it’s almost impossible when you’re looking at vintage ethnic in the country not to find something entirely unique and original. Another beautiful piece in my collection is a Yemenite red crepe blouse with gold embroidery.
I have visited India several times over the past few years. It is such an incredible country! There is so much to love about India (the food, the people, the culture) but it’s also a dream for anyone who loves vintage textiles. I have purchased many vintage pieces that have colorful embroidery. Some, I have used in my home design, but while in India, I also had bags and jackets made for me in these one-of-a kind pieces. I also purchased my most treasured pieces of vintage Indian jewelry on my trips. My favorite necklace is a vintage Indian gold and ruby necklace I discovered in Cochin, India.
Most recently, I added an incredible embroidered vest that I discovered at a flea market in Florence, Italy. The merchant had just traveled to Romania to visit her grandmother and returned with several pieces to sell. It was so wonderful to learn the story behind the vest. If you have an eye for vintage, it is so much fun to discover the world, learn a story behind a piece and find “wearable” to bring back with you to showcase for many years to come.
I’ve long thought the best business ideas come about naturally and are often very personal – was this the case for Artist & Fleas?
Yes, I totally agree. My husband, who is my business partner, and I love to travel, love to meet makers and love to purchase cool “stuff”. This coupled with the opportunity to build a community of artists and designers and a very fun and cool place to hang out was what fueled the creation of Artists & Fleas.
When did you know that the market that started in 2003 had become not only successful, but a tourist’s must-see?
I think the key to our growth has always been to be a place where locals want to hang out and purchase cool things in addition to tourists who want to find something one-of-a-kind. This has been accomplished in part by the curation of our vendors and the relevance of the merchandise mix for locals. We strive to have a mix that really allows for anyone who visits to find something they can’t live without. This is in terms of who the shopper is (a mom, a grandpa, a cool hipster) and where they come from – NY or from the other side of the world. It is so much fun when we travel and meet people from another country who say that they came to the market and purchased their favorite things from their visit to NYC. I think that people can purchase things online if they know what they are looking for but true discovery – of something you didn’t know you wanted – is so much better achieved when it happens in person. And this is universal. I think that’s why tourists and locals alike visit and shop the market.
How do you oversee the now bi-coastal markets?
We have a team on the ground in LA and we have an awesome team in NYC that oversees LA. You can never underestimate how lucky you are when you have a dedicated group of employees who love and care deeply about their work.
How large is your team?
We have 10 AMAZING team members at Artists & Fleas and several fantastic consultants who we work with regularly.
What’s the process like accepting vendors into the market? Are there a lot of regulars?
It’s part art and part science. We strive to be diverse in our selection of what you will find at the market but we have some large categories (Jewelry, bags, clothes, vintage, etc). So we work to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in each category. We want the vendors to stand out and be successful. We also want to make sure that the products are right for each market location. We also try not to over-curate as we really want to create a marketplace where there is something for everyone.
When you come across something you love, how do you decide whether to keep for yourself or sell?
I do not sell anything at the market so it is very easy for me! That being said, I really have to love something at this point since I have amassed a large collection of vintage and handmade goods over the past 13 years running the market.
The retail business has changed immensely in the last decade – how has it, if at all, changed for you as a vintage market?
We are both a vintage market and an artists’ and designers’ market. I think that it is totally complementary as I think the overall appeal is that people want to find something unique. That being said, when we opened the market 13 years ago, vintage was not as popular as it is today. It is exciting to see that so many people have embraced vintage again as it is an amazing way to recycle, be original and find something unique from a past decade that will most likely hit the runways again!
You’re also a personal shopper – do you exclusively shop vintage? What’s your philosophy around non-vintage shopping?
I actually rarely shop vintage for my clients. Mostly because I think vintage is really fun for people who love the discovery and love to do it for themselves! For the most part, I work with super smart, talented women who are very busy with their lives (work, family, etc) and want to look awesome but have little time to think about it.
Who are your favorite non-vintage designers?
Isabel Marant, Chloe, Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Giada Forte, Raquel Allegra, & Warm NY.
Where did your love of vintage come from? Do you apply this sustainable way of life in other areas?
I think finding and wearing beautiful things may be a family tradition. Both of my grandmother’s dressed themselves with care and pride throughout their lives and my mom was the first person who took me to flea markets. She has an amazing collection of jewelry made from artists around the world. At the end of the day, I really love beautiful clothes that were made in a thoughtful way. I also really love the idea that you are extending the life of clothes that were made in the past. The churn of fast fashion is really depressing and the clothes are not made in a sustainable way. All of these things fuel my love of vintage but really – it is all about that moment of finding something totally beautiful and special and knowing that it is really one-of-a-kind!