Meet Doris Raymond, the Fairy Godmother of Vintage Clothing

A Smithsonian Channel series features the team behind Hollywood’s beloved vintage boutique

Walking through the doors of The Way We Wore in Hollywood, California, is like taking a step back in time. Racks and racks of dresses, blouses, pants and shoes from every decade of the 20th century line the walls. In a separate, appointment-only room, over 1 million swatches of inspirational, vintage material pile high. Founded by Doris Raymond in 1981, The Way We Wore has grown from a fledgling boutique in San Francisco to an internationally renowned vintage clothing shop in the heart of Los Angeles. The store attracts all manner of customers, from brides-to-be to influential clothing and costume designers to celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Adele.

Tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET, the second season of "L.A. Frock Stars" premieres on Smithsonian Channel. The six-episode docu-reality series will follow Doris and her team as they travel across the country in search of timeless garments. I spoke with Doris about her vintage journey and what we can look forward to this season.

You mention in the first episode of this season that you’ve been going to auctions since you were eight. What was your path to vintage buying and selling? How did you get into this?

When I was eight, my mother purchased the estate of an apartment—a very old woman had passed away. Her heirs came and took what they wanted and then basically told my mom she could have whatever she wanted for ‘X’ number of dollars as long as she cleared out the apartment. In that apartment was a treasure trove of curio cabinets, jade snuff bottles, paintings, and what happened was my sister and I began the journey of researching like signatures on paintings in our encyclopedias. This was obviously long before the Internet. The thrill of discovering that something that you have is important; that was the seed.

What influences your inventory?

We always have a selection of pretty much the entire 20th century up to the 1990s. Even though fashion can be trend-driven, I tend to buy whatever strikes my aesthetic chord. I look at it more from the universal river of accepted aesthetics. I make exceptions with things that are super kitschy or so wild and ugly that they’re wonderful, but for the most part, I try to keep it in acquiring pieces that have a “wow” factor—something that makes it a little bit more special than what you find anywhere else.

What percentage of your inventory falls into: Someone will like this, I know who will like this, and we should just have this because?

Well I would say the stuff that I buy, I buy thinking that someone will love it, but as far as buying for specific clients that is not even 10 percent. We have certain clients that we know, for example, buy classic size 2 or 4. Or we have one special client who’s requested caftan. We’re always looking for special things, for example, for Adele, and we’ve been working with a gentleman who is the stylist for Lenny Kravitz—so half of them are ephemeral requests and the other half are permanent requests.

Which auctions do you look forward to the most and why? What have you learned in your years of auction going?

Time is of the essence, so I don’t really invest any time in the smaller auction houses because it’s not worth it for me to fly out to preview just for a few pieces. I am a firm believer in seeing the piece in person, and that’s pretty much 90 percent of the time for me.

If I can touch it, feel it and really inspect it, I’ll see things that nobody else sees, and if they’re small, reparable problems, I don’t have an issue with it. I’ve been stuck with so many problems, like labels that have been sewn on so a piece is not what they claim it to be, or perspiration stains. Those are just small examples.

I would say that the auctions that I’m most excited about are the ones in the United States, so that would be Augusta Auction, which was shown in the first season; Whitaker Auction, which is in the second season and is actually the most stuff I’ve ever bought in any auction—it wasn’t because the cameras were rolling—and Hindman in Chicago.

How do you go about confirming that a dress is of a certain designer or a certain period? How much of that comes from previous knowledge and how much of that do you have to look up?

Well looking up is an arduous process, because you either have to go to Paris and go through the archives or you have to go through fashion magazines from around that time period and hope that there’s an image illustrated. To be honest with you, there aren’t that many pieces that I would do that investigation on. It would really be for the haute couture and for the pieces that command higher prices because, you know, your reputation is attached to the authenticity even though you aren’t responsible for changing a label.

You speak of the importance of developing young talent. What’s the store’s relationship with young stylists?

Young stylists or young costume designers or young anything—for me that’s one of the things that I get great joy of, working with the next generation, because it’s I think our duty to feed the fire. I really believe that if you tap into something that you’re passionate about, you’ve got a great chance for success.

What have been some of your most fun buys or styling sessions so far?

This season the cameras were really lucky to be available for me to experience the trip to Chicago that we all took—a lead happened to call in…an ex-model had passed away. It was, in my 34 years in the business, the second best stash of things that I’ve acquired, so I would say that that’s definitely a highlight. That is in episode four, premieres April 9.

Other things that have been highlights: Acquiring a hat and a scarf about 20 years ago and having a hunch that it was an importance piece of art, doing the research and having it confirmed that it was in fact an ensemble that was made by the great Sonia Delaunay, which puts it in the stratosphere of being worth in excess of $100,000.

How many items do you hold onto for a rainy day?

I have acid-free boxes that are stashed in various places in the store, and a good portion of them are '20s and '30s [pieces] without labels. Because of the way that they’re constructed with the couture finish and the elaborate detail—just, they’re beautiful pieces—I’m not selling them. I want to research them.

There’s a museum of fashion next to the Louvre, and they have the most incredible archives that you can make appointments to look through. I actually purchased seven or eight Madeline Vionnet gowns from the 30s and none of them had label. I was 100 percent sure that they were Vionnet, and maybe 15 years ago, I went to research and confirmed all of them through images and photographs. What’s exciting about that is that when you can confirm it, it is no longer an attribution. Attributions are you can ask a little bit more for an attribution, but you certainly can’t ask what it would be if it’s an authentic piece.

Do you have a favorite decade?

I would say Madeline Vionnet’s period—the late '20s to the mid '30s are my favorite, because the garments are so beautifully constructed on an architectural [level]. 

What can we look forward to this season?

I am giving access to a lot of trade secrets, the auction houses for example, what I buy things for and sell things for. Beyond that, I’m honored to be on Smithsonian Channel because they’ve taken and created this show that is a genuine reality show. It’s not scripted; it’s not fabricated. If there’s any drama, it’s genuine.

Tune in to Smithsonian Channel tonight at 9:00 PM ET to catch the first episode of the new season of L.A. Frock Stars and read about all six episodes here.

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