Ronnie Blades grew up in Pasadena surrounded by two fashionable female figures with wardrobes that crossed generations.
Blades was enamored with the beauty and style of her grandmother, Alberta Price, who was “a bit of a socialite in LA.”
Price attended exclusive Black events in Los Angeles that were not segregated. She received invitations for the Ebony magazine fashion shows, where collections from Saint Laurent, Bonnie Cashin, Bill Blass and Christian Dior were shown. Blades accompanied Price on shopping trips to stores like I. Magnin & Company and Saks Fifth Avenue. One of Blades’ favorite pieces of her grandmother’s was a suit from the 1940s. She still keeps her grandmother’s handbags, shoes and coats.
Cynthia Price raised Blades and her two sisters as a single mom. At the time, Blades loved the designs worn by the stars of the late-1970s TV show “Charlie’s Angels.” She would admire these “super sexy, yet still cool and strong” women and then see her mom wearing the same clothing. Blades has a few of her mother’s treasured items, such as a bikini top from the 1970s and a bag full of vintage gloves made of lace, silk and satin.
In 2017, Blades founded RetroBlades, a vintage clothing brand that recalls her grandmother’s style during the 1930s and 1940s, with a fondness for her mother’s love of 1970s and 1980s pieces. She sells items from both eras — and those in between — at her vintage store Archive Atelier in Playa Vista’s Free Market.
When she founded RetroBlades, she endured the struggles of running a Black-owned business in a predominantly white industry. While diversity may be increasing in areas of the fashion industry including modeling and designing, the vintage scene lacks representation. BIPOC retailers play an important role in preserving and elevating their history of fashion and culture.
“Vintage sellers are a very unique bunch. We curate, educate, preserve and sell our product,” said Sandra Mendoza, a Latinx member of the Vintage Fashion Guild and Costume Society of America, as well as the owner of Debutante Clothing, a vintage boutique in Pomona. “I wonder if just being a BIPOC seller is enough. Perhaps we also have to bring our aesthetic and BIPOC fashion designers from the past to the table.”
On a Friday afternoon at Archive Atelier, which opened in November 2021, Blades is wearing a black band tee paired with a blue paisley skirt. She wears a black fedora atop her black hair, which is pulled back, and at least five yellow baccarat bracelets on each wrist.
“I was little, and I would always walk around in my mom’s high heels,” Blades said. “I liked the sound that they made. I liked the sound that her jewelry made.”
Blades grew up wanting to look like the maternal muses in her life. According to Blades, “the only way to find those things were at the thrift store.” Thus, the path to RetroBlades and Archive Atelier was set.
Blades takes inspiration anywhere she can get it, and this is reflected in the store’s setup. Archive Atelier offers quilted Chanel flats, traditional kimono, a Christian Dior slip, a Missoni knit and accessories from the Wild West. Standout pieces include a multicolored two-piece genie costume from the 1920s and a life-sized crow outfit from the 1940s. A leather Hermes backpack from the 1990s greets visitors as they walk in through the front door.
One of Archive Atelier’s loyal customers, a blonde woman wearing a white T-shirt and a stack of gold chains, picks out a Victor Costa blouse that needs its elastic replaced.
“There’s two things you can do,” Blades said. “You can take it to your dry cleaners and have them replace that… or you could even get in there yourself, tie it if you sew.”
Blades, of course, knows how to sew. She learned from her grandmother who worked as a seamstress at Village Cleaners, her grandfather’s dry-cleaning business that had six locations spread across Los Angeles and Pasadena. Price would pick Blades and her sisters up from school when they were little, and they would hang out at the dry cleaners. Blades’ grandfather used to drive around with a pole in the back of his car, delivering clothes to his customers.
While Blades has recently built meaningful relationships with her clientele, she has not always had such pleasant interactions with customers. Though she had great success at vintage markets, where she sold to legendary designers John Galliano and Jeremy Scott, she was targeted by racism.
“I experienced a lot of people not wanting to buy from me, people maybe skipping my booth if they see it’s owned by a Black woman,” Blades said. “It was difficult for me when I was selling at markets because a lot of microaggression and just different things would happen and it was annoying, but luckily I don’t experience it anymore.”
A few of the most special pieces in her collection are from Black designers. When visiting San Francisco recently, Blades went to an exhibit on African American fashion designer Patrick Kelly. A standout piece in the exhibit was “a little black handbag that had perforated leather bows, colorful bows all on the bag.” Blades acquired one of these bags made by the original designer who created them for Kelly.
This is the magic of vintage — finding treasures that have lived their own lives, and somehow swiveled their way into yours.
Setting a precedent
“You don’t see as many people of color in fashion the higher up the market you go. I see the vintage marketplace as a spectrum,” Mendoza said. “On one end you have low price point, everyday vintage and resellers of secondhand that use the term vintage very loosely. I see more diversity on this end of the spectrum. As you move toward the higher end price point of the vintage spectrum, it is predominately white. I live in California, so I see more diversity amongst vintage sellers here because California is so diverse.”
Mendoza states that in 2020, after the death of George Floyd, many people in the vintage community tried to act as allies and amplify Black voices. However, she believes this amplification has faded over time. “If vintage marketplaces and show promoters could make diversity a part of their manifesto or mission statement, I think it could lead to a more consistent awareness of diversity,” Mendoza said. “But how many vintage marketplaces even have a mission statement?”
Mendoza also brings up the same Patrick Kelly exhibit that Blades visited at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, pointing out how fashion historians are making efforts to explore diversity.
As Mendoza mentioned, there is a wide variety of vintage to be explored in California. You can find a place to spend hundreds on a luxurious designer relic or you can leave with a rare treasure and $5 less in your wallet.
Approximately 3,000 to 5,000 shoppers show up every Sunday to fulfill their vintage fix at the Melrose Trading Post. The grounds at Fairfax High School may be described as designer logo mania. Young people walk around wearing Gucci shirts, carrying Chanel flap bags and with the Louis Vuitton monogram printed onto jean pockets. A plethora of teenage girls in Nike Air Force sneakers and oversized jackets swarm the vendor tables. There is lots of eyeliner and colored hair — purple, blue and yellow to green ombré-style braids.
Looking around the fest of street food and streetwear, there are quite a few booths run by people of color. There is Peculiar Finds, selling antique homewares; a booth specializing in vintage kimonos; and Grandma’s Closet, selling biker jackets embroidered with cartoon characters like Betty Boop and Tinkerbell.
“Being in Los Angeles…it’s a very diverse community of people that are in this vintage and repurposed world,” said Natalie Iturbe Jackson, special events and marketing manager of the Melrose Trading Post. “Some people do bring things directly from their culture, which, of course, makes the market very vibrant.”
While this level of diversity may not be as visible at the top of the vintage industry, and even in states other than California, every vintage seller makes a difference. Bringing culture to the forefront, as Blades, Mendoza and market sellers have done, increases awareness of the diversity missed out on due to the industry being largely white dominated.
In the future, Blades dreams of opening vintage stores abroad. She wants to bring her collection to someplace like Italy or Mexico. A more immediate goal of hers? To find a vintage clothing hanger from her grandfather’s Village Cleaners — another piece of personal fashion history to bring her closer to the bold individuals who paved the way.
12751 Millennium Drive, Playa Vista
351 S. Thomas Street, Suite A2, Pomona
Melrose Trading Post
7850 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles
Studio hours: By appointment only