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Ruhling: The Woman in Retro

From the color-coordinated racks of clothing, Lisa Ferrari-Sullivan pulls out a 1940s sundress and holds it up to the light streaming through the front windows of her new shop, Pimbeche Vintage.

She points out its flamboyant green-rose floral print, its contrasting yellow piping, its perky front bow and its metal zipper.

Although the dress is at least 80 years old, it looks as gorgeous as it did the day it was made.

For Lisa, who is wearing a kaleidoscopically colorful 1980s Guy Laroche cotton top and 1980s Gitano jeans, retro fashion is much more than mere window dressing.

It is, she says, a really good way to recycle and repurpose, which she has been doing her entire life.

Lisa, model tall with long black hair that she tames by tying it back in a ponytail, was born and raised in Wallingford, Connecticut, which she calls a “lovely little suburban town that I always wanted to get out of when I was young but that I now am nostalgic about.”

She gets her own sense of style from her mother, who she says is “extremely fashionable.”

Lisa adds that her mother was in her early 20s – nearly three decades younger than Lisa’s father, a World War II combat veteran and first-generation Italian-American she met while he was working for the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

“She was always well dressed but on a shoestring budget,” Lisa says. “She was Latinx, she was exotic, and she was the talk of the town. I was in awe of her. She didn’t look like the other Connecticut moms.”

As a youngster, Lisa borrowed her mother’s clothes to play dress up and came to love vintage clothing, which she subsequently began collecting.

At first, she frequented thrift shops then switched to estate sales and online auctions.

“I love 1970s clothes,” says Lisa, who was born at the beginning of that fashion-forward era. “They are carefree and bohemian – it was anything goes. People used clothing to express themselves.”

When it was time for college, Lisa didn’t major in fashion – she has a degree in business management from Southern Connecticut State University – but she knew she wanted to make her career in New York City.

“I had a friend who had a job here,” she says, explaining what prompted her to move. “My first job, in 1998, was as a receptionist at Thierry Mugler.”

Lisa climbed the fashion industry ladder, eventually becoming a national sales director for a succession of major fashion houses.

Around the turn of the century, she got married, moved to the Astoria area and had two daughters, who are now 14 and 11 and sometimes help her out at Pimbeche Vintage.

“After my first daughter was born, the showroom I was working at closed down,” she says. “I wanted to stay home, but I didn’t want to stop working —  I had been working since I was 16. My side hustle was selling vintage clothes.”

She started selling online and about eight years ago began setting up at the Brooklyn Flea in Dumbo and Chelsea.

“I originally did it with my mother, but she had to drop out to take care of my father,” Lisa says. “I used the money I made through the years from the flea markets to fund Pimbeche Vintage.”

Pimbeche, which, by the way, is French for “snobby girl,” carries women’s fashions, including jewelry, shoes and handbags, from the 1940s to the early 2000s.

“I love selling pretty things,” Lisa says as she puts the sundress back on the rack. “But I also want to help the environment. I have a strong passion for sustainability.”

Pimbeche Vintage is still a work in progress.

Lisa, who wears vintage when she’s in the shop, is working on a website and soon will add live online sales.

As she’s talking about her plans, a customer walks in.

After searching through the racks, she selects a prettily patterned cotton dress and heads back to the dressing room to try it on.

Lisa smiles.

“The Astoria community has been amazing,” she says. “People come in to browse, to buy and to talk. I’m grateful that they want to support small businesses like mine.”

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com;  @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com,  astoriacharacters.com.

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