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Picking up a book by Rin Tanaka is like looking directly at the love and passion the San Clemente-resident-by-way-of-Japan journalist and photographer has for his craft. Author of several highly sought-after books on vintage fashion (including the My Freedamn! series), Tanaka dubbed Larry McKeon of Heller's Café as last year's King of Vintage in a sold-out book of the same name.
And handpicked this year by Tanaka himself to feature in his next publication as the Queen of Vintage? Long Beach's Kathleen Schaaf, owner of Meow Vintage on Fourth Street's Retro Row. Born and bred in Los Alamitos, Schaaf first became interested in vintage items early in life.
"I started in elementary school, wearing my aunt's hand-me-downs from the '60s. I'd wear fishnets, kitten heels and patent-leather shoes, and I thought I was really bitchen for a fifth-grader," she says. "I've always been drawn to things of the past. I grew up in a house full of antiques, and it was a natural progression."
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Specializing in deadstock (brand-new items normally still in packaging, never worn or sold to the public), Schaaf travels around the country, exploring old department and shoe stores. "I hop on a plane at a moment's notice if someone tells me about a big warehouse filled with shoes from the 1940s and '50s. It's just tips and detective work," she says. "I started out traveling, looking for old store stock, and I went to the library and actually got old phone books out and looked up businesses on old main streets. Good old detective work."
But, as with everything else these days, the Internet has really changed the name of the game. "Now it's like, 'Hmm, I want a Chanel jacket,' and you get on Etsy, eBay or Gilt, and you can order it up and have it at your house in two days," Schaaf says.
I ask if she really doesn't shop on the Internet: "No, I really don't—what's the fun in that?"
Schaaf is approaching the 25-year anniversary of Meow, and what better way to celebrate than with Tanaka at Inspiration 2011, a celebration of all things vintage and Americana? Organized by Tanaka, Inspiration is a gathering of more than 120 international vendors and exhibitors offering unique merch for sale.
Schaaf, a featured vendor this year, says Tanaka's show is an accumulation of all of the people, subcutures and manufacturers he's encountered over the years. She adds, "I do plenty of vintage-industry trade shows, and [Inspiration] is nothing like I've ever done. It's as if you were invited to do some secret indie-business trade show that you hear about but you're never able to go as a consumer."
When asked if she has any vintage hunting tips to share, Schaaf pauses to think.
"Just . . . explore. Get out there. You know, if you're at the flea market, don't always go on this thing where you always go down that row first or that row," she advises. "Just mix it up a bit because your view is going to be totally different. You can see things because the way people set things up at the flea market—it could be under the table, on top of a van, still unpacked. It's just your perspective. You never know, turning around the corner, what you're going to see. Things aren't always going to be right in front of you, it's always about the hunt and the search."
This column appeared in print as "Vintage Los Al Meow."