Eileen Carney’s foray into the vintage fashion industry was not without precedent. Her Irish grandmother was a servant who migrated to the United States and had a mean eye for an affordable vintage piece. “She was a thrift store maniac,” laughs Carney as she recounts accompanying her on many fruitful shopping expeditions. “She was always looking for a way to look a million dollars without spending a million dollars. She had furs and all the finery and always bought it second-hand.”

Carney is the owner of American Rag, a vintage fashion store located at Southgate on the Yarra, or as she puts it, “top of the food chain in terms of the recycling business.”

The store reopened in October after extensive renovations in the shopping precinct. “I’m so glad I kept the boxed dressing window,” she says as we admire the black-and-white frocked mannequins with matching shoes and hats.

The glamour is such that you could be gazing through the windows of any contemporary boutique. However, these frocks originate from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Carney travels to America at least four times a year on buying trips.

Sourcing vintage clothing has changed dramatically since Carney began trading 21 years ago. Back then, “you had to go through a thousand pounds of crap to find anything that was good.” Now, rag traders have people on the floor looking for quality garments that are put into vintage grades, she explains. “Vintage has become increasingly popular. It’s like the new couture. Nobody has what you’re wearing and recycling is such a huge movement.”

“Fringed dresses like this one are few and far between,” she continues, running a hand across black-fringed dress reminiscent of the Roaring 20s. “But those fringes need a trim,” she says, flicking a stray thread.

Carney imports 10 tonnes of clothing a year. “I’ve been buying from the same people for a long time, she says. “I’m a good buyer because I don’t just buy the same look. I buy a very broad range. I’m not aiming at a particular demographic or a particular style; I don’t limit the sizes; my aim is that anyone can come into the shop and buy something.”

Carney was born and raised in New Jersey and spent a decade working in the American fashion industry before opening her Melbourne store. Her first job was as a storeroom model in the back room of a fashion wholesaler, landing the gig after finishing college and following her then boyfriend to California. She later worked in children’s and corporate wear, working her way up to become vice president of private labels for McGregor Faberge.

It was during a business trip to Kansas that she met her Australian husband-to-be, a dentist with well-established life in Melbourne. She moved to Melbourne and became the national sportswear sales manager for Pelaco Shirts. Carney was living in Sassafras when she had a baby and started importing youth wear from America.

But things didn’t go quite so smoothly as she would have hoped. “I was sued by Levis for importing jeans,” she says ruefully. “That’s when I started American Rag.” Her marriage didn’t last, but the store has. American Rag has just notched up 21 years.

Carney owns another American Rag store at QV Terrace. Slightly different in its offerings, the city store is geared towards daywear with little cotton dresses, t-shirts and shorts. It’s more casual and less expensive. “I cut a lot of 60s maxi dresses into mod lengths and use the fabric to make skirts,” she explains.

She describes the Southbank store as “more ch-chi” as we look at an emerald linen sleeveless cocktail dress, circa 1960. “It fits one of my customers like a glove and looks amazing,” says Carney candidly. “That could have come from Chanel, and there’s a matching coat,” which she grabs. “This colour palette is so very in season. Jewel colours. It will work well with black or white shoes.”

Another woman doubtfully considers a black and grey striped 1950s frock in the floor-length mirror. Carney pauses. “No,” she states. “The colour doesn’t work on you. It washes you out. Let’s try something else.” The woman agrees.

I ask Carney if she is always that straight with customers. She nods, “It’s the golden rule of American Rag for anyone that works here. We’re here for a long time,” she laughs.

American Rag
Shop M24, Southgate Arts & Leisure Centre, Southbank
(03) 96992978

Mon 10am–6pm
Tue 10.30am–6.30pm
Wed to Sat 10.30am–7.30pm
Sun 10.30am–6.30pm

15–17 QV Terrace, Melbourne
(03) 9654 9487

Mon to Wed 11am-6pm
Thu & Fri 12pm-7pm
Sat 10am-6pm
Sun 12.30-5.30pm