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Summon up an image of Georgia O’Keeffe and chances are she’ll be wearing a crisp white shirt, perhaps a slouchy, voluminous black jacket and a wide-brimmed gaucho hat. She could be standing next to a huge antlered elk skull, as captured by Cecil Beaton in 1967, or holding a painting up to the New Mexico landscape that so often inspired her.
Such images give swift insight into the aesthetic of Tucson-based boutique Desert Vintage, whose owners, Salima Boufelfel and Roberto Cowan, cite O’Keeffe both as a dream client and a sartorial influence. “She wore a kind of uniform, but it wasn’t boring. Her style was offbeat and quietly eccentric,” says Boufelfel, who applies the same aesthetic to their stock of pre-loved womenswear. “There is a sense of timelessness to our selection – we love to carry pieces that span eras but don’t necessarily reference specific time periods, pieces that feel modern and easy to incorporate into a contemporary wardrobe.”
That could mean a 1970s cream-silk Yves Saint Laurent tie-neck blouse or black wool blazer; a flapperish 1920s white lace and crochet dress; or a 1900s raw-silk jacket with a delicate hand-sewn lace yoke with statement oversized sleeves – something of a Desert Vintage trademark. As is the subdued colour scheme. “Our edit nearly always has a sandy, neutral undertone,” says Boufelfel. “It evokes the southwest.”
Bringing a cache of vintage fashion to the middle of the Arizona desert wasn’t plan A for the two Tucson natives, who met while working as buyers for a resale shop that donated its profits to local charities. “Our original idea was to open a store in Paris,” says Cowan, who was working out visa paperwork with Boufelfel in 2012 when the opportunity arose to take over the local business. First opened in 1974 in downtown Tucson, Desert Vintage was “more of a costume shop, a mom-and-pop place, but really approachable and super-charming”. The couple immediately saw its potential, and shelved their Paris plans to set about stripping back the one-time tilemaker’s studio to white walls and concrete floors. They also took their business on the road, appearing at markets and pop-ups across the US (today, 50 per cent of Desert Vintage’s sales take place online).
The store has become an unlikely stylist’s hunting ground: actresses Demi Moore and Sophia Bush are clients, as is Rihanna’s stylist Nini Nguyen. Design teams from The Row and Bode are also visitors – the latter sparked a reciprocal relationship. “Nearly everything I wear is by Bode,” smiles Cowan.
They describe much of their stock as “archival”: pieces with a known fashion history and provenance, such as those items purchased directly from US designer Geoffrey Beene’s archive and spanning the 1960s to 1990s. “A lot of these designs were never reproduced, so they are one-offs,” says Cowan, adding that because of the way they present their pristine wares in coherent collections, many customers don’t even realise they’re vintage. “You wouldn’t believe how many times people ask, ‘Oh, can I get this in a size small?’”
But a bigger theme that strikes the two treasure hunters is the growing breadth of vintage shoppers. “I have witnessed a crazy evolution of the industry,” says Boufelfel. “When I started out, it was super niche and secretive – now it’s much more mainstream, more accessible. And the sustainability factor is a built-in bonus. People’s interest is gaining traction every year.”