Heirloom Antiques & Vintage, located at 19 Temple St. between the Main St. Commons and Head of the Falls in downtown Waterville, is a well-curated collection of eclectic items from decades past. An interview with Nicole Sulea, the owner and manager of Heirloom, revealed that the value of vintage clothing extends beyond popular styles — it is sustainable.
Sulea has a deep understanding of fashion, with a background in jewelry sales. She has been committed to sustainable style since learning that the fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. Selling gently worn clothing in quintessential vintage styles is a solution for the environment and consumers.
“There is no reason not to reuse materials,” Sulea said, explaining that polyester and rayon are used more and more, so the quality and substance of clothing has decreased over the years. “It saves so much water, and it just isn’t made the way it used to be. I think I have 99% cotton in the store.”
The denim industry is an environmental nightmare. Anywhere denim is manufactured, indigo runs into streams and rivers.
“More recently, denim has been made with stretch fibers,” Sulea explained, referring to skinny jeans and comfortable-stretch fits. “Those fibers eventually make their way into the ocean, so it has become so important to think about materials and focus on natural fibers.”
Conveniently, older jeans have been coming back into vogue in waves.
“The high-waisted style is in, and Levi’s are always classic,” Sulea said. There are lots of Lee’s and L.L. Bean jeans, which have been popular in recent years as denim maintains popularity.
For those interested in the impact of clothing production on local environments, look no further than the retired textile industry in Waterville, where sheets and shoes and shirts were produced in factories along the Kennebec River for decades. The chemicals in tanneries and textile factories were sources of pollution less than a block from the brick storefront of Heirloom.
In a sustainable endeavor, Sulea avoids a carbon footprint from shipping items in and out by dealing mostly in person and collecting vintage merchandise locally.
“When the items I’m selling were made, clothing was not disposable and fashion was much more intentional.”
The customer base at Heirloom has become younger on average, as trends emphasize unique statement pieces, capsule wardrobes, and returning to classics. Traditional clothing items tend to be made more intentionally, and some of the best pieces are still around, and can be found in collections such as the inventory at Heirloom.
The business is a give and take. People come to Sulea with collections to trade in, and she collects and buys items from local antique banks like estate sales. As Sulea sells items, she said that she is constantly trying to make it as sustainable as possible. “I don’t want to raise my prices, so I decide I’m just not going to buy it if it’s too much money.”
Since she opened Heirloom in 2012, Sulea has gotten to know her customer base well, and caters to shifting trends, especially economic.
“The people in this community don’t want to spend that much,” she said, and added that she avoids unnecessary mark-ups. There are often sales, and always surprising finds in stock, including shoes, a whole shelf of cowboy boots, and racks of denim in every room.
“When I started, people wanted more formal things,” Sulea said, referring to her inventory of dress coats, gowns, and hats.
“People have changed, and almost everything is more casual now, so people come in looking for jeans and T-shirts. I’ve noticed a definite change over the last ten years.”
Along with casual and comfortable clothing, sustainable materials and practices are trending, including fun floral dresses from the brand Reformation and sneakers made from recycled plastic by Adidas. It seems like every company is working toward upcycling, recycling, and relying on renewable resources more than ever before.
Lucy Harden ’24 countered that fast fashion has its market. “Sustainable clothing isn’t accessible for everyone, so people shouldn’t be shamed for using fast fashion if that’s really their only option.”
Reusing materials is the best solution to fashion pollution, whether an individual consumer buys pre-owned clothes or a company manufactures reused materials.
“I think if you can afford to buy from sustainable brands you should try, but thrift shopping is also a great option,” Harden said.
Sulea and many of her customers are inspired by the amount of clothing the resale operation, and even just her store, has kept out of landfills.
“Shopping locally is the best thing for the economy and the planet, because you keep it forever and it’s already on its second life.”
Everyone has different expectations when shopping, and in this expansive store, there is something fun and unexpected for everyone who walks through the door.
The purpose of Heirloom Vintage is to re-home items of clothing that still have some wear left, and it is a successful business because of the inherent creativity.
The experience of looking through shelves and racks of vintage clothing is inspiring, and leads to always unique options. Follow the shop on social media to keep up with hours and updates.
“There’s no perfect in vintage.”
~ Molly George `23