Here, vintage fair and shop purveyor Cary Whitley shares her experience of setting up a vintage business and passes on her top tips.

What’s the name of your business and what is it you do?
My business is called Love Vintage – I am a vintage purveyor who collects and sells vintage items. I also run the quarterly Wanstead Vintage Fashion & Brocante Fair in Wanstead, E11, London.

Do you have any employees?
Not on a permanent basis – I hire help on the days of the fair for the physical labour and sometimes to help out on the door. I also have help on the PR side.

When did you set up your business?
I set up the Wanstead Vintage Fashion & Brocante Fair just over three years ago. I had been collecting vintage items for over 20 years when my collections overtook me, so I started to trade at fairs and sell off some of the original things in my vast collection.

Cary masked ballWhat profession or industry did you work in before?
I have been self-employed since returning to the UK in the Eighties. My career has been wonderfully varied. Apart from designing and selling theweddingfile (an organiser for the bride-to-be) I’ve worked in magazines, television production and events. I’ve also worked for many years as an auto-cue operator and speaker trainer and a writer and researcher, including writing and publishing a book – ‘Secret Services – your very own pocket concierge’ – a guide to little known, must-visit places, products, services, websites and information. It has now sold out.

What started your interest in vintage?
I started collecting vintage haberdashery about 20 years ago – trims, buttons, pieces of lace, fabrics, beads and sequins. I had planned to make all manner of things out of them, but then I saw them as beautiful things in their own right and couldn’t bear to part with them. They filled a whole room of the house – in drawers, containers and cupboards. I decided I really must take a deep breath and let them go or at least get on and turn them into something useful!

What was the main motivation behind turning your passion for vintage into a business?
I travelled all over the UK to visit fairs and sales and realised that I was always travelling across London to visit my favourite vintage fairs. I thought it would be great to have a top event in our part of East London, so decided to set up the Wanstead Vintage Fashion & Brocante Fair just over three years ago.

What did you do in preparation of launching your business?
I visited a lot of venues. My priorities were proximity to the tube, easy ‘get in’ for stallholders – not loads of stairs to navigate with heavy boxes and clothes rails. And of course, a venue close to a high street (for footfall) and a cash machine. Having purchased vintage for over 20 years I knew a lot of lovely dealers and I wanted stallholders who offered genuine, quality stock. That was really important to me.

Also when I was operating the vintage café at the fair, I had to source all the vintage china, teapots, cutlery and decorations and hire staff. We baked furiously all day to provide the homemade cakes for the café but it all got too much running the café as well as the fair, so I now outsource this. In the end my stallholders and customers were my first priority.
Did you have a business plan?
Yes, you have to do the sums and make sure it is viable. I needed to know the financial ins and outs and I wanted to do it professionally.

Have you ever had a moment where you felt so fed up you wanted to give it all up?
Physically it is very demanding. We can’t get in to the hall to set up until very late on Friday night due to bookings, so I usually get to bed around 1 or 2 a.m. on the Saturday morning, only to have to get up a few hours later. I also feel terribly responsible to the stallholders to ensure they have a good day’s trading, so you sort of hold your breath that customers will come through the door. There are so many vintage fairs popping up now and customers are spoilt for choice – you can often be competing with three or four fairs on the same day. I work very very hard on promoting the fair. The next day I am usually wiped out with a migraine but there’s satisfaction mixed in with the exhaustion.

What does an average working day look like for you?
I never have an average day; I just wish I had more hours in the day. I am either sending out PR for the fair, keeping up with social media – which if you use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and a blog can be very time consuming – or I am researching what is on trend in fashion and shopping and reading a lot of magazines. As I also sell at other vintage fairs I could be out sourcing items – my favourite thing to do, of course. Then I sometimes have to research the history on the items. I love to tell a little story about the things I buy if I can; customers love that sort of thing.

I once read a book called Alligators, Old Mink and New Money (Alison Houtte/Melissa Houtte). It is the story of Alison setting up a vintage shop in New York. She had an assistant who helped her write labels for items on her rails – whimsical histories with entertaining one liners like the label attached to a trench coat – ‘Feel like Lauren Bacall in a Humphrey Bogart Movie’ or a label attached to a swimsuit – “Gloria ordered a banana daiquiri and smiled at the pool boy”. I loved that idea.

I remember adding a sentiment to a wonderful vanity set and the customer saying it was the label I’d written that had made her buy it!
I am always researching and reading. It is important for me to have some knowledge on the items I am selling. The pile of books and magazines beside my bed is sky high! There are so many wonderful resource books out there. And the internet is just a vast library with amazing articles, sources and very informative websites.

What would be your three top tips for anyone wanting to launch a business in your industry?
Don’t start another fair on the doorstep of an established fair and poach their stallholders – try for new, fresh and exciting stalls or add a little something extra to make your fair distinct.

If you want your fair to offer genuine vintage, retro, antique or whatever then you need to be quite firm about what you allow your stallholders to sell. That is quite difficult to monitor, although my customers don’t hesitate to tell me if something modern has sneaked in! Your fair must maintain its ‘vintage’ integrity.

Offer homemade cakes and food in your café along with a nice place to sit and enjoy them. The tea has to be just right! We get many comments on our delicious food. Some customers just come to buy a slice of cake!

If you have a family – is it harder or easier juggling both now that you run your own business?
My husband and son are hugely supportive – I couldn’t do it without them. My husband helps with setting up on fair days and puts up all the promotional banners and flyers the night before. That takes hours – you have to make sure all the arrows and notices are up and can’t turn in the wind sending customer off in a totally different direction! My son loves to help out too. He’s quite a collector himself – something he may have inherited!

Sometimes I feel very guilty not spending enough of the weekend with them because most of the fairs I do are obviously on a Saturday or Sunday. Or I am up and out early on those days sourcing the next vintage treasure!

What are your future plans for your business?
To continue running the fairs for as long as they are popular and as long as people have money to spend. I am also researching an idea for a book. I would like to see a Vintage Fair Trade Association set up for all fair organisers.