Have you ever thought about setting up your own vintage business? Are you a vintage shop owner curious about other vintage traders’ experiences? Well, in this new series we will be meeting up with a range of vintage entrepreneurs to find out more about their career paths, mistakes they’ve made along the way and their top tips for others keen to set up a vintage business. This time we caught up with Margaret Davidson, owner of online vintage shop Penny Dreadful Vintage.

QueensOfVintage: How did you get into vintage and what are your favourite eras?

Margaret Davidson: As long as I can remember I have always loved the romance of old things, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to jump through the screen into a classic film or fill my home with quirky oddments from the past. I admit however, there were a few years in my fragile early twenties when I stopped wearing vintage – namely after a long-term boyfriend complained he was ashamed of the way I looked and said I looked like ‘a charity shop girl’.

Nowadays I am older and wiser, and dress in an almost entirely vintage wardrobe. One of the best things I ever did was moving to London, where I found an enormous vintage community and much more freedom to dress in what I liked. I would never again let anyone tell me how I ‘should’ look. Especially not with a posse of fabulous vintage girl friends to back me up!

I’ve never been able to choose a favourite era, because there are special things about all of them. In fact I really envy girls who are able to choose one decade and stick to it style-wise. My home and wardrobe are both full of pieces from all eras, even including the much-maligned Eighties. They key is it has to make me smile – whether it is a plaster lady lamp from the Fifties, a kimono from the Twenties, brogues from the Thirties, tacky kitten salt and pepper shakers from the Sixties, or a glitzy Joan Collins type dress from the Eighties. Anything is fair game if it makes me feel happy.

QoV: What made you set up Penny Dreadful?

Margaret Davidson: Incongruously, it started with me making the classic mistake of dating someone from work. We had a painful break-up then had to continue working together, and I needed some kind of daily distraction to stop myself from going utterly mental. I soon discovered the joys of eBay, through which I rediscovered my love of vintage fashion. In a post-break-up haze I madly began buying vintage, reading vintage blogs, and researching vintage labels. After several months the haze cleared, and I realised I needed to sell some of the crazy things I’d bought on eBay – which turned out to be enormous fun. And that was really where it started.

QoV: How did you grow it into a full-time job?

Margaret Davidson: It was very, very gradual. I tried lots of things – selling at fairs, selling on eBay, selling to parties of friends. Then I set up a store on Etsy, which helped me to take it to the next level. I had to learn how to become more professional, start keeping track of my finances, improve my photographs, and continue educating myself as much as I could about vintage labels, designers, construction, fabrics, cuts, and general fashion history. This was all over the course of several years while I was still working full time. Eventually I realised that I was never going to be able to turn it into a proper business while I was still working for someone else, so I took a leap of faith and left my job early last year. Since then I’ve been working hard to try and make it a success, the proudest moment being the launch of my very own website and online store late last year.

QoV: Any mistakes you’ve made you wish you could have avoided?

Margaret Davidson: I have made a huge amount of mistakes along the way, but I do truly believe that every mistake I’ve made has taught me a valuable lesson – so I wouldn’t want to have missed any of them. Something I have found to be true in every part of life, not just running a business, is that making mistakes and then picking yourself up from them helps you to find your own voice. Sometimes I will have a run of bad luck or bad decisions and it is really hard not to get down about it, but I know the important thing is to work out what went wrong, keep my chin up, and then keep soldiering on. That helps me to get better at dealing with things the next time round.

QoV: The economy isn’t doing great – do you think this has affected you?

Margaret Davidson: It has been a tough time to start a business, certainly. I have had to accept that it will take a while longer to become established than I would have liked, and that right now people in general are spending less on little luxuries such as vintage clothing. However in a way it is also positive to be starting out in this kind of climate, because it means I really have to work at it and make my store as great as it can possibly be. And if I can survive while times are bad it means I can definitely do well when times are good. I’ve tried to consider it in the way of a blessing rather than a curse; if we can all just get through this bad patch in the economy then there will be lots of good times ahead to look forward to.

QoV: Where do you source your stock?

Margaret Davidson: This is the question I am asked most often, and I feel that my answer must always be a slight disappointment. Because the truth is that I don’t actually have any secret sources, I look for vintage in the same places everyone else does – thrift shops, car boots sales and markets, eBay and junk stores. There are companies that sell bulk vintage, but I don’t deal with them because I want to be in control of the quality of pieces that go into the shop. Everything I sell has always been personally selected.

The difference between shopping for myself and shopping for the store is that I can look for anything that is special, not just the things that will suit or fit me. I also spent years learning about vintage so that I am now quick to identify what period something dates from, and improved my needlework skills so I know what can be rescued and what is beyond my help. The way I used to shop when buying vintage just for myself, and now when I am buying vintage for others, is really very different and needs a totally different mindset. It is no good falling in love with pieces that nobody else will want, or passing up items just because they aren’t to my specific taste.

QoV: What would be your best tip to someone wanting to set up their own online vintage shop?

Margaret Davidson: My biggest tip would be to recognise that it will be a lot of hard work, much more than you initially think. If you love it, though, that won’t be a problem. I work much harder and much longer hours now than I ever did before, but I don’t mind because I am also much happier.

If you are looking for an easy buck… well there are easier ways of making a living than selling vintage. But if you are really passionate about it, then there is nothing so rewarding as seeing people happy with the clothes you’ve found for them.


5 Responses

  1. Brigitte @ Cheap Vintage Clothing

    I could relate very much to your story. Every time I read about someone in the UK and vintage I always feel I want to fly there and surround myself with those people. Sounds like there is quite a community there! Good luck with your store. It’s cute!

  2. Srushti

    I am a vintage lover too. And its really good to mix it with your business attire. I know personally am a very satisfied customer of the the SABBS London. They have a Spring collection coming up and the best part is they have flying artists who come to you take your measurements and advice clothing according to body type. its a must try.

  3. Jackie Barton

    Another vintage fan here1 I love the 50’s lifestyle, music (esp), love collecting it too! I am looking to doing an online shop to sell off all the extra bits n pieces I buy (will be housewares and glass mainly), and this article has given me the inspiration to start!

  4. Kati B

    I must say as a vintage lover, and etsy shop owner, I really appreciated this article. Congrats on taking the big leap to full time. I have not gotten there yet, but hope to in the next couple of years. Here’s rooting for you doll!!!

    Kati B

  5. Jo, Owner, CutandChicVintage.etsy.com

    I am also a vintage lover and an Etsy shop owner. I’m so glad to have found this article. It’s always nice to hear from other vintage sellers who’ve decided to make it a full-time commitment. I’ve been selling for a little over a year now, starting in Spitalfields market in London and then moving back to New York and “setting up shop” on Etsy. I can so relate with Margaret’s experiences of the hard work, long hours, learning from your mistakes, and most importantly the rewarding experience of seeing your customers happy with what you’ve found for them. Through it all I wouldn’t have it any other way!

    Hats off to you Margaret!