If you’re of a certain age, you may remember this Oscars red carpet moment from 1992.
Demi Moore in a jaw-dropping studio dress from the early 1950s.
Then, there’s this — arguably one of the most memorable Oscars gowns ever.
Renée Zellweger in vintage Jean Desses.
One of my favorite gowns ever.
There have been countless vintage red-carpet stunners since then… including Kirsten Dunst in vintage Christian Lacroix at this year’s Oscars.
The woman singlehandedly responsible for bringing vintage to the red carpet is Rita Watnick.
I had heard of Rita and her legendary Beverly Hills vintage store, LILY et Cie, long before I met her.
The store doubles as a fashion museum… with more than 500,000 museum-quality clothes and accessories for the fashion-obsessed woman with a big wallet.
Even the celebrities buy. It’s a business, after all.
ALINA CHO: LILY et Cie is an institution and world famous.
But I’ve never asked you about the history. You’ve been open for more than four decades. How did you fall in love with vintage?
RITA WATNICK: A friend of my mother's left me an extraordinary collection of clothing. It had Chanel and Schiaparelli and Vionnet, really extraordinary, all 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. I think when they gave it to me, I wasn't sophisticated enough to really understand it. So, my mom slowly but surely gave a lot of it away, and I kept maybe one or two pieces. By the time it was all gone, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
RITA WATNICK: And so, I think, I've spent 42 years trying to recollect what I wasn't smart enough to keep.
ALINA CHO: Your store is often referred to as a shoppable museum.
RITA WATNICK: 500,000 pieces.
ALINA CHO: Why’d you open the store?
RITA WATNICK: When I moved out of my parents' house, one day, my mother said to me, "If you don't come and get all of your things, I'm throwing them out.”
ALINA CHO: Ha!
RITA WATNICK: A lot of it was really spectacular clothing that I started to collect, so I rented a store. [It was] next door to Roland Dupree, which, at the time, was the biggest dance studio in Los Angeles. Madonna went there, and Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler, everybody. So, people started tapping on the door.
ALINA CHO: People talk a lot about sustainability now, but back when you started, it was not a thing to wear vintage on the red carpet. So, it [started with] Demi Moore in 1992 at the Oscars, right?
RITA WATNICK: That’s exactly what happened. Blame it on me.
ALINA CHO: So, what happened?
RITA WATNICK: Demi was in General Hospital, right?
ALINA CHO: One of those soaps, yeah.
RITA WATNICK: Well, she danced next door at Dupree, really loved the store and she brought the costume designer from her show and said, "I only want to wear vintage.” It was when my store was brand new. She was really young, young, young, young. I’ll tell you something, she's really a pioneer.
ALINA CHO: Totally.
RITA WATNICK: She's really a bold individual, really a leader, a super cool individualist. She only wanted to wear clothes from my store, [and] she did do it. We always dressed her. We did the first vintage dress that ever went to the Oscars.
It was an amazing lavender gray thing. Halter.
ALINA CHO: Wait, did it have a lacy top?
RITA WATNICK: It had a little teeny bit of lace around the halter.
ALINA CHO: I totally remember that dress. Oh my God. That was it.
RITA WATNICK: That was it. And she was so dedicated to her style and loyal to us that we ended up going everywhere together. We went to Cannes Film Festival, the Emmys — she won an Emmy, I think, in a dress from us. It’s Norell.
Demi was so young, so gorgeous, really building a name for herself. Then, Winona Ryder came to the store, Helena Christensen, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Karl Lagerfeld. The store has this extraordinary family tree.
RITA WATNICK: You know, Penelope Cruz won an Oscar in a dress she bought from us.
When Penelope was nominated for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, four companies did clothes for her. Chanel, Alaïa, I really don't remember who else, but I think she felt she was going to win, and I have to say we did, too. It was a dress that she'd always loved here. She actually asked us like four or five days before the Oscars if we could do it for her.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
RITA WATNICK: It really takes us weeks to turn something into a really spectacular brand new, beautiful piece. I said, "Penelope, we don't have enough time. I can't do it". And she said, "You have to do it.” I said, "There's no time.”
ALINA CHO: Let me ask you this — the average person does not know what goes into the preparation and restoration of a vintage gown for an event like the Oscars. So, what do you have to do to the gown?
RITA WATNICK: The reason it really takes us a long time is my cleaners generally take seven to 10 days. We alter everything exactly the same way it was made. We don't want to alter them unless we can make them as original as they were. We spent like 200 hours working on [Penelope’s gown] in four days. There were four people sewing on it all at once.
ALINA CHO: Well, she looked amazing in it.
RITA WATNICK: We’re probably most famous for Renée's yellow dress.
ALINA CHO: That might be my most favorite vintage gown of all time. She’s never looked better.
RITA WATNICK: It’s true.
ALINA CHO: Did she know right away when she tried that on that that was it?
RITA WATNICK: Not at all. Not at all. Not at all.
ALINA CHO: Really?
RITA WATNICK: It actually was a huge drama. Huge drama.
ALINA CHO: Well, we don’t have to go there…
RITA WATNICK: One of her assistants told her she looked like Phyllis Diller in it.
ALINA CHO: Oh, come on.
RITA WATNICK: I told her manager, “Look, I'm not dressing her.” Six people were coming to fittings at a time. So, [the agent made sure] nobody would ever come with her again, and it was okay. But Phyllis Diller? Look, a lot of people aren't very sophisticated.
ALINA CHO: Too many cooks in the kitchen.
RITA WATNICK: That's exactly right.
RITA WATNICK: Let me ask you a question — what is vintage?
ALINA CHO: That's what I was about to ask you.
RITA WATNICK: That's so cute. Let me ask you.
ALINA CHO: Listen, if you're asking me the kind of vintage piece that I want to buy, then it's something that's emblematic of what a certain designer is known for.
RITA WATNICK: Exactly right. Something that's a really fine mark of a person's work.
ALINA CHO: Right.
RITA WATNICK: When people use vintage now, it can be a vintage t-shirt or a vintage pair of sneakers. That’s not what we do. We collect museum-quality clothing. I don't even like to use the word vintage. I like to use the year it was made and who made it.
ALINA CHO: Where do you find your things?
RITA WATNICK: Personal collections. I bought one collection where we took 6,000 pieces. I bought another collection where the person had 30,000 pieces. I only took the 6,000 that had never been worn.
ALINA CHO: That is fascinating to me.
RITA WATNICK: People with incredible collections know they're going to come to us or they're going to go to a museum.
ALINA CHO: Right, and are you still acquiring?
RITA WATNICK: Always. Then, we [also] order from the collections. Like, we just started taking out a lot of John Galliano's 1997, 1998 and 1999 collections for Dior. So, they're all brand new and they're 23 years old now. They're extraordinary.
ALINA CHO: Who are your clients?
RITA WATNICK: Basically 20 to 40 [years old] — like, the Olsen [twins] are my really good clients.
They really want things that other people don't have.
ALINA CHO: That’s it, right?
RITA WATNICK: That is it.