As a lifelong lover of history and unique vintage goods, I often write about the past. On occasion, I discuss and analyze unusual objects that strike my fancy visually. The idea of interviewing a vintage shop owner never crossed my mind until I met the remarkable Carlos Pascoll, owner of Vintage Underground. The first Vintage Underground opened in 2007 at 1834 W. North Ave. in a 3,500 sq. foot basement space. I cannot speak firsthand about that location, however, the current store at 1507 N. Milwaukee Ave. is a fantasy come true. I was surrounded by so many beautiful, eclectic treasures I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! Trust me – you won’t find a more impressive, lovingly curated collection of vintage goodies anywhere. The spacious shop is filled with an amazing array of red-carpet worthy jewelry, as well as vintage cameras, hats, purses, clothing and unusual artwork. A big thank you to Carlos and Ellen Sax, Vintage Underground manager and partner extraordinaire for doing this interview.
When did you emigrate to the U.S. from Uruguay and why Chicago?
Carlos: I came in 1983 and chose Chicago because I was fascinated by the local architecture. I felt I would find opportunity in a big city.
Did you sell antiques or vintage goods in Uruguay before coming to the U.S.?
Carlos: When I was 9-years-old, I started going to flea markets near my Montevideo home. I was curious to see how people took used merchandise and turned it into money. After my grandfather built a wheelbarrow using car bearings, I took old wooden fruit crates and filled them with my neighbors’ tossed-out items, loaded up the wheelbarrow, and set up on Sundays at the flea market.
After I realized I could resell old things, I went around to everyone I knew asking for their “junk.” As I got older, I started to get interested in finer items. I collected old radios, lamps, and unusual pieces. This was just the beginning. As time went by, I met more people in the business such as antique dealers, collectors, and flea market hawkers. I loved to hunt and pick items and became increasingly fascinated with the world of antiques.I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Mike Wolfe of American Pickers fame, when he came to my shop on North Ave. We talked about how we both picked when we were very young. The only difference is that he picks in a Mercedes van and I picked on a bicycle!!
I read that Montevideo has a lively antique scene with many shops and auctions, but are people there interested in vintage clothing like in the U.S.?
Carlos: When I was a young person in Uruguay, the people wearing used and vintage clothing did so for economic reasons. They could not always afford new clothing. Today in Uruguay it is different…vintage clothes are as fabulous a fashion statement as they are here in the U.S.
How did you get started selling antiques and vintage goods in the U.S.?
Carlos: My flea market addiction continued here in Chicago. I haunted Maxwell Street Market, Kane County Fairgrounds, and Grayslake to name a few. I realized I had accumulated so much stuff that I had to sell some of it. I rented spaces at a few different local antique malls, however, those spaces were too small for me. I then opened my own store in the “antique row” on West Belmont Ave. in Chicago. My store, “Carlos Antiques” had a big selection of art glass, toys, decorative items, furniture, paintings, and ocean liner advertising signs. Radios and dolls were also a big part of my business.
The selection at Vintage Underground is extraordinary. Did it take many years of buying to get enough merchandise to open a shop?
Carlos: Well before eBay even existed, I was already buying and selling, so I had a large selection of all kinds of items ready to sell. I decided to quit my former job and dedicate my efforts full time to vintage resale. I realized that the traditional antique business was declining as interest in vintage items was growing. A very large space became available for rent on North Ave. in Wicker Park. For those unfamiliar, this is a fashion district in Chicago which has a lot of hipster appeal. My friend Ellen Sax had recently closed her boutique store in Glencoe, Ill. She liked the challenge of helping to create a new vintage experience in Wicker Park. We decided to focus on vintage accessories and grew the inventory very quickly.
Can you remember the first thing you collected, perhaps as a child?
Carlos: I collected old clocks because I loved to see the inside and how they worked.
Ellen: I collected old valentines and cards, especially the ones that folded out into 3-D. I also loved old photos and collected daguerreotypes, tintypes, stereo photos & viewers, postcards, and old photo albums that belonged to other people long ago. In college I collected old dishes and costume jewelry.
What do you collect right now?
Carlos: I collect only a few unique pieces of costume jewelry. I collect jewelry by Joseff of Hollywood, Joseph Warner, and old Chanel. I love clothes by Emilio Pucci, Oscar de la Renta, Dior, Chanel, and Lanvin.
Ellen: I have a collection of art glass such as Galle and Daum Nancy. I still have a photography collection including most notably, a piece by Julia Margaret Cameron.
What is the weirdest thing a person has brought into the shop to sell?
Someone brought in their grandfather’s old teeth with gold fillings.
Every dealer and collector has stories about awesome finds. What is your most incredible find, in terms of resale value?
Carlos: I bought a Jumeau porcelain doll at a flea market in Uruguay for 35 pesos and sold it at a Christie’s auction for $$$$$$$$$.
Do you have any favorite jewelry designers, either living or deceased?
Carlos: Joseff of Hollywood, Miriam Haskell, Dior, Kramer, and Crown Trifari
Ellen: I love Art Nouveau jewelry, Art Deco jewelry, and old Czech pieces. Although it is hard to find designer-signed pieces, I love jewelry by Hobe, ART(c), Florenza, and Whiting & Davis.
Who is your favorite vintage haute couture fashion designer?
Have changing trends impacted your business, or is vintage pretty much timeless?
Vintage is timeless. Repurposing older pieces continues to be trendy, and older pieces are generally much better made. In addition to making unique fashion statements, this practice is eco-friendly! There are always people who love old pieces such as Victorian or 1920s, for example. Today, many younger people love to collect and wear 1980s and 1990s pieces.
What iconic brands hold their value or increase in value other than Chanel?
Carlos: I can’t answer this question, but if I knew I would be rich!
On a more serious note, historically, many antique and vintage jewelry designers have risen in value. Disappearing collectible jewelry is increasing in value. For instance, many pieces by Eisenberg, Trifari, Weiss, and others have easily doubled since we opened Vintage Underground. Even pieces by more common designers such as Monet and Napier, to name a few, have held strong.
I saw one of your pieces on a Monzlapur New York model. How did this come about and do you often source your pieces to designers? Have any of your pieces appeared in films?
Mona Habid, owner of Monzlapur New York came in the store to find fantastic pieces to accessorize her designs. One of our vintage gold-tone collar necklaces ended up walking the runway at NY Fashion Week.
The interior designer Griffin Direction was photographed at NY Fashion Week by The New York Times wearing a fashionable outfit featuring one our statement necklaces.
We have many customers from all over the world who wear the jewelry themselves, and some even resell it in other countries where vintage jewelry is much more expensive. Stylists and fashion bloggers love to use our unusual pieces in their work.
Our jewelry and accessories have appeared in many TV shows such as Empire, The Playboy Club, The Exorcist, Mad Men, and Chicago Fire. We have been featured on CBS News, in Lucky Magazine, TimeOut Chicago, and more.
Photos: Courtesy Vintage Underground, Collages: Betsy van Die