Packed with a live DJ, over twenty vintage vendors, and hundreds of customers, the very first Laissez Fair Vintage Market felt like home to my vintage-loving soul. The event was put on at Space 24 Twenty. I strolled through rows of vendors and tables laden with home decor, clothing, and accessories. Each article of clothing I encountered was unique, and every era’s style was represented. Laissez Fair was such an eclectic gathering of local vintage boutiques… I was joyously overwhelmed.
Working my way through the aisles, I found myself looking through a stunning collection of Levi’s denim. There, I met Austin’s very own power couple, Maria Oliveira and Ryan Lerma. Together, they own Passport Vintage and Dive Vintage on East 5th Street in Downtown Austin. Maria and Ryan, along with April Onebane of Pieceology Vintage, put on Laissez Fair to connect vintage sellers with customers.
Fast-forward two months later, I found myself at the Passport/Dive Vintage store in East Austin with the opportunity to talk to Maria Oliveira about business, life, and all the stuff in between.
Q: Who are you?
A: My name is Maria Oliveira. I’m the co-owner of Passport Vintage and the co-host of Laissez Fair. I was born in Brazil, and my family moved to South Florida. Eventually, I moved to Miami; Chicago; and then Austin.
Q: As for Maria’s favorite?
A: I love the food in Miami. The city-feel in Chicago. And in Austin…
Q: The weather? (I ask jokingly as we sip iced coffees at a table outside in the summer afternoon.)
A: Yes, the weather! But the people are also the nicest here out of anywhere I’ve lived.
Q: How long have you been interested in fashion and thrifting?
A: All of my life! I worked at American Apparel for a long time. And the only thing you could wear outside of their clothes was vintage. I would always wear vintage clothing, and that’s how I incorporated it into my ‘adult wardrobe.’
Q: Who was your first style icon?
A: Oh, that’s easy! My best friend from childhood is French. Ever since I was eleven, her mom has been my style icon. She’s just so cool. But yeah, my best friend’s mom is my style icon.
Q: Passport Vintage started whenever you were in Chicago, correct?
A: Yes, as an Etsy shop. I was a district manager at the time, and my job was really hectic. I didn’t have any time for myself. I’ve always wanted my own business, and that was a time in my life when I wanted to do something for myself. The stars aligned where I had a lot of personal vintage. I began to sell my own things on Etsy, and it grew from there. It progressed from my hobby, to my part-time business, to my full-time job.
Q: How about Dive Vintage?
A: Ryan and I were dating at the time I started Passport Vintage. He saw me doing my Etsy store, and that’s when he decided he wanted to start his own thing. Ryan’s store, Dive Vintage, focuses on vintage menswear.
Q: How do you find and collect vintage clothing?
A: Ryan is the full-time buyer for both Passport Vintage and Dive Vintage. He travels all over the U.S. It’s like this whole underground vintage world. You meet people and network. That’s how you find people to buy from. For Passport Vintage, we buy certain eras, styles, and sizes of vintage denim. Sometimes we will buy one pair of jeans from somebody. Or we may buy 70 pairs if someone has a collection. It really depends.
Q: What’s your favorite pair of Levi’s?
A: My personal favorite is a pair that I own: 1960s high-waisted, wide-leg Levi’s. I haven’t been able to date them precisely, because we can do that. We can look at a pair and say, “This is summer ‘92.” But that pair, I can’t date. And I’ve never seen another pair of them!
Q: Wait… How do you date vintage Levi’s?
A: During SXSW, the Vice-President of Marketing for Levi’s stopped by the shop and loved what we do. She showed us how to read the codes so we can date the jeans. We can also look at other aspects like color, fade, and wash.
Q: I saw you reconstruct some of your denim. What is that process like?
A: Some jeans we buy come in a straight leg. Everyone wants them with a skinny leg, but that’s just not how they are made. We work with a local seamstress, and we have batches of them made with a slimmer leg. We also alter the hemlines.
Q: You have your own shoe collection?
A: Yes. So American Apparel had an in-house specialty shoemaker. After the company sadly ended, I was asked if I wanted to work with him. I was like, ‘of course!’ All of his designs were vintage, so I was able to pick the design and color that I wanted, and we now sell them.
Q: How about the ‘Sex and the City’ collection?
A: My best friend, the one who lives in France, is a graphic designer. We’ve always wanted to work together. We grew up with each other, so we know everything the other person likes. We eventually decided we would do Sex and the City shirts. She came up with all of the designs, and I’ve done all of the selling and marketing.
Q: How did you come up with Laissez Fair?
A: That was something I’ve always wanted to do – have a big vintage market. Ryan also wanted to do that. So did April. Soon, we all realized that we had the same goal. Austin is such a famous vintage town. Vintage is important here. Somehow, nothing like this existed in Austin. All the markets here are maker’s markets. The three of us decided that vintage would be first-class at our market. So that’s what we made. It was supposed to be biannual, in the spring and fall. But because the first one was so popular, we’re doing another one in August.
Q: How did Marmalade Market come into being?
A: Julia Arden Dixon from Trash Vintage and I have worked events together in the past. After the presidential election, we wanted to do something big. So we hosted this event, Marmalade Market at Cheer Up Charlies, to support Planned Parenthood. It was a difficult event. Not only were there vendors, but also bands, poets, and entertainers… It was a success though because we raised a lot of money for Planned Parenthood.
Q: Finally, what do you love most about vintage clothing?
A: My favorite thing is that vintage clothing is sustainable. If I go to the mall, I look at something I like, but I tend to question if the clothes are made in a sweatshop. I get caught up in the emotions of that. So I like that if you’re buying vintage, you don’t have to think about it too much. You’re safe from that.
I also love that vintage clothing is unique. If you find a piece that fits you, you’re going to look different. That’s what I like about it.
* A special thank you to Maria Oliveira and Ryan Lerma for the interview and photos.