Owner Louise Cooper in The Cat’s Meow (Yes, that is a lettuce print on her dress.) Story by Justine Iaboni. Photography by Brendan Adam Zwelling.
The Cat’s Meow (180 Avenue Rd., 647-435-5875, thecatsmeowcouture.com)
Most people know The Cat’s Meow as the lovely vintage store whose window displays are probably the number one cause of fender benders on Avenue Road just before the lights at Davenport. What most people don’t know about the Cat’s Meow is that it’s the closest thing we have in Toronto to a fashion archive. Owner Louise Cooper knows just about everything there is to know about vintage clothing. Case in point? She can identify an original Schiaparelli by matching the engraved initials behind the buttons of a sweater with the French buttons the designer often used.
Your window displays are legendary. Can you let us in on the behind-the-scenes of creating them?
“Lisa does all the merchandising for us—she has a fantastic eye for what goes well together. Our windows bring in about 80 percent of our business. Vintage never really looks good on the hanger—the dresses come alive on a mannequin. And we’ve had a couple of fender benders out front! Three or four times I’ll hear a crash outside and when I go out to look, it’s a woman who’s rear-ended another car directly in front of the windows!”
In fashion, the classics are being reclaimed by much younger generations—20-year-olds are wearing the Chanel flap bag. Do you find that your clientele reflects these changes?
“Definitely—we get young teenagers coming it to buy Chanel bags. I find that the younger generation really reflects what’s going on in the fashion world. Even 12-year-old bat mitzvah girls come in here and know exactly what they want—and that takes a real education and real confidence. These young girls come in and say, ‘I wanna look like Audrey Hepburn.’ I have to stop myself from saying, ‘How do you even know who that is?’”
How do you make something old appeal to the fashion lover of today?
“One reason women like vintage so much is because of the workmanship that used to go into making clothes. Once lycra and spandex came in, a lot of designers realized that if they threw in a certain percentage of those materials into their base fabric it would cling to any shape or size and they could save on production costs. That’s why vintage doesn’t read well on the hanger, but once it’s on, it just pops. Our top seller is the little black dress which is nipped in at the waist, and has a full skirt—it hits you at your smallest point so even if you gain weight, the dress will still give in the places where you’d gain weight first.”
Does this tailor-made aspect make it difficult for women to find vintage that fits them properly?
“It depends. If the dress has been monkeyed with, like completely off proportionally or made for a junior, then yes. But in general, women’s proportion sizing has remained the same over the years. Vintage, however, does fit tighter, and that’s something we’ve converted many women over to—we’ve had to hold their hand a bit. Nowadays with all the lycra, you aren’t forced to hold your posture properly, but you have to maintain your posture in a vintage piece.
Usually however, when a dress doesn’t fit, a woman will take a chunk of hem, add it on the sides, really work with the piece. This extra effort is usually a print thing—the dress will have a unique print that you’d never see nowadays. I have a mauve dress that has a grouping of asparagus tied together with a carnation, a glass of water, an envelope like a love letter and a massive head of lettuce. It’s so unusual but I love it.”
In your opinion, what are the top eras for vintage?
“The ’50s and ’60s are what sell over and over again. Those are the two most classic eras, and I think if you buy from within them, the item will never go out of style. Something that’s too dated in terms of colour or beading or style—like over-the-top shoulders from the ’80s, or the ’70s long gowns with long sleeves—doesn’t look right. Vintage only really works when someone can’t tell whether it’s vintage or new. It has to keep you guessing.”
What is your dream dress to have in store?
“Oh wow, I’ve never thought of that. I’ve found the Balenciagas from the ’50s and ’60s, the Diors. I get such a rush when I find them—it’s like nothing else. I think finding an original Schiaparelli or Fortuny would give me that rush again. Fortuny invented this dress to travel with—you can wrap it, twist it up, and it would fit through a wedding ring. It was such thin silk. He took that technique to the grave with him, he never wrote it down, he didn’t tell anyone about it. Finding one of those silk dresses would be an absolute dream for me.”
Below, more pics from The Cat’s Meow. Photography by Brendan Adam Zwelling.
Read about other fabulous Toronto shops in our Style Map section!