Mirror, Mirror: Swept up in days gone by

Kay Sickles (left) consigns her grandmother's 1960s chartreuse gown with hand beaded bodice to Johnny Columbo (right). March 7, 2013. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ).

Johnny Columbo owns the Philadelphia Vintage and Consignment Shoppe on 12th Street near Sansom.

  • Columbo's list of celebrity customers includes Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and the Kardashians.
  • The store carries decades-old pieces from actresses and fashion icons like Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Edie Sedgwick.

The souls of old clothes speak to Johnny Columbo.

Delicate 1920s day dresses fashioned from silk velvets and Battenburg lace whisper, "Restore me."

Smart 1960s sheaths say, "Display me," and so an ocean-blue, jewel-collared Halston frock hangs on an open door.

"They just draw me in," said Columbo, who owns The Philadelphia Vintage and Consignment Shoppe on 12th Street near Sansom. "I go back in time with all of my garments."

In an era where stylists and their clients are hot to comb through vintage shops for Old World, one-of-a-kind fashion, Columbo has established himself as one of the industry's go-to guys.

Columbo's list of celebrity customers reads like a New York Post Page Six column - Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, the Kardashians. He just packed up a sequined, long-sleeved blouse for Reese Witherspoon. (Philadelphia's fashion in-crowd shops there, too, including the squad from Joan Shepp and the women who work at Cashman & Associates.)

   His collection - in all of its organized chaos - is stunning in its breadth.

There are decades-old pieces from the boudoirs of actresses and fashion icons Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and Edie Sedgwick. Dresses once belonging to British model Twiggy are part of the pack as well.

In the back of the store is a rack jammed tight with work wear and evening wear by Geoffrey Beene, Yves Saint Laurent, and private label pieces from defunct department store Bonwit Teller. All of it was acquired this month from Ilene Hochberg Wood, an author and retired fashion director at Macy's who lives in the Allentown mansion once owned by the Hess family of Hess's Department Store.

Columbo's most recent coup includes 30 gowns from the late Whitney Houston - including the YSL off-white gown she wore in a 1993 performance with Mariah Carey - although he's not sure of their future just yet.

"I want to live with them," he says.

Columbo, 44, is fluent in fashion speak: He uses his hands a lot. Everything is "fabulous," and his answers to questions are often filled with grandiose generalities: He says he has somewhere between 5,000 - "Maybe?" - and 6,000 customers. He owns 20,000 pieces, and there are about 1,200 to 1,300 in the store. He's spent the equivalent of "several fortunes" on his collection, and the clothes are sold for between $45 and "several thousands" of dollars. He's got the right last name: He'll never tell you where he shops, which classified ads he reads, what websites he scours for his wearable jewels - although that's common in the vintage biz.

"He is known by a lot of insiders," said Wood, who found out about Columbo through a New York socialite friend. "Insiders pass his name from one source to another, but they are big names, and they don't want that information out there. . .."

Maybe that's why he's so secretive, but Columbo is so vague about his business that it's easy to suspect he's peddling special-occasion knock-offs. Yet a careful look reveals tattered Alexander McQueen and Hermès labels. And his fashion knowledge is encyclopedic: He can turn a garment inside out and discuss the seaming techniques of any era, and he holds his ground when talking about the pioneers of ready-to-wear - Bonnie Cashin, Pierre Balmain, or his favorite, Mary McFadden. These designers didn't become household names, but they are revered in the industry. He owns originals from all of them.

Angela Segal is a vintage wholesaler in Lafayette Hill who has been doing business with Columbo for at least 13 years. "He's pretty well-known in the vintage world. The people I do business with in the industry know him."

On a gray day in early March, the store is quiet, and Simone, Columbo's French bulldog, is relaxing under an antique table. Kay Sickles walks in holding a heavily beaded gown that belonged to her grandmother. She assumes the piece is from the 1940s, but on careful inspection, Columbo determines the couture gown is from the late 1950s/early '60s.

"It has all of the symptoms of that period," Columbo says. "You've got an elevated waist and the bodice ends right under the bustline."

"Are the beads mother of pearls?" Sickles asks.

"No, they are pliable and that means they are probably a Lucite resin," Columbo answers.

Sickles, who lives in Bala Cynwyd, is pleased. Columbo says he will probably be able to fetch $400 to $600 for it. She starts shopping and ends up with a black sequined Valentino pencil skirt.

As a teen, Columbo, who grew up in Hershey, knew two things for sure: He loved fashion, and he was gay.

He was 18 when he started perusing vintage stores and building his collection. But instead of joining the fashion world after earning his graduate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, he tried a different entrepreneurial route - opening a few day-care centers and a coffeehouse in Harrisburg.

Columbo moved here in 1995, and, three years later, he opened the Old City fetish-turned-vintage store Forbidden Planet, which closed in 2011.

He's been at his current address - just a block from The Philly Cupcake, a sweets store he runs with partner Michael Lewis - for a little more than a year.

Look for his just-completed display window: Six mannequins dressed in pieces from the turn of the 20th century through the 1960s, including a sparkling pantsuit, a tiered lace dress, a tunic, and a chiffon skirt. The magic is in the layering.

"Layers create a mood," Columbo says. "They create a fusion of color and a fusion of time periods."

It's that very fusion that he says is keeping him in business.


Philadelphia Vintage is at

111 S. 12th St., 215-625-4999.

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington

at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com.


Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.