One afternoon in late February, the owners of the new Lower East Side vintage boutique Desert Vintage were musing about their customers.
“Our clientele will wear Philo-era Celine trousers with an Edwardian top,” said Salima Boufelfel, who owns the shop with her partner, Roberto Cowan. “It’s never just ’90s Prada or a turn-of-the-century lace collar. It’s the mix of these different elements that tell a larger story. It’s a mashup.”
Boufelfel, 34, and Cowan, 32, are both natives of Tucson, Arizona, where they own the original Desert Vintage, which has steadily amassed a cult following of designers, stylists and destination shoppers since 2012. Their weekly collections go on their website on Fridays, and items like a beaded dress from the 1920s or an Yves Saint Laurent floral smock dress from the 1970s or a silk dress from the Row that is just a few seasons old often sell in minutes.
Boufelfel did costume for high school plays and started sourcing outfits for characters at vintage stores. She met Cowan in 2009 when they worked together at a Buffalo Exchange in Tucson. They began dating a year later.
“I think of us as long-term collaborators,” Boufelfel said.
Cowan’s family is from Mexico City and Sonora. “I grew up with my grandmother and mom, who are glamorous women, and was given a sewing machine at age 13,” he said. “My dream was to move to New York and go to Parsons, or I wanted to move to Paris and open an antique shop.”
The goal of owning a shop in Paris was one they shared. Boufelfel had worked for vintage dealers while she took college courses at the Sorbonne. In 2011, they spent four months in Paris and intended to go to Los Angeles to investigate visas to move to France.
But first, they stopped at home in Tucson, and there they got an offer they couldn’t refuse. Kathleen Lauth, who had opened Desert Vintage in 1974, was looking to retire.
“She started it when she was around 23 or 24 and saw herself in Salima, who was that age, and I was 21,” Cowan said.
Boufelfel said, laughing, “I feel like we grew up with the store.” Cowan nodded. “We were kind of fearless,” he said. “I kept thinking that we had to do it differently from other stores. We have to make sure it feels modern and accessible to people around the world.”
Cowan shot photos for their Instagram and website on models with minimal, if any, makeup, undone hair and unexpected styling combinations. A gold sequin blouse from the 1930s is buttoned just once over a bare chest and paired with black trousers and Mary Jane shoes. The styling showed how folk blouses and opera coats didn’t have to look like costumes in a period piece.
A turning point came in 2014 when they set up shop as a vintage pop-up at the VOD boutique in Dallas.
“The response was so overwhelming, it took us aback,” Boufelfel said. “It was a ready-to-wear customer who didn’t know how to mix it — they weren’t women who would walk into a vintage store — and they would say things like, ‘Your styling has inspired me to wear an original ’30s dress and not feel like it was a costume.’”
An early fan was Emily Bode, who bought clothing online from Desert Vintage — she went through a phase of buying Edwardian whites — before founding her own line, which is known for its vintage and antique fabrics.
“There’s not that many people who sell vintage in such pristine quality and who carry Celine, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and obscure designers, and rare and fragile pieces from the 1800s and 1920s,” Bode said.
She met the couple in 2016 when she bought a red silk skirt from their booth at A Current Affair, a travelling vintage clothing show, and they soon became close friends.
“At that point, there weren’t that many people our age in the vintage game,” said Bode, who was driving home from a quilt auction in New Jersey. “When we were at auctions, we were pretty much the only people there under 40.”
It was when she opened her Bode store in New York City in 2019 that she started lobbying for them to open a shop nearby.
“It was so clear it works for us, and we have a similar customer as Desert Vintage, one who has a shared love for antiques and histories,” Bode said.
After looking at several locations around Chinatown and the Lower East Side, they signed a lease at 34 Orchard St. Bode’s husband, Aaron Aujla, and his business partner, Benjamin Bloomstein, who own a piece of furniture and interior design studio, Green River Project, were enlisted to transform the space.
“It’s kind of like doing a portrait of someone,” Aujla said of the design process. “Over the course of the last five to six years of travelling with them, having them at every Bode show, every store opening, I really know who they are as a couple and as an entity, as a business. I wanted to paint this picture of them as romantics and historians, and their vision of the past as holistic and beautiful and contemporary and relevant.
“We wanted them to feel like it’s their home in New York, and our home is around the corner, and so is our store.”
The first mandate: You can’t transplant Tucson to Chinatown, so their Manhattan space would be a departure from their airy and minimalist Arizona boutique. — NYT