Trash or Treasure: Hamtramck mayor a vintage clothing fan
As with many business owners, Karen Majewski’s vintage clothing shop, Hamtramck’s Tekla Vintage, began by chance. “A friend of mine who has a secondhand shop was leasing the old Cody Hats store on Joseph Campau for storage,” she explained. “He had bought out the old merchandise, and since I sold vintage clothing on the side, asked me to help him sell off some of the literally thousands of leftover hats. It wasn’t long before he was pushing me to just buy the building and open up shop on my own.”
Majewski, a longtime vintage clothing enthusiast who just happens to be Hamtramck’s mayor, took his advice, opening Tekla Vintage on Joseph Campau (teklavintage.com) in 2014. Since then, she’s served as an ambassador both for the city and for its growing vintage industry. We caught up with Majewski as part of an occasional feature on people behind the scenes in the antiques business.
How long have you been a vintage enthusiast? What appeals to you about it?
I’ve been wearing, buying and selling vintage clothing since I was in high school in the 1970s. I’ve always gravitated toward old stuff in general and old clothes in particular. I actually remember the first secondhand store I ever went into, when I was probably no more than four or five. For many years I bought and sold vintage on the side, picked for other stores, and then sold online when that became a thing. I think it’s part of some deep and overarching impulse in my life, actually, a defining theme that unites a lot of the things I feel drawn to do — to recognize and rescue things of beauty and value that other people have forgotten or overlooked. It’s what I’ve done as a scholar of ethnicity, as a folk dancer, as an historical re-enactor, and even as the mayor of a city like Hamtramck.
Opening a brick and mortar shop is also part of that mission. You can make a lot more money selling out of your basement, but that doesn’t help your community, does it? To me it was also important to put new life into this historic storefront, to keep another business open to the public on Joseph Campau, to create a job or two, to manifest something visible that contributes to the vibrancy of this gem of a city.
How did you get started? How has the shop been received?
Rachel Lutz from the Peacock Room also encouraged and mentored me, as did Torya Schoeniger. It was scary, especially because the building needed a lot of work, and still does. But people and circumstances just converged to make the whole crazy idea possible. I felt that if I didn’t take advantage of this opportunity that seemed to be headed straight for me, I would always wonder what I’d missed.
As for how the store has been received, it’s been gratifying for me to hear from customers who love returning, or who reminisce about shopping here when it was Cody’s, or who just appreciate the selection and affordability and cool factor. Hamtramck has actually become a little enclave for vintage clothing, with a handful of shops in just our two square miles, and we all encourage our customers to check out the other vintage shops while they’re in town.
Do you have an average customer?
Our customers are as diverse as Hamtramck itself: Young people, hipsters, musicians; middle-aged women speaking Ukrainian or Polish; African-Americans; retirees; Yemeni boys looking for a gift for their moms; tourists from Germany, New York, Cleveland, Toronto — you name it — checking out Detroit; suburban visitors spending the day in Hamtramck; folks looking for an outfit for a 1920s party; business people on their lunch hour; vintage pickers from Japan. You never know who’ll walk in the door. Foot traffic is important in a city like this, so our old school display windows attract a lot of customers who were just walking by the store and have their eye caught by something in the window. And since we also sell online, through eBay, Etsy, and Poshmark, we have virtual customers from all over the country and the world.
What has been your favorite find?
Hundreds of thousands of pieces have passed through my hands over the years, so it’s impossible to single out any one favorite item. But my heart does beat faster when I think of some of my favorite picking experiences. For instance, the suburban house I helped clean out that was stuffed basement to attic with clothes going back to the 1950s. Or the estate sale I happened upon by accident in a tiny town in Illinois, with clothes from the 19th century. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, and it’s always a thrill to dig for treasures.
You’re also the mayor. How do you find time for both? Do you wear vintage to city events?
In most cities, day to day operations are the job of the city manager, not the mayor, so most mayors have careers outside of city hall. Up until a couple of years ago I was also working at the University of Michigan. And I’m still an active scholar. So life is full and crazy busy. But never boring.
As for wearing vintage to public events, I often am wearing something vintage just in normal day-to-day life, whether it’s a whole outfit or just a brooch or skirt or jacket or scarf. I also like incorporating ethnic dress into my normal wardrobe but especially for Hamtramck events like the Polish Day Parade and Paczki Day. I’m a serious Hungarian folk dancer and collect original village pieces from Eastern and Central Europe, especially Poland, Hungary, and Transylvania, which I love to wear when it’s not too weird. Not the ubiquitous peasant blouses that are made for tourists, but the homespun and handcrafted pieces that were actually part of a village woman’s wardrobe. And I find that it makes people really happy to see someone wearing these things in real life.
The first vintage piece I ever wore—when I was in high school in the 1970s—was my mother’s sweater from her high school days in the 1950s. The first vintage dresses I ever bought for myself were two cotton shirtwaists from the 1950s—for which I probably paid twenty-five cents apiece. The early to mid-1950s is still my favorite era. I feel like myself in that Dior New Look silhouette. Which is also why I’m attracted to mid-19th century fashion, with its defined waist and wide skirts. I used to do historical reenactment, especially the Civil War era, and still have my corsets and bonnets and hoop skirts, which I got to pull out of the cedar chest last summer for an 1860s baseball game at Hamtramck Stadium.
What one thing do you wish people knew about buying and wearing vintage?
That it’s liberating to break away from the corporate image of this season’s acceptable fashion. That the occasional imperfections on a vintage garment are the signs of its life. That old fabrics feel nice on your skin. And that buying used is good for the soul and for the planet.