Cynthia Rowley has one rule when it comes to secondhand clothes: Never buy anything with a thong. Beyond that, the fashion designer considers almost anything. "I always buy handbags," she says. "And used shoes -- if they're in perfect shape." The shoes, she adds hastily, she always sprays. Rowley is sharing her shopping strategy in the back seat of a car en route to NoLIta, the Lower East Side neighborhood that's become fashion's proving ground. She's also talking themes: in thrift stores (those specializing in one era are her favorites) and in fashion. "Now, I love all this Indian, kinda hippie influence," she says. "But I also like all that Courrèges stuff. And Western."
She offers her notebook, filled with sketches that have sprung from her imagination -- and cracks up over a T-shirt she found in a Tokyo secondhand store and used in her last men's show. It reads: I ONLY SLEEP WITH THE BEST. Pleased, she says it again, savoring the seventies slogan. "It's so bad, it's good!" she explains, grinning.
Our first stop is Resurrection (217 Mott Street, 625-1374; and 123 East 7th Street, 228-0063). Even though it sells old jeans, T-shirts, and eighties staples like parachute pants ($36), Resurrection carries mostly designerwear (like Yves Saint Laurent and Courrèges), appears on the pages of Vogue, and gets combed through regularly by supermodels like Shalom Harlow. In other words, there is nothing "so bad, it's good" about it. Rowley started coming here only recently, but co-owner Katy Rodriguez greets her like an old friend. "We have a lot of twenties and thirties dresses today," she says. Rodriguez's partner, Mark Haddawy, shows off a group of size 4 Mary Quants, each marked $450.
Rowley idles in a rack of Pucci ($165 to $400) and Givenchy ($200), and then her mouth drops: Hanging high on the wall are three smocked dresses with dropped waists ($225 to $325). "Omigod! Those are so beautiful," she says. Haddawy steps in to explain. "I got them from a lady who lived in Hungary in the 1920s," he says. "You generally don't see those here." Rowley nods, selects one, and slips into the dressing room. It fits perfectly. "It looks great on you," says Rodriguez. "Yeah, it's great," says Rowley. "It's really great," re-echoes Rodriguez.
A leather jacket hanging near the mirror snags Rowley's attention. It's butter-colored and short-waisted -- à la Sade's "Smooth Operator" video -- but it's hipper because it has lacing on the shoulders. Rodriguez gives the garment's history: North Beach leather, handmade, from the late sixties. It's $225. "This," Rowley says happily, "could be inspiration and for me!" She circles the store, deciding whether to buy. "I'm not so much into the twenties, that's the thing," she explains. To help her decide, Rodriguez offers an Us magazine photo of Lenny Kravitz, head-to-toe in vintage North Beach. Rowley puts the dress and jacket on hold.
Half a block south is La Tienda (50 Spring Street; 431-4404), a shop that's not a thrift store per se -- it carries mostly Mexican-made trinkets. But there's vintage treasure, too: sequined skirts made during the fifties for American tourists. Last time she was here, Rowley bought one in ivory. "Remember me?" she asks the store owner, Kathy Lichter. Lichter puts her glasses on and stares. "I'm the one who bought your grandmother's skirt! I wear it all the time." "Oh, hiiii!" she says, perking up. Lichter should be happy to see her: Rowley told her friends at InStyle about the place and got it a mention in print. Since then, Lichter has raised the prices of the hand-sequined booty from $85 to about $150, still not a bad deal. "At first, I priced them too low," she explains. "I know!" says Rowley, spinning in a royal-blue one. "That's why I bought it and ran out of here!" There's only so many sequined skirts a girl can own, though, and she puts this one back. She does, however, buy a mini-crêche.
Rowley is not excited about the prospect of Domsey's (431 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-384-6000), the huge used-clothing warehouse just over the Williamsburg Bridge. I know because when I mentioned it on the phone, her happy voice grew concerned. "Isn't that the place where everything's in bins?" she asked. It's also the place where, two years ago, badly paid workers were reportedly fired when trying to organize. But Rowley's a retail trooper, and the Labor Department stepped in and fixed things, so she agrees to give it a look. "It's much nicer than I remember," she says, walking through the men's department. Indeed, all of Domsey's clothes are neatly sorted, tagged, and clean. Rowley strides to a wall of windbreakers, where she's taken with a plaid one ($7), noting that she's currently high on "sexy, preppy madras." She's finished with the men's department in seven minutes. "You can kind of tell immediately if there's anything really cool," she says. For example, short-sleeve shirts are cool, but Domsey's selection -- though extensive -- isn't. "You go in and wonder: Are you going to make a good catch? It's a sixth sense."
She's happier in the women's department. After chuckling at two pastel prom dresses ("very Miu Miu") and a red Frederick's of Hollywood corset ("Eeeww!"), she hits the leather. "No way is this $7!," she says, holding up a long cowhide skirt with New Yorker-in-Santa Fe tassels. "I mean," she says, "it's scary, but it's also kind of cool." Rowley tries on the find right in the aisle (no small feat here, since Domsey's is strict about using the dressing rooms). "This is a case of 'it's so bad, it's good.' You don't know it yet, but you'll see." Then she checks the label. "Issey Miyake," she says proudly. Rowley passes on an $8 fringed suede coat ("too Calamity Jane") and zeroes in on a leather V-neck pullover. "I know somebody who will so love this. My assistant!" she says. She picks out this item for him with more certainty than she's shown all day. I'm a little doubtful, but she's the designer, and anyway, her assistant, she tells me, has even worn a skirt to work. "Omigod, he's gonna love this," she continues. "I'm going to save it till after the men's shows as a thank-you." Rowley's one concern, though, is her sudden taste for animal hide. "I don't know why Western is looking so good to me."
Rags-A-Go Go (73-75 East 7th Street; 254-4771) is known for track pants (all $15) and other sportswear, but the old T-shirts are what sends Rowley: "I like those old bands -- Foreigner, Boston -- but those are hard to find." Niki, the salesperson, nods knowingly. "They sell so fast," she adds. Niki and Rowley find common ground in the subject of Japan, where Rowley owns stores and where Niki used to dance with Trisha Brown. They laugh about Rowley's i only sleep with the best T-shirt. "Oh, the Japanese," says Niki. "They come here, and they buy-buy-buy-buy-buy. And they're so groovy!" Rowley checks out the halter tops by the window (all $8) and holds one up to herself. It's blue canvas with rope ties and colorful block printing. "This is so Japanese," she says. On the way out, Rowley caresses a pair of cowboy boots. "See!" she cries. "I'm telling you, it's like, Western!"
We move down the block to The Village Scandal (19 East 7th Street; 460-9358). Rowley thinks this one's a winner. "It's so exciting to approach a place for the first time," she explains. It's a cramped store about twelve feet wide, but it has a better selection than many stores twice its size. "They've got a good range of stuff from a lot of eras," Rowley says. Greg Oh, the exuberant salesman, greets us from the back. "Welcome to the cabaret!" he booms, then resumes singing to Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year." "I would come here just to hang out with this guy," she whispers. She gives a few items the once-over: a Tom Wolfe-ish white suit ($49), a men's khaki blazer ($15), and a decidedly Western tooled-leather handbag ("I just remembered," she confesses, a spooked look on her face. "I bought one a week ago at a garage sale"). Greg Oh holds up a black column gown with flapper fringe. "Flippa! Flippa!" he chirps, cryptically. He twirls it: "It's a beauty, hah?" Rowley buys a black-and-white-print halter gown by Fritzi of California ($35). "So," says Rowley, "what's the 'in' thing now?" Greggo's eyes get big. "Oh, the Yves Saint Laurent gypsy thing, with the peasant sleeves," he says. "Lacroix! Lacroix's very big now!" He doesn't mention Westernwear. We leave, and he sing-songs after us: "Lots of love!"
"I met so many nice people today," Rowley says as she heads back to midtown. "The dancer girl, our new friend the Broadway actor." She walks into her Seventh Avenue headquarters, swinging her Domsey's bags. "Sometimes those people are inspiring, too."