There are a handful of people in Tampa that I consider to have exquisite taste: Jess Anderson, Retail Operations Director at Oxford Exchange, Gosia Eberle (freelance wardrobe stylist), and Elizabeth Burbage, Owner of Twig, to name a few. I recently added Catherine Ansel to that list, because her store (Couture USA) has a selection of second-hand goods that rival the best of New York, Paris, or Milan.
But she has an unfair advantage. She’s French.
From experiences like my semester living in Bordeaux and attending French language classes, taught by an archetypal Française instructor (slinky, smokey, and never without her Chanel reissue), having visited Paris many times, worked backstage at the Dalí-Schiaparelli show, and now knowing Catherine, I’ve come to understand the distinctive, basic taste level that the French seem to be born with.
Luxuries like beautiful clothing and accessories should elevate the everyday, be enjoyed, and define your personal style. After all, Coco Chanel designed many of her most iconic pieces with function equivalent to form. And while most of us cannot indulge in brand new wares from the best French brands, preowned examples present a more reasonable entry point.
When I first visited Couture USA in Westchase’s West Park Village, I didn’t expect much, or to find so many surprises. Like: an impressive selection of second-hand ready-to-wear, with pieces by brands popular and familiar in Tampa (St. John and Tory Burch) mixed with ones you’d only expect to see at INA in New York or Sui Generis in San Francisco (Valentino, Etro, Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton, Hermès), at <gasp> not unreasonable prices.
That tweed coat above, in basically brand-new condition, is listed at $675! Maybe too heavy for a Tampa winter, but for a snowbird or woman who travels for work to colder climates…
And because Chanel has always been and will probably always be strong in resale, there’s a lot of it at Couture USA—ready to wear (sometimes with tags still attached), shoes, and handbags.
It’s not normal (anywhere but especially in Tampa) to come across completely unworn Chanel cardigan sweaters at 60% off retail (even then, still priced well beyond most means).
The one above is from the recent Paris-Cosmopolite Autumn 2017 collection, with insane details like lion-head buttons. A part of me will always love fingering and admiring the fine handiwork on these sorts of pieces. And though it’s hard to take this mindset: at $1,400, probably worth the next five equivalent cashmere sweaters from Vince or Theory, made in China, bound to pill in no time.
From the Fashion Vault
The subtler surprise, which the untrained eye would likely overlook, is the handbag variety at the store. Yes there are plenty of pre-loved Louis Vuitton bags to peruse, but most of them are seasonal, limited edition, or runway models, bits of brand history not so easily found.
I zeroed in on two models from the same era, when I was in high school and just starting to follow fashion: a Stephen Sprouse graffiti Alma in white with peach graphics ($850), and a Monogram Glacé Elvin tote bag ($765). Both come from a time when Marc Jacobs was airing out the brand’s archives and reinterpreting everything, often by collaborating with pop artists like Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami.
Maybe it’s my imagination, but these bags feel more substantial than LV bags of 2018. All the hardware and finishes are just that bit weightier and more polished.
There are also plenty of non-logo bags to choose from (Lanvin, Bottega Veneta, Céline), and even more reasonably-priced ready-to-wear, like this velvet Prada dress ($170) or this Marc Jacobs sequined sweater.
Across all categories, I never found a single item that was in bad shape or heavily worn. At some point, with extreme wear and tear, resale value diminishes rapidly, because who wants to buy a wallet that has been through it?
It’s apparent at Couture USA that an interest in the artistry and beauty of fashion comes first, followed by the now more ubiquitous passion for brands. I still marvel at the time before Louis Vuitton was a household name.
In this business, one must walk a fine line of commerciality and curation. Brands like Michael Kors sell well, but are less unique, less covetable.
Leathergoods retain more value relative to their original retail price; ready-to-wear doesn’t, and customarily loses much of its value as soon as it is not longer new. The sweet spot for both categories is on items that are like new, at a significant savings, which is most of what you’ll find at Couture USA.
The other core tenet of the store is building relationships on both ends, with buyers and sellers. Some of the most frequent consignors are in cities like in Chicago and Naples.
The ease of the consignment process, as well as the high commission rates (70% on average), may be why sellers in larger markets prefer Couture USA to something more local.
With just the one storefront but a robust online business, the fifteen year old company is nearing $3 million in annual revenue and employs ten full-time workers. Designer resale is a booming business, and many regional players across the country compete with VC-backed behemoths like Vestiaire Collective (Paris) and TheRealReal (San Francisco). Those sites have a higher turnover but are less consistent in terms of item condition.
The differentiator at Couture USA is that eye—for the unique pieces and the one-of-a-kinds. It’s is a harder element to scale.
Across years and continents, I always make a point to research the best second-hand and resale stores—driven by the possibility of a special find. Something with a story, with more life left, and a palatable price point.
My preference in life and in wardrobe is to collect little by little, as items become apparent, rather than rapidly accumulating. I use, enjoy, and resell if possible—a more mindful approach to consumption. And just as antique stores attract furniture or decor hunters, fashion resale never ceases to pique my curiosity.
I never knew until recently that a resale boutique of real taste and stature lives right here in Tampa.
Couture USA was a pleasant surprise. I’m grateful to have been introduced to founder Catherine Ansel, and since taken several trips out to Westchase to poke around.
If you’re even remotely into fashion or high-end apparel and accessories, I forbid you from leaving the area without stopping in for a visit.