Between the glittering glass towers in Long Island City, at the end of Orchard Street, stands an old three-story warehouse with a crumbling grey exterior, next to a broken barbed-wire fence.
Through a heavy steel door, down a dark tunnel, Helen Uffner operates her 8,000-square-feet “museum,” with thousands of mid-1800s to 1980s vintage garments that she has been assembling for more than 40 years. Uffner, 70, and her warehouse are the open secret of New York moviemakers, fashion and costume designers, and theater producers, who depend on her to rent suitable vintage clothes and accessories for their productions.
“For me, antique clothing is an art form,” Uffner said. “People might think, ‘Oh my god, you did so many projects and you must make a fortune!’ But I think I do it out of love.”
Yet, Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing LLC. might be on the edge of closing. In recent years, luxury residential skyscrapers have sprung up like wild trees around Long Island City, once an industrial center. Tenants like Uffner are forced to leave.
“When I started 43 years ago, there were maybe 10 [vintage rental businesses], and now I’m the last one,” Uffner said. However, her current warehouse will soon be replaced by the future tallest luxury apartment building in Long Island City.
Displacement isn’t new to Uffner. Three years ago, she was located at a warehouse on 41st Avenue, just a block away; now, that building houses offices for technology companies. Before moving to Long Island City, she was in a 100-year-old building on West 37th street in Garment Center, Manhattan, which was also torn down to make room for a high-rise apartment.
This time, “I don’t know what my plan is,” Uffner said. “I may have to sell the business because I don’t know if it will be possible to find another space. Everybody is working to try and find a space for me.”
It feels like time travel, lingering in Uffner’s warehouse. Countless dresses, coats and blouses from the Victorian and Edwardian eras hang on double-shelf racks, and thousands of shoes pile against the walls in order of time periods. Hats and belts occupy the entire southwest corner.
At the entrance, next to a mannequin wearing a thick knitted green cardigan, a note reminds visitors that Tom Hanks wore it in his 2015 movie Bridge of Spies. Michael Caine wore the brown beacon rob beside it, with golden linear patterns, in The Cider House Rules. Along the wall are framed certificates from Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, crediting Uffner’s contribution to Emmy Award-wining miniseries like Lonesome Dove and The Inheritance. A rack of clothes returned from HBO’s TV series Julia stands waiting to be checked in. She has also worked on Julian Fellowes’ new HBO drama, The Gilded Age.
Wearing a black long-sleeved blouse, a gold necklace and black and white vintage bracelets climbing up one arm, Uffner folds, irons and sew clothing, hanging them on racks for different productions. She gives a tour of her collections as she walks through the space, climbing up a ladder to identify a boy’s trousers from the 1920s, pointing out an emerald green dress Beyoncé wore, and picking the smallest mannequin to fit a newly arrived red evening gown.
“I launder them, I dry clean them. They are like my children.”
Uffner and her family moved from Belgium to New York City when she was 11. Her interest in vintage clothes originated with her mother, who collected beautiful handmade blouses from Austria. As a child, Uffner spent all her pocket money at thrift stores, but never thought to wear her finds. When Woody Allen’s team found her in the 1980s, she already had a rack of 1920s fashions in her apartment in Murray Hill. They bought everything she had for the movie Zelig.
“I thought, what if I rented and then I would get everything back?” Uffner said, “That’s how it started.”
In the old days, Uffner hunted through thrift stores and antique fairs; now, people contact her with family heirlooms. Once she got a phone call from the family of a woman in her nineties, moving to a nursing home. She didn’t want to throw her clothes out, so Uffner went over, and bought some 1950s clothes from her. Now, instead of in a garbage dump, the woman’s sweater set not only can be found in Uffner’s warehouse, but also in the movie A Beautiful Mind.
Uffner takes good care of her garments. “I don’t want clothes just thrown out in the garbage,” Uffner said. “You want to pass that love on from somebody to somebody else that will take care of them. I launder them, I dry clean them. They are like my children.”
In her warehouse, Uffner has strict rules about what can be filmed and what cannot.
Acceptable: Uffner herself and unrented clothes with no name tags identifying their productions.
Unacceptable: An old shotgun lying beneath a stack of paper on her desk, with dark flowers on its gold barrel: “It’s fake, but I don’t want to get into any trouble,” she said.
Also forbidden: a clothes-stand hung with hats and bags damaged by the flood during Hurricane Ida, with water stains and wrinkled surfaces.
Uffner’s former employee, Clair Zhang, said that some of Uffner’s stock was ruined by overflowing sewers. “When I got there the day after Ida, as I walked in, she handed me a broom and we started to sweep water out,” Zhang said.
The warehouse closed for a month to recover from the disaster, as Uffner and her assistants re-washed all the clothes by hand, bleached the white garments, washed and disinfected the floor. Boxes of antique ribbons, books, lace, and Victorian collars once stored on the floor were beyond repair.
But the hurricane didn’t stop her business, nor did the pandemic. Though Uffner didn’t open for much of last year, movie, theater and TV shows have resumed production. Uffner has been very busy since this spring, she said, and now has more than 30 projects underway, including shows from Amazon, Netflix and Universal.
The only thing stopping her is rent.
Uffner has continually been searching for another warehouse. The Film Commissioner’s office called recently suggesting a space for her in Hudson Yards. But the rent—100 per square foot per year—comes to over 10 times her current rent in Queens.
“They said the space was very competitive—but for who?” Uffner laughed. “I guess if you are a law firm, that might be cheap. I don’t think the public has a conceivable idea of how much we [theatrical business] can afford.”
Alexia (last name reserved for confidentiality), a costume designer for a platform show, came by from New Jersey to pick up 1950-60s clothes. Climbing up on ladders and measuring sizes with a measuring tape, she said she would have to rent clothes from Los Angeles if Uffner closed. “It’s kind of sad,” Alexia said. “Helen is a world-renowned vintage collector.”
Wesley Harris, associated producer of Multitude Films, came to find young people’s clothes from the 1960s for his documentary on student organizations. He selected shoes, trousers and skirts, as Uffner helped hang them on a rack. “I heard about Helen from a prop house,” Harris said. “They recommended her as the best place in the area.”
With Uffner not being able to find an affordable new warehouse, another option is to sell her collection to wealthy individuals or big production studios. If Uffner’s business leaves New York City, there will be no large vintage costume rental houses to serve numbers of on-going and emerging productions here. “I know my clients will be upset,” Uffner said. “Because there won’t be another place in the immediate area to rent from.”