In a scene reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Renee DiDio once wandered in Paris in search for a specific vintage shop. She could not leave without a souvenir of some kind. In a twist of fate, she stumbled upon a consignment store with a 1950s watercolor dress on display. A few minutes later, it was hers.
“I used to tell people that my favorite vintage piece was an old, beat up, holey, ripped up and tied-back-up Guns N’ Roses T-shirt from 9th grade,” DiDio said. But now, that Parisian dress has become her favorite. The fact that it holds memories of her engagement in France have made it even much more valuable.
In 2012, DiDio knew it was time for her to open a store of her own. Having lived in Europe for four years now, she knew she wouldn’t dive back into her career of 20 years in film and fashion upon her return stateside. “I had saved my money this whole time, and I said, ‘It’s now or never.’” She had always loved fashion, and working in retail would be a refreshing experience.
She said, “For me, it’s the fashion aesthetic, it’s always been the fashion aesthetic. That’s always where my mind is and where my interests are.”
Her store, Slapback, on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn, is an ode to retro and pin-up fashion. Each season comes with a theme. The early days of summer are tiki inspired, with countless dresses, skirts, and bathing suits adorned with tropical flowers, whereas the fall calls for plaid.
On any given day, DiDio’s outfit tends to gravitate towards the 1950s. “I’ve always dressed in a more vintage, eclectic fashion, but I was never a ‘cookie-cutter vintage,’” DiDio continued. Growing up on Long Island, she was surrounded by thrift stores and would always dwell in her grandmother’s closet. “I just loved the glamour of it all and could pretend I was Liz Taylor!”
Neighbors know her store to be a “really pretty dress shop,” and seek her advice when it comes to dresses. With a glimmer of an old New York accent, her 1950s full skirt and tattooed arms, DiDio welcomes her customers with an eagerness to wow them.
Slapback has become a staple of pin-up fashion among women of its neighborhood . Customers have become friends, and often hang out on the couch, have a drink, listen to some music. “I love it,” DiDio said – being on the job means she gets to spend time with her friends.
A year after Slapback’s opening, Lucy La Riot, a pin-up photography studio, opened around the corner. DiDio soon befriended the owner, Anna Patin. Together, they hosted “Pin-Up 101,” a monthly class on pin-up hair and make-up. Soon after, they created a model booking agency called Brooklyn Pinups.
Through Brooklyn Pinups, DiDio and Patin help pin-up models maintain a sense of security while at photo shoots or shows. “You become friends [with your customers] and become protective of them, and you want to make sure that they are treated right,” DiDio said.
Both felt uncomfortable sending their female friends to strangers and not knowing how they will be taken care of. “Anything can happen, they’re not protected. So we created a safe environment because nobody had been doing that for them.” Brooklyn Pinups helped guarantee compensation, food, and safety to its customers.
A rife misconception about women fond of pin up fashion is that they are submissive. DiDio thinks it is the complete opposite. “It’s about a woman feeling good, and feeling good about what she’s wearing,” she said. “I would rather someone come in here and feel really good about what they try on and walk out with a smile.”
Fashion from the 1950s is designed to flatter the female shape. “Those pieces are meant to accentuate a woman’s figure, and make somebody feel good. That’s really the appeal to me and to many other women to wearing vintage style,” DiDio said. At 43, she admits there are some things she cannot wear. Now, many young girls are taking classic pieces of fashion and making them into their own by incorporating different eras of fashion. “We take so much fashion influence from the street. That’s the way it’s all been,” she said. “At the end of the day, when I’m looking at the younger girls I think ‘Oh, I would never have thought to do that,’ and it’s really cool.”
Working in retail is not for everyone. DiDio said, “You’re never going to be rich doing this but that’s not why you do it. You do it because you love it.”