Cherie Balch Owns Couture

Cherie Balch Owns Couture

by Evan Ross Katz

The first thing you must know about Cherie Balch is that she's a workhorse. She wound up in the emergency room just days before our interview was scheduled ("nothing crazy major," she assures me). Assuming we'll reschedule our chat, Balch insists that we keep our original date, even suggesting we reconnect in the event that I have any follow-up questions. Balch lays out this nugget about halfway through our interview that exemplifies her firm grasp with one hand while the other remains outstretched. "I fundamentally feel successful every day for everything I have done so far but always feel like there is more waiting for me out there."

Balch grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario, what she describes as "a very non-fashion centered small town" where no one around her would have even known what couture was. The obsession with Haute Couture began in her mid-teens and after finding success in the corporate world, she abandoned that ship for one with a bit more frills, starting the online vintage clothing shop, Shrimpton Couture (we'll get into the origin of the name later).

Another thing you must know about Balch is that she doesn't just love what she does, she cares... a lot. "I buy what I love and what I would want to have in my own closet. I think people relate to that. They know I am not just selling something to just sell it. I am selling it because I love it and I want it to go to someone that loves it that same way. Or more. It is never quick. It is just consistency and striving to do better and better with every single piece I bring in."

Below, get to know the woman that stars like Rihanna and Tracee Ellis Ross have come to depend on for looks with more than just a bang, but also a history behind them.

Why fashion?

I have always been drawn to fashion and to vintage in particular. It has always felt like magic to me. It lets you present this picture to the world of who you are without having to say a word. It is this very very serious business that is covered with a layer of fantasy and frivolity. You can change who you are by what you decide to wear. That, and there are just so many beautiful things out there. Sometimes I have pieces come into my studio and they just make me weep with how beautiful they are. And with vintage especially you have these added layers of history worked into the threads. You know that you are holding a tiny piece of a designer and all of their creativity. You know that you are holding something some woman in the past has laughed in, cried in, fallen in love in ... It is just easy to get lost in the romance of it.

Do you remember the first time you saw a couture look in a magazine? And the first time you saw one in-person? And the first time you touched one?

My first exposure to anything couture would have been Vogue. By the time I was about 15 I would buy every issue and just devour it. I loved looking through those pages dreaming that one day I could wear and own those clothes. It was years and years before I actually saw a piece of Haute Couture in person. I acquired a 1967 Yves Saint Laurent dress in a silver silk brocade and when I got it I cried. First it was a dream to own a piece by Yves, who is one of my absolute favorites and second, the workmanship and finishes... you can just feel the love when you hold it. It is not just a dress; It is the pinnacle of all the people behind the scenes putting hundreds of hours into making a designer's vision come to life. I now have had — and have — numerous couture pieces that has passed through the shop and are in my archives now and none are as special as that very first one.

What were you doing in 2006 prior to starting Shrimpton Couture?

I was in the corporate world in sales and marketing. I had worked my way up the ladder and was doing very well. It has nothing to do with fashion, In fact at a very young age I had decided not to go into fashion because at the time all the women I knew who were in fashion were paid very poorly. I decided that I needed to be able to afford fashion instead. [Laughs]

Had you been collecting at that point?

I had been buying vintage and thrift since I was 15, trying to emulate those magazine photos with what I could afford. In my early twenties I was a single parent and put myself through school at the same time. I had nothing in the way of money and made due with creativity and second hand finds. When I finally started to make serious money in the corporate world that was when I started to really up my game. With vintage as you can afford and find the better made pieces it becomes seriously addictive. There is the hunting factor that is a hell of a lot of fun but there is also this matter of quality that really makes an impact on you at some point. It is hard to buy a mass produced machine-made something when you can get its equivalent in vintage and that vintage piece has been made by hand and has the most beautiful fabric you have ever touched. So I was definitely immersed in trying to find amazing things at that point.

What was 2006-2008 like for you in terms of starting out and business growth?

Those first two years it was a side gig hobby only. For a couple years before 2006 I had sold on eBay very very randomly; not as a business but more as a way to clean out old things I had in order to get a little extra cash to buy more. By 2006 I started for the first time in my life to make decent money. At the time I did not own an Ossie Clark and had never even seen one in real life but knew I had to have one. So I splashed out and made my first really big vintage purchase ever on this floral print red Ossie Clark. It was $1000 and in 2006 that was crazy! It had not been cleaned, it was wrinkled beyond belief and was crammed into a brown shipping envelope that barely contained it — and this was from a very top end vintage store that was extremely well known. I remember just looking at that dress and my business side kicks in and a little voice says 'I can do better than this'. One of the tech guys at the office helped me set up the most basic website you had even seen and I just jumped in. I started a little blog and somehow managed to get eyes on my shop. Those first two years were very organic and I had no plan whatsoever. I just knew how I wanted people to feel when they got my items. As I grew I always tried to treat it like a standard retail business rather than 'vintage' and at that time I think that was kind of a radical way to think about it. It did well from day one and by 2008 I felt secure enough to think I could do it for real.

That name, Shrimpton Couture, is an homage to the great Jean Shrimpton. Curious: Have you two ever met or interacted?

I have never met or interacted with her and wish I could. Maybe she will see this and reach out and say hi!

We can only hope! Let's manifest it.

It's funny because the name came from a very negative space in a way. While I was working in the corporate world I would flounce into the office in my crazy vintage and thrift finds and I think some people thought I was bonkers. There was this one woman in particular and she would say "So what is our little Miss Jean Shrimpton wearing today?" But it was not a compliment at all nor was it meant to be. It was said in a very cruel, mean spirited way and really she was just making fun of me in a way that it was hard to call her out on. She was awful to be honest, but the more she dug in on saying that, the more I would try to dress up. [Laughs] When I started my shop I knew I wanted couture in the name — there was not quite the overwhelming use of it as there is today — and it was also a bit of a personal goal, as in if my shop name says couture then one day it will be full of it. Then I took that mean-spirited nickname that used to drive me bananas and added it together and thought it sounded right. It was kind of a personal FU that still makes me grin a little.

Can you talk about the process of exacting the quality of a garment?

I think if you are going to be serious about vintage you should take some time to educate yourself about how things should be put together properly. Because just looking at the inside of a piece tells you so much. I am very generous about sharing things about that on my Instagram feed and stories, but there is so much information that is just a Google away as well. And then it is just an exposure thing. Taking the time to look at different levels of construction at different price points and designers you know are doing great work. I have been doing this for so long I can literally walk into a shop, see a square of fabric across the room and know who it is by or if it is a quality piece. For anyone looking to get better at it themselves you need to get out there and see things. Go to museums. Go to higher end shops and look at construction. Go to vintage fairs and talk to dealers. Ask questions. Look at garments. Get interested and curious.

How did the brand find success — and was that a quick process?

I think true long term success is not a fast thing; It is about showing up and keeping at a certain level of quality and commitment to what you are doing day after day. When I first started there was a local vintage place that I used to go and buy from. He knew what I was doing and one day he told me that I should give up vintage because it is all easy in the beginning but it's impossible to keep finding good stuff and that it kills you eventually. I took that to heart and swore to myself that I would always find the good stuff or I wouldn't do this anymore.

Do you remember your first big, notable client? And did that impact business?

I had a few celebrities wear my things in the early years but I think the first really big moment was when Rihanna wore that leopard Moschino coat for her birthday in 2014. It went everywhere. And I think it was the first time that Vogue credited me as being the shop that it was from. That was huge in itself. I remember the girl from Vogue reached out and asked me how I knew it was from me. What she was really asking was whether it was really from me. I am like "Well I have an order in her name and it was shipped to her (then) penthouse in NYC two days before she wore it..." That's how insignificant I was at that time. I had to prove it was from me before they would add that credit. But that is where we all start. You have to pay dues to get bigger and better.

As far as impact, because there is only one thing with vintage, it doesn't impact business in an immediate monetary kind of way. If I had 100 of those coats to sell I probably would have sold them all that day but there is just the one and she now owns it already. So when a celebrity or magazine credits me it doesn't mean I get a huge sale day like a regular retail business would. It impacts in other ways though. I think it gives you a stamp of credibility. It creates that aura effect and gets your name out there and known which for a small business is everything. Having celebrities buy from you is amazing, but they are the same as every other client in many ways. Everyone just wants to find those pieces that make them look great. Rihanna is still a client to this day and I cannot thank her or her long time stylist Nini Nguyen enough for their ongoing support of my business. Because it does make a difference. I love seeing when people wear vintage from me and it is a little extra thrilling to see someone who has access to anything in the entire world choose something I have found. My small town little girl inside has an extra big grin whenever it happens.

How do you define vintage? I ask because I think there's a lot of confusion even amongst the industry elite.

I think the technical rule is 20 years old and at one point it was 25. Antique is over 100. But I have never been a rule-following kind of girl. I think it is more about relevancy. I mean fast fashion is now technically vintage, but is it? Not to me. And if I get my hands on a key piece from a collection from two seasons ago should I say no to it because it is not vintage? Nope. For a modern collector there is a good argument for collecting what I like to call archival pieces in addition to the standard 'vintage' pieces. Archival pieces may not be technically old enough to be "vintage" yet but they will be important collectibles in the future. I think there is a huge variety of ways to look at collecting and buying vintage now. I know when I buy it is a mix of vintage and pieces I am banking on being vintage or important collection pieces in a few decades from now. Buy what you love is the real rule.

In what ways do you think Shrimpton Couture is contributing to the conversations and actions around sustainability in fashion?

I hope that my presence and what I talk about makes some people think about their choices. My mantra is always "Buy what you love, buy less, buy with an eye to still have it years from now." There are amazing voices out there telling the sustainability story better than I ever could. I try to celebrate and focus on the small choices people can make day to day and wearing vintage is obviously a great choice. And it doesn't have to be from me. Everyone is where they are in life and it is just about doing the best you can with what you have for where you are at. If someone stops and thinks about buying something new because of something they saw on my instagram feed, then I think that is a win!

You told Vogue, "Most stylists only want to see vintage that does not look like 'vintage.'" This struck me as so true. Why do you think that is? It seems quite banal.

This is very true. There are few stylists that will really go there in terms of something that really feels vintage, and it is mainly because we live in a world where when all is said and done it is all about the photos and videos. Patterns are out for the most part. How they end up looking on camera can be tricky, so most stylists avoid them. That takes out a vast chunk right there. And at the moment there is a very red carpet silhouette that is fitted and showing off the body. So all of those amazing silhouettes from the past that don't have that look also get eliminated. If it looks too vintage it is going to be controversial. It takes a damn good stylist to make some looks feel modern and not like a costume. And the right person to pull it off. Not everyone can do that. You know that if they don't get it right the poor person wearing it will be crucified on social media. So I think it's scary and risky and just easier to go with something that looks more modern. All of that said, when someone does take the leap and really goes for it, it can be magic and people respond to it. So I think that while my statement to Vogue still holds true today, there are definitely stylists out there that will take the risk and do it very very well. Karla Welch, for instance. Just not enough of them.

For those that don't know, why is temperature so important in terms of storage?

Heat variations are what can destroy your clothing. Ideally you are keeping your clothing in a temperature between 65-70°F and humidity at 50-55%. High temperatures and high humidity results in mold and mildew. Insects can thrive in it and it will break down your martial fibres faster. Like your silks, wools and cashmeres. The best thing to do is to keep your clothing in a space where the temperature stays consistent, dry and it is not in direct light. Avoid basements or attics if you can. Cannot tell you how many pieces I have pulled out of a box from an attic or basement that just falls apart.

How has Instagram shaped, changed, affected, helped, you tell me, your business?

Instagram is one of the most amazing things to have happened to my business. It really allows me to connect one on one with my clients and talk directly to them about things that just pop into my head that I want to share. The bigger my audience grows on there, the more people know about the shop and that means the world to my business. I don't have a PR agency and a vast majority of the people, stylists and opportunities I have had have sprung organically from the platform. And it is very visual and I feel that for me it really boils down to being able to share what I do and let people see just how wonderful vintage is. Instagram lets me do that in the best possible way.

Who has good style that people need to wake up and recognize?

Their own! I know I am supposed to say a celebrity for this answer but honestly as fun as it is to have celebrities wear my vintage, the vast majority of my clients are people who live all around the world and are amazing. It has kind of become this thing to send me photos trying on their vintage right out of the box or when they wear it out. I share them in my Insta feed and it just makes me incredibly happy to see my finds out there. Inevitably I have someone send a note saying "I hope these are good enough" or something along those lines. And meanwhile they just look amazing.

What fictional character's style do you emulate?

None! If anything I think I am a huge mish mash of styles. I just have too much access to too many designers and eras to ever fall in love with one look or style. I am constantly picking and choosing looks. If you asked me for a real life person I think a really good Bianca or Cher moment never hurt anyone.

What are you watching at the moment and loving?

Would it shock you to know that I have not watched a single TV show since late 2020? I have been too busy!

Not at all. I envy your restraint. Favorite thing you wore this week?

I recently acquired an important Thea Porter caftan and had a moment where I slipped it on and just let its magic wash over me. So yeah that was definitely my favorite thing this week.

What do you like to do when you're not working?

I live in the middle of nowhere in the country. I am very dull. [Laughs] I have three great danes, one of which is a brand new addition to the house. I have a huge vegetable garden and share that on my Instagram and I ride at a local barn just down the road from me. I am currently in the process of designing a studio which is very exciting and that is taking up a lot of my time. I work a lot and when I am not working I just want to be with my dogs, my family, be outside and soak in this gorgeous world we get to live in.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out," a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photos courtesy of Shrimpton Couture