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Iconic Style: Robert Black’s Passion for Vintage Fashion

Robert Black - Photo by Chris Loomis

photo by CHRIS LOOMIS

There’s a time machine of sorts right in the heart of Old Town Scottsdale. Step through the doors of Fashion by Robert Black and you’re transported back to the days of glamorous Hollywood starlets and stylish socialites of the old Southwest. Doris Day’s ‘Que Sera Sera’ and other tunes from the ’40s and ’50s play in the background as you take in the artfully displayed vintage jewelry and clothing, meticulously arranged by color. You’re enticed to lounge on a large, circular banquette strewn with bright pillows. Big, beautiful dressing rooms beckon, inviting you to immerse yourself in the fashion of days gone by.

“When a client is shopping here, it really is about the experience more than anything else,” says Robert Black, co-founder of this truly unique boutique.

Black, founder of the international modeling and talent organization FORD/Robert Black Agency, and business partner Doreen Picerne, a philanthropist and fashionista, joined forces back in 2008 to turn their passion for extraordinary vintage clothing into a smart boutique for women who share their same passion. They began by rescuing one of Scottsdale’s older buildings from possible demolition—The White Hogan—which was built in 1950 and once was home to several generations of Native American silversmiths.

Robert Black - Photo 1 - Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

“We came up with the idea because we were passionate about fashion, history and preservation,” says Black. “We didn’t really know if it would work or not, but we knew that nobody else was offering it, so at least we could hope we could create a niche for what we do—and we have!”

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Black was raised in Arizona and was heavily influenced by ‘70s fashion. “It was all about how you looked and dressed, and the labels at that time, like Calvin Klein, Halston, and other great designers.”

Black went into modeling straight out of high school and worked at L’Image, a modeling school and agency. Eventually he purchased the agency arm of the business, which he transformed into the Robert Black Agency, later forming a partnership with Ford Inc. Corporation and becoming the FORD/Robert Black Agency.

“Fashion was always a part of what I did,” he says. “I was always working with designers; I was always around clothing, and went to all the big shows and collections.”

For Black, it wasn’t much of a leap to move from the world of modeling to the world of fashion with his boutique.

“Fashion was always a part of what I did,” he says. “I was always working with designers; I was always around clothing, and went to all the big shows and collections.”

He and Picerne began to shop, looking for fine vintage pieces of exceptional quality. Although items are now sourced from all over the globe, initially much of the fashion was discovered in California.

“There were all these Hollywood designers working for the film studios,” he points out, “but they also did high-end ready-to-wear. And there were also many California-based designers who supplied clothing to television and film, but they weren’t working for the studios.”

Robert Black - Photo 5 - Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

When Black and Picerne opened the doors to Fashion by Robert Black in 2009, they realized they were in virtually uncharted waters, as this boutique is a far cry from a secondhand clothing shop.

“You really have to walk in here to understand the concept,” says Black. “There is an education that goes into it. We explain who the designers were, who the manufacturers were, and why the pieces are still in existence today: because the quality was better, the fabric was better, the construction was better. Most of it was handmade. Even if it was manufactured, there was somebody sitting at a machine, working on the garment, putting it together.”

Typically someone who likes vintage clothing is a little out of the box,” says Black. “They’re creative, they’re well-traveled—or aspire to travel—and they want to stand out and feel good.

The collection spans from the 1930s through the 1990s, ranging from pieces by well-known Southwest names like Lloyd Kiva to beaded, sequined creations from avant-garde designers dating back just two decades. Black serves as part sleuth, part historian as he examines each piece that comes in.

“If we don’t recognize the label, if it’s something new to us, we immediately start to do the research,” he says. Numbers on a union label can help determine a certain period of time, as can fonts used on designer labels. “You can even date something by the zipper,” he points out.

Robert Black - Red flapper dress

Occasionally Black will come across a piece that is extra-special, such as those dating from the 1920s. Often made with silk thread, these items are extremely delicate and not considered “wearable,” appealing more to costume designers, museums or collectors. His current treasure is a magnificent red beaded flapper dress by the designer Hattie Carnegie, whose designs are in the collection holdings of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Black acquired it from a friend who found it at a thrift store 30 to 40 years ago.

“If only a dress could talk—I just want to know where it has been!”

Robert Black - Photo 4 - Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

Black’s clients range from savvy vintage collectors to young girls going to prom to women going on cruises, who perhaps want a great dress to dance in and look pretty in.

“Typically someone who likes vintage clothing is a little out of the box,” says Black. “They’re creative, they’re well-traveled—or aspire to travel—and they want to stand out and feel good. Today we have ‘fast fashion’ that categorizes everyone into generic sizing. Once you try on something vintage and see how the fashion… is tailored to the body, you understand the difference. Vintage clothing should evoke an emotion or a fond memory. Fashion should always make the heart beat a little faster.”

Robert Black - Photo 3 - Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

Robert Black - Photo 6 - Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

Photo by Kelly Capelli Photography

RAPID-FIRE QUESTIONS

Last book you read?

Hidden Ones.

If you could be any animal?

I would want to come back as one of my dogs.

Favorite ice cream flavor?

Mint Chocolate Chip.

Favorite brunch spot?

The Canal Club at The Scott in Scottsdale.

Who would play you in a movie?

Well, of course I want Zac Efron to play me right now, because he’s young and incredibly good-looking! Maybe Ricky Martin, because he just played Versace, and he’s closer to my age. Everyone has told me that I look like Kevin Spacey.

Morning or night person?

Morning.

What annoys you most?

Bad behavior.

Three words to describe yourself?

Creative, loyal, passionate.

If you could trade lives with anyone for a day, who would it be?

Queen Elizabeth.

What fashion trend do you just not get?

Jeans that are down around your knees rather than at your waist.

Last movie you saw?

Black Panther.

Coffee or tea?

Tea.

Beer or wine?

Wine, but I really don’t drink.

Sunset or sunrise?

Sunset.

What is something you consider iconic?

What comes to mind is good manners—without a sense of that, it all falls apart. But in terms of fashion, I think good design. I love avant-garde; I love anything that steps away from the norm. But when you have a classic silhouette that makes a woman beautiful or a man handsome—that’s timeless; that’s iconic.

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