The Vault Collective
To visit Ruth Meteer, either at home or at her workspace, is to step back in time. It could be the 1990’s, 1950’s, 1850’s, or anywhere in between. The stamp of history marks both her cozy and eclectic colonial farmhouse, her exceptional fashion sense, and both locations of her vintage clothing business, The Vault Collective.
This easy melding of eras and styles has been a part of Ruth’s entire life: she is fascinated by the past. She is a student of it, in more ways than one. “I studied English literature in undergrad and had kind of a circuitous career path,” she explains, “I tended to just walk through open doors when they opened up, even if it was kind of an odd thing, like I didn’t mean to be an archaeologist after undergrad, it’s just there was an opportunity to do a field school.’”
Yet through it all, vintage clothing is the common thread connecting everything together. “In the 90s (in high school) all I wanted to wear was stuff from the 70s,” she says. “And I started collecting so much of it from thrift shops and yard sales that when ebay came out, I just had the idea to use ebay to clean out my closet basically, and realized there were people who were actually collecting a lot of this stuff.”
As she puts it, she is a “professional hobbyist,” and this particular hobby became a professional venture. Initially, it supplemented her income in marketing and while she was in graduate school. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I opened the first Vault Collective in Providence, Rhode Island in Sept of 2014, and then just this past August, August of 2017, I opened the second store in Burlington, Vermont with a set of Vermont dealers. So now I have two of these stores providing space on a hyper-local level in two different states.”
The Vault Collective is exactly that: a warehouse-style collective-model business that rents booths for local vintage clothing vendors to sell their wares. Each Vault Collective location is over three-thousand square feet, and each is perfectly situated for foot-traffic off the city streets.
“What my store does,” Ruth says, “Is provide space for a bunch of dealers together to have a brick and mortar store in a location that can compete with national level businesses. Our stores are right down the street from Urban Outfitters and Free People and other national brands like that.”
Each Vault Collective location is distinctly modern and sleek (we visited the Burlington, VT location for this article). It is not a basement-style shopping experience where one must root through racks of old clothing to find the diamond in the rough. In fact, it is a carefully curated, high-quality collection of clothing, arranged in a way that rivals (and perhaps surpasses) department stores. Before being put on the racks, all clothing is cleaned, tailored and mended, and priced competitively. Many of her vendors are used as source material for New York designers who visit the Vault to draw inspiration and track trends for their own work.
While this business model provides an essential service for these vendors (and for Ruth herself, whose store Gypsum has put down its roots at both locations), it also comes with its own challenges and balancing acts. “Sometimes what’s good for one dealer is not good for another dealer,” Ruth explains, “That’s been the hardest part, managing everybody’s concerns.”
Yet Ruth sees this delicate balance as worth it all in the end. She and her vendors are essentially working towards the same goal, and a win for one of them is a win for them all. Having such a large space available to shoppers ends up being profitable for all vendors since customers are more likely to find a piece that they like.
“Most of the dealers I work with are trying to figure out how to make a living without working for somebody else. Most of them have very personal reasons that they’re doing that. Some of them have kids, and need a second income but can’t work a 9-5 job. Some of them are artists who are trying to find a way to support themselves and be able to still do their work, which a 9-5 office job would just kill their creative spirit. So working with the dealers, I feel like, we generally know a good bit about what’s going on in each other’s personal lives and each other’s reasons for doing what we’re doing, and each other’s goals.”
Staffing is mainly done by the vendors themselves, who work in shifts a few times a month. “When you’re a vintage clothing dealer you need a lot of time to just drive around and find these pieces, so if you’re stuck manning a store every day, when do you go find your merchandise?” Ruth says. Although she won’t give away any hints as to where she finds her vintage pieces (As she points out, “There’s a limited amount of vintage clothing in the world and there’s more people every year and less vintage clothing!”), she freely admits this work demands a lot of work outside of the brick and mortar stores. Many of her travels to visit friends and family also involve making time to browse sales and shops to see what she can find.
This blurred line between home life and work life is one Ruth has become accustomed to and is actually comfortable with. While some of her business acquaintances advise against clocking in hours while on a non-business related trip, she finds it both normal and enjoyable: “It’s how I love to spend my free time.”
This isn’t to say everything about running the Vault Collective falls under Ruth’s natural interests or hobbies. Her career in marketing made it easier to successfully launch the Vault, but more surprisingly, she credits a high school job working for Bath and Body Works and a required basic math class at UMASS Boston as being equally important in forming her understanding of running a successful business. “Engage in whatever you do in the moment and learn everything you can about it because you’ll never know when it’ll become useful,” she says. “Every job is a very important job.”
This high respect for work extends to the unique structure and needs she and her fellow vintage clothing vendors have. It is, as she says, “a very personal job,” and something that has naturally dovetailed with her personal interests. What she didn’t expect, however, was how much she would enjoy the salesmanship of this career path.
“The thing about retail, clothing retail, that I didn’t realize in advance, that I really love is actually dealing with the customers who come into the store, helping them understand their bodies and what looks good on them. And really find their personality,” she says. In some ways, she and her vendors find themselves in the position of helping customers take the same kind of steps of faith that they do on a regular basis. It may feel risky to the customer, but the payoff only helps them embrace their individuality and unique qualities. It’s an active role, where vendors find themselves “helping people be able to spot something on the racks that speaks to their personality and have the courage to try it on and know enough about their own body to know whether it will look good on them or not.”
“I feel like working with customers in a vintage store, we’re helping people both see their body better, the way it is, and know how to love their body better the way it is,” Ruth says. “So that’s been a really beautiful thing about working in clothing retail. And I love seeing people leaving the store feeling like they look great.”
The Vault Collective, VT
145 Cherry Street,
Burlington, VT 05401
Open 11-7 Daily
Rhode Island Location
The Vault Collective, RI
235 Westminster Street,
Providence, RI 02906
Open 11-7 Daily
Photography by: Rusty Kinnunen