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Photo Credit: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - Gross shows off her favorite dress currently available for purchase at the time at her store Xtabay Vintage Clothing Boutique.Throughout the city and across the nation, there is a type of women whose fashion sense leans decidedly toward the retro. To them, old fashion is anything but old-fashioned. They have a woman named Liz Gross, owner of Xtabay Vintage Clothing Boutique, Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon, and now The English Dept. to thank for the opportunity to satisfy their vintage and vintage style tastes. And, they have Southwest Portland to thank for bringing up Liz Gross.


Southwest roots

Gross, 40, spent her childhood in Southwest Portland’s Hillsdale neighborhood, attending Robert Gray and Hayhurst during her elementary and middle-school years and Wilson High School as a teenager.

“From the time I was really, really little, I was drawing ladies in fancy dresses — from the time I was probably, like, 4 or 5 years old. … I always drew ladies in fancy gowns — always. That was, like, my obsession.”

Her obsession, she says, but never her vocational aspiration. Growing up, it had never occurred to her that she could translate her love of fashion into a career, so when she arrived at Wilson for high school, she took classes in painting, photography and fine art, which led her to studying painting at Rhode Island School of Design.

It was when she moved back to Portland that Gross had the idea for Xtabay.

“Some girlfriends of mine had kind of introduced me to thrift-shopping, and we would go to Value Village and Goodwill and Catlin Gabel’s rummage sale and just find all these incredible things for nothing. … All day, you’d find gowns and incredible designer pieces,” Gross recalled. “So that seed had been planted, and when I got back from school I started thrifting again and I found that I could sell finished clothing to stores and make money.

“I worked at a vintage store downtown for a while, and,” in August 2001, “just sort of ended up, long-story-short, opening up my own shop.”

Humble beginnings

In its early years of being open for business, Xtabay bore little resemblance to the cute-as-all-get-out boutique it is today; according to Gross, the store used to be decorated with velvet paintings and its offerings consisted of vintage T-shirts and jeans for men and women.

“Then, around eight or nine years into it, business got really, really bad and really, really slow, and I was on the brink of going out of business, and I decided to reinvent the store a bit and focus more on special-occasion and bridal. So, I closed it for a couple months, and we reopened — ‘we’ being me — and I changed the whole look … sort of just focusing on higher-end, nicer pieces. And that was really the turning point as far as when the store started to get recognition and success.”

Xtabay 2.0

Gross launched her revamped store with a new web presence, setting up a Facebook page in 2009 where she’d post pictures of her latest finds on sale at Xtabay, complete with measurements and price. She also started selling pieces on the e-commerce website Etsy; at press time there were 58 vintage dresses and 40 other pieces available for purchase there.

Perhaps the biggest boon to the new and improved Xtabay came in the form of a visit to the shop in January 2011 by none other than indie darling Carrie Brownstein seeking a dress to wear to the premiere of her show “Portlandia.” Brownstein was then quoted in a People Magazine article calling Xtabay one of her favorite places in Portland.

“That made business skyrocket for a while,” Gross says.

The following December, as her most successful year ever drew to a close, Gross leased another space on the second floor of the same building that houses Xtabay Vintage Boutique and opened another store, Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon.Photo Credit: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - Gross works at her desk in Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon, which she opened in December 2011 after Xtabay Vintage Clothing Boutique had its best year yet.

“We (had) started doing a lot of bridal downstairs, and wedding gowns take up a lot of space,” she says. “I heard that the business that was inhabiting the space was leaving so I talked to my landlord and he asked if I could take it over, and so that’s what we did. I love it up here.”

Less than two years later, in November 2013, Gross was contacted by Elizabeth Dye, then the owner of The English Dept., a small, popular bridal boutique downtown and “kind of made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Gross says. “I didn’t go out seeking to buy another business or acquire another business; it was more like an opportunity to try something different, and spread my wings a little bit more.”

Though both shops now are under Gross’ ownership, they continue to be distinct. While The English Dept. is more conventional, offering gowns by modern-day designers, “The bride that comes here (to Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon) tends to be … a little more laidback. … We get older brides, people that want something more casual sometimes — people who just want something really different and unique.

That is often achieved when “our seamstress works with the vintage gowns, with the brides, to customize them,” Gross says. “We take a vintage dress and alter it to suit the bride’s personality more.”

During her interview, she revealed to The Connection that the popularity of Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon’s customization operation has just in the last few weeks inspired her to develop a so-called Xtabay label, stocking reproductions of vintage dresses made by a friend of Gross who lives in Korea.

But, she adds, while the average price of a dress at Xtabay Vintage Clothing Boutique tends to be about $200, the reproductions tend to be priced the same or even higher, since they’re fashioned with high quality materials by a professional seamstress.

Setting the standard

“What makes Xtabay special,” Gross says, “is the environment we provide, the care we put into the garments. … It treat the store as if it was a boutique from that time period, so I like to give the shoppers the experience of what it might have been like in the 1950s going to a fancy dress shop. That is a big part of my mission: to offer an experience that goes beyond just getting a dress, but an actual sort of slice of the past, or from a time that a was a better time. But, also in a way that’s affordable to people.”

According to Gross, “Whereas when I first opened most vintage stores were pretty grungy and in the last five or six years a lot of similar models (to Xtabay) have opened.”

When asked if she believes these stores’ owners were inspired to set up shop riding on the popularity of Xtabay, and trying to mimic her ownership style, Gross chooses her words carefully, then says, “They kind of opened after. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I may have inspired a few places. I know people have told me that, anyway.”

Xtabay Vintage Clothing Boutique and Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon take their name from “Voice of the Xtabay,” an Yma Sumac album from 1950. Like the album, the stores have risen to the status of classics, sharing with it a timelessness that Gross strives to maintain. But, she has also seen them through to present-day economic success:

“We’ve always turned a profit since I opened in 2001 — even during the really dark days, we always at the end ended up making some sort of profit,” she says, “but from 2009 to 2012, sales went up by like 70 percent.”

With a wedding of her own coming up, Gross is asked a follow-up question via email: will be wearing a dress from Xtabay Vintage Bridal Salon or The English Dept. on her big day.

Her response? “I'd like to wear as many as possible — from both shops!”

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