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Exploring Life & Business with Ellie Zimmerman of Spice of Life Vintage

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ellie Zimmerman.

Hi Ellie, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
Starting a vintage store was the perfect meld of my interest in fashion, sustainability, and branding. As a teenager, I casually sold clothing I no longer wore to get a little extra pocket change. I always felt so excited to be able to send an item off to a new owner who could love and appreciate it in a way that I no longer did. I remember coming home after school and spending hours on this project. I’d lay out a sheet in the hallway on which I could organize flat lays of different curated outfits I had for sale, snapping pictures of the merchandise with my digital camera and uploading them to whatever e-commerce platform was popular at the time. I loved trying out different outfit combinations and picturing them on an imaginary customer.

When I moved to St. Louis for school in 2015, this hobby was put on the back burner. But a whole new world was opened up to me as I started to explore the fashion scene in St. Louis. Sustainability is important to me, but in my hometown in Illinois, the only places to shop for preowned clothing were at consignment stores like Goodwill and Salvation Army. It was rare to find true vintage gems there. However, we’re privileged to have many stores packed with beautiful retro pieces here in St. Louis. There’s something so special about finding a piece of clothing that, while new to you, still carries a rich history from its past life. Since moving here, I’ve enjoyed watching my style evolve from mostly fast fashion to now almost entirely secondhand and vintage pieces from sellers like Assassin Vintage, May’s Place, and Retro 101/Cherry Bomb Vintage. These businesses and the talented folks running them have hugely influenced my fashion journey.

Spice of Life was started on a whim. At a party at my partner’s workplace, I found myself chatting with a woman who sold vintage online in addition to her day job. The conversation reignited this passion in me, and I remembered how much I enjoyed my previous endeavors’ selling clothes. I thought aloud that combining that past merchandising experience with my love of vintage could be a fun passion project, and I was surprised to receive encouragement! At the end of the night, as my partner drove us home, I started typing out ideas of store names and branding ideas in my notes app. I finally landed on the Spice of Life, taken from the adage “variety is the spice of life.” This describes my approach to fashion and style as someone who never wants to feel boxed into the confines of a specific subculture or aesthetic movement. Playing around with different pieces and sources of inspiration based on my mood ultimately makes fashion so much fun; it’s my favorite form of self-expression. When we got home from the party, I’d already created an Instagram page for my business. Since then, I’ve just been working at 110% capacity. At the time, I had no idea what it would turn into, but I couldn’t be happier with where this journey has taken me.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
You know the saying, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know?” That was my experience starting a small business! I went to school for sociology and environmental science. I have no educational background in either business or fashion, and there is a lot to catch up on. I have to be my teacher for everything from basic accounting, marketing strategies, ways to source inventory, and sewing/garment repair techniques. Every day is an opportunity to learn a new skill, which is challenging but exciting.

The most challenging thing about owning a small business is staying motivated amid obstacles. When a product doesn’t sell like you thought it would, or you barely made back your vendor fee at a market, it’s tough not to internalize that and feel like that one failure defines you or your brand (especially if you’re a recovering perfectionist like me!) But at the end of the day, if you want to turn things around, you’ve got to dust yourself off and get back to work because no one else can do it for you. I’m learning how important it is to honor that discouragement that I feel during challenging times, because it’s an opportunity to think about what I can do differently next time. And then, I try to draw on my sources of support and motivation to feel ready to get back in the saddle. It’s easy to do when you care about something as much as I care about Spice of Life.

We’ve been impressed with Spice of Life Vintage, but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
Spice of Life sells unique vintage and retro pieces from the 1960s to the 1990s. My bread-and-butter is the ’60s and ’70s, so I feature groovy, such as go-go dresses, patterned mini skirts, flared trousers, colorful disco wears, and so much more. I’m also building up my collection of vintage western wear, in everything from fabulous cowboy boots to flannels. Think fringe, leather and suede, plaid, and metal. The fashion subcultures of those eras were iconic, and I hope that by providing a variety of options, I can encourage my customers to experiment and have fun on their style journey.

I try to be as inclusive as one can be when dealing with vintage clothing, so I offer sizes up to XXL. Spice of Life also started as womenswear only because that was what I knew best. But after months of careful curation, I just recently debuted my first menswear drop at a local vintage and slow fashion show. For those who weren’t able to make it, I’ll be adding new pieces to my website on Wednesday, November 9th at 6pm. Of course, I also bring my clothes to different pop-up events around the city, so if you’re interested in shopping in person, you can follow me on Instagram to see where I’ll be next.

Last month, I also launched a line of candles using upcycled vintage spice tins. Each is hand-poured with soy wax and essential oils, featuring a wooden wick for maximum coziness. I sought input from my audience on Instagram, and it was so much fun bringing to life the scents that people were most excited about. They currently come in three scents: Cabin in the Woods, Citrus Vetiver, and Warm Vanilla Spice. The holidays are coming up, and candles make great gifts, so I’m offering a promotional discount on a variety pack of candles: get a 15% discount when you buy 3 or more.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I spoke earlier about finding sources of motivation — I’ve just been blown away by the level of support I’ve received from those close to me and the community as a whole. The St. Louis small business scene is so welcoming and collaborative. Everyone truly wants to see one another succeed, and they’ll go out of their way to lift each other and give friendly advice. It’s also significant to receive this kind of support and mentorship from folks who have been doing this for a while or whose brands are much more well-established. I hold onto every word of encouragement or act of kindness, which helps sustain me during challenging periods.

While I’m on the topic of gratitude, I have to mention that none of this would be possible if it weren’t for my partner, Joey. He’s been my biggest cheerleader from the beginning and always encourages me to dream big for Spice of Life, especially when I doubt myself. If you’ve ever seen me at a pop-up market, then you’ve also seen Joey alongside me, helping to set up, tear down, and check customers out. Behind the scenes, he’s also there to comfort me when I’m feeling unmotivated and there to celebrate all of the wins with me. I’m so lucky to have him with me on this wild ride.

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