Happy Isles: Time Traveling with Lily Kaizer
Like most of us this year, Lily Kaizer has been wearing a lot of T-shirts and drawstring bottoms, local weather reports dictating the desired lengths. When considering what to wear, and we all share that in common, whether it’s a uniform or layers of fantasy, whether black on black or riotous color, clothing is fashion. For its many aficionados, Vintage is the fashion of choice, and it’s an absolute choice that is attracting more fans for so many reasons. Because there currently is a sense that, in some aspects, time has stopped, with no events that dictate (for now, bye bye, Burning Man, and adieu to Art Basel) and we’re left to our own dreams, devices and decades. Talking to Lily Kaizer about her collection of clothing at Happy Isles is definitely a happy trip down aisles of history, flower fields of color, and tasty texture, all of it woven from someone’s story and ready to create another. The same appreciation applies to new nesting items she has been sourcing for the home. Like slow food, friendship and love-making, it’s about feeling good, enjoying the process and cherishing what you have.
Gwynned Vitello: Looking back at your teenage years and college, did you have an idea of a path you would follow?
Lily Kaizer: I had no idea what I wanted to do throughout college. It was actually the source of much angst and not-so-minor depression. But it’s funny and almost poetic to look back and see the clear signs pointing to vintage. Sustainability should honestly be the first choice in selecting what to buy and what to wear. The fashion industry isn’t sustainable—we just simply do not need more stuff in this world. There’s already plenty of stuff out there. For me, used and vintage pieces make up 90% of my closet, with the exception of shoes and underwear. I definitely relish living pretty guilt-free about my role as a consumer.
Craftsmanship is what really got me into designer vintage. After being exposed to construction from designers like Alaia, Galliano, Versace, Gautier and Mugler, I was hooked. There's no comparison when you put on a piece of designer vintage. This has so much to do with interior construction and thoughtful silhouette. Of course, my personal life is not comprised of formal designer attire, but that sensibility does inform my mentality about clothes and how they should make you feel.
Was this your first business? What was the biggest challenge?
My first business outside of selling “art,” potions and golf balls on my street corner as a kid was actually a collection of thrift store finds for men called BOYCHIK. It was inspired by my days combing through rural Goodwills in college, and then encouraged by my muse of a boyfriend in 2013. It was a great experience but wasn’t quite making money, so I got a real job. I opened Happy Isles in 2016— LA’s first vintage bridal salon.
Business is a very tedious, emotional process for me. I’m constantly sitting with a bevy of questions. It’s a steady brain stream of how to handle business and how to grow it, and if I should feel guilty about not doing that thing I could be doing. It’s taxing to sort of sit alone with that, although I have amazing support from family, friends and HI’s incredible studio manager.
What were the first pieces you stocked, and how do you arrange them? Has that changed since the business has grown?
The original collection I opened with is actually pretty exemplary of the kind of selection we currently stock. It was a mix from the ’50s to the early ’00s. We go sweet to sexy at Happy Isles and try to have something for everyone. Over the course of time, we’ve probably added another 20 or so pieces to our racks at a time, just to broaden the selection and size range without things feeling cluttered, which can be an easy misstep for a vintage shop.
As far as arranging clothes, which is one of my favorite jobs and can sometimes take longer than the time I give myself, my goal is to let each item speak. This usually means arranging pieces by vague color and occasion themes. As a rule, I like to keep all the fancy white pieces together, but all other pieces are fair game for being moved around the shop as inventory ebbs and flows. Each item is its own diva, and putting it in the right spot in the shop is pivotal. It’s a constantly evolving art that I am learning.
Do you work with other vintage clothing vendors? Are there trade shows or exchanges?
I’ve developed some deeply special relationships with consignors—some who are exacting vintage buyers in their own right! I do occasionally shop shows (of course, not in the last five months) but don’t sell at them.
How has the addition of homewares affected the store design? How and when did you decide to branch out?
I added homewares when we did a relaunch of the website in May 2018. I wanted to beef up the site with more treasures, and at the time, I was interested in the interiors world. I thought dipping a toe in with home would be a nice tester.
Where and how do you source your vintage items, and how has that changed? Do you choose by instinct?
This is the question I get most often. Our pieces truly come from all over—auctions, dealers, private collections, consignment and travel. Ideally, I like to buy in-person so I can try pieces on and get a better feel for how something looks and fits when it’s actually on a body. My rule when buying is that I truly have to be obsessed with a piece or it must fit a category of something that is really in demand. I really try not to take any risks… even though it’s all a gamble.
So, you do stock up on what you personally really like, but I’m curious about the trends you have noticed.
I do make note of trends, which are definitely present with vintage. Capes were huge in 2016/2017, while the ’80s and jumpsuits had a huge moment in 2018/2019. We’ve been big on pearls and feathers since 2017, and now I’m noticing an uptick in ’60s and minimalist ’90s. I keep my feelers out and cater to the moment. But, with vintage, I’m of the mindset that even if it’s considered trending, it’s a classic.
What is your favorite period of dressing, favorite muse of stage and screen, and is there a time and personality you identify with?
Such a hard question to answer because I find a piece of myself in every decade. I’ve always been a big Lucille Ball fan—that mix of glamour and comedy! Watching Gene Kelly dance has always inspired me and Singin’ in the Rain is my favorite movie. Lauren Bacall for her femme-masc vibe. Eartha Kitt. Of course, Cher in her iconic Bob Mackie moments. Dolly Parton. Christy Turlington. I’m definitely inspired by old school, laidback glamour, mixed with a big dose of the kind of sexy that is unabashedly present but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
How do you think starting your professional life as an event planner inspired your ability to design your space and customer relationships?
It was a huge help. Working as an event producer gave me an incredible foundation in getting things done and doing so with style, even if my budget didn’t allow for much. The experience also helped me to form my style of service and the mood we like to set for clients when they come to visit.
Why is it so important that the experience is a personal engagement? This is becoming rarer, but I think social interaction adds a warm layer to, I guess, what you’d call the exchange.
Absolutely! Having that feeling of warmth and connection to a retail space is super important to me. In a time where so much happens online, I want Happy Isles to be an experience, not a transaction. That show-shopping boutique vibe is on its way out, and I think that’s a shame! One of my favorite parts of the job is really getting to know our clients. It’s like a little family we have—and we’re always adding new members.
Clothes that have a story—and if that story is that you found the piece at Goodwill—makes getting dressed and being out in the world that much more fun. In pre-covid times, it was a thrill to wear a great piece out because someone would stop to compliment and inquire. And then the story becomes a conversation and a nice piece of connection. With decades-old fashion bringing that aesthetic back into the visual landscape, it’s almost an act of cultural service, honoring the past and bringing new life to something.
Someone who jumps to the conclusion that you’re all-glam all the time would be totally wrong. What does fashion and dressing mean to you?
For me, it’s always about how I’m feeling and meeting what the occasion calls for—which is a fun art form—curating yourself for yourself. If I need to be comfy one day because I’m feeling emotional, I’ll put on a T-shirt and loose pants, if I’m feeling energized and focused, I’ll wear a structured top and jeans. Special occasions, because they are so few and far between, must always be utilized to pop off with something really fun and unique. I never miss an opportunity to dress up if that’s the occasion. I love to be able to check in with myself every day and dress the way I feel. That, to me, is fashion.
Dressing as a means of self-expression is, of course, undeniable. In its best case, it provides soul reflection by allowing the wearer to connect with themselves and understand how they want to look and feel that day, and then take action by putting an outfit together that suits a particular state. This creative process is stimulating and allows for an outward reflection to the world, which creates energy and flow, and not just for the wearer.
From past interviews, I have the impression that there’s a whole other earthy side of you that leaves clothing, cell phones and networking in the rear view mirror when you head out of town.
Oh, yes. Clothes are cool, but being naked is way cooler. I’m a hippie at heart, and really could leave it all behind for natural waters and no WiFi. Maybe I will!
Do you think vintage dressing especially fits this moment in time, and why?
One thousand times, yes! It’s the only way to dress sustainably. Everything out there is already just a recycled version of what already exists and is available to you at the local vintage shop. Shop vintage! Shop local! Shop Black-owned!
Happy Isles is such a perfect name, but tell me how that came about.
The name was such a struggle. It took me forever and was kind of the most important thing to me. After many moons with no name—and actively seeking (literally, I couldn’t have regular conversations because all I was thinking about were the words coming out of people’s mouths and wondering if that should be the name of my business), I was having lunch with my dad, who urged me to look at a map for ideas. I revisited the map of Yosemite, the site of my very hippie Jewish summer camp, Camp Tawonga (the place I sort of discovered myself when I was 14) and stopped at a spot called Happy Isles. It immediately felt perfect. How hilarious and also perfect to name your business “Happy something.” Thank God I was able to trademark it!