From her yellow 1920s Dutch style bob to the vintage clothing she almost always wears, Annamarie von Firley’s sense of style is influenced by the past. An avid collector of vintage fashion, von Firley has made a business out of her love for period clothing. Today she’s the owner and designer of reVamp, a retro fashion house in Los Angeles that manufacturers and distributes garments inspired by those designed during 1910-1957.
Since co-founding reVamp in 1998, von Firley, 43, currently oversees a ready to wear line of clothing that includes 200 looks for both men and women. Inspired by photos, fashion plates and illustrations from thousands of catalogues and more than 1000 items from her own personal collection of vintage garments, she has developed an extensive knowledge of period clothing.
“I’m constantly acquiring items that I not only appreciate but also study as reference materials and sources of inspiration for future products,” she said.
Her clothes are sought out by costume designers for stage and screen and have been worn by the actors in numerous television shows such as Glee, CSI New York, Saturday Night Live and films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Several of her pieces for actress Kerry Washington were featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and she’s provided garments for the HBO drama True Blood.
“While I was working on the petty coats in the origin story for vampire Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), I sewed my finger into one of them and ended up bleeding on the True Blood costumes,” she said.
She’s definitely put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the company and carved out a niche in the very competitive entertainment industry; her garments are also featured in various theater productions and many exhibits in our National Parks as well as the Smithsonian.
One of her more recent lines, The Prohibition Collection, features designs from the 1920s, including what she calls the John Barrymore shirt and high-waisted and narrow-legged pants for men and the coat smock and dirndl skirts for women.
“We work to be as historically accurate as possible and pay attention to the details that existed in the fashions of the period,” she said. “To reflect the stylish silhouettes and details of bygone eras while making them accessible to a contemporary audience as well as accommodate for comfort and freedom of movement today,” said von Firley.
Her passion for vintage fashion began long before it became cool. While her peers at Jefferson City High School (JCHS) were shopping at the Capital Mall, only a few blocks from her parent’s home, von Firley often scoured through the racks at the Salvation Army.
“I remember finding these amazing ball gowns from the 50s that were in great condition and I wore them to school,” said von Firley. “At that time, although I wasn’t aware of it in a conscious way, I liked the fashions, music and literature from other time periods.”
Looking back now, she can see a method to her madness, but in the late 70s and early 80s, she was just considered different, perhaps a bit odd by some of her fellow students.
“Annamarie didn’t dress like everyone else and didn’t really follow any trend or pack but made her own way,” said Larinda McRaven, a professional ballroom dancer who first met her in 7th grade art class.
“She was probably into new wave or punk and she also never tanned and that was unheard of in the mid 80s,” she said. “Being beautiful, smart, artistic and self-assured is a pretty hefty package for anyone, let alone a young girl in a small Midwest town.”
Born in Pennsylvania, von Firley’s family moved to Jefferson City from Denver when she was 4 years old. Her father, Art, had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany after WWII, and dropped the “von” to disassociate himself from his heritage.
“My parents thought it would be a good place to raise a family,” von Firley said.
Her father created Casualty Indemnity Exchange, the family business. On Friday nights, her father and mother, Joan, were part of a dinner club and played cards.
“She would take her allowance money to Jo-Ann’s Fabrics to buy remnants and come home and make clothes using safety pins,” said her mother, Joan Firley. “I also remember her telling me ‘don’t buy anything that matches.’”
“She was into dance, creative writing and took piano lessons and I wasn’t sure what she would end up doing but I knew she would be successful,” she said.
As part of the insurance business, the family traveled to Hawaii and other places to meet with insurance agents and were exposed to different people and cultures.
“My dad hadn’t been to Germany since the war ended and after being diagnosed with cancer, he wanted to tie up loose ends and go back and visit his family,” she said. “So we also made regular trips to Europe.”
Carrie Tergin, owner of Carrie’s Hallmark on High Street and former Jefferson City council member, and von Firley are long time friends. Both attended West Elementary School, then Simonsen as a freshman before JCHS.
“They moved down the street from us and that’s how I met her,” said Tergin. “As we grew up she was so worldly and traveled to Europe and was into music that was popular over there and that we hadn’t heard here.”
Tergin remembers going to von Firley’s house and being around her older brother Doug, a member of the band Gravity Kills, whose music would later be featured on MTV and the soundtracks for the movies Escape from LA and Seven.
“Going to her house was really fun,” Tergin recalls. “Her mom was glamorous, dressed to the nines and Art was was like a second dad really, such a loving man and a philanthropist.”
After graduating in 1989, von Firley and Tergin’s lives went in different directions. Von Firley to Amherst, Mass., to attend Hampshire College.
“It was a very non-conformist school and there were no grades, fraternities or sororities and students created their own majors,” she said. “Everyone was self-directed and I was with a bunch of like-minded folks who were doing their own thing.”
Her father passed away in 1991 and von Firley received her BA in Wooden Toy Design and Construction in 1993 and then moved to San Francisco and received her BFA in Furniture Design from California College of the Arts there in 1996.
During this time, she also took up swing dancing, during a revival of the swing movement of the 1930s and 1940s. Always involved in dance from an early age, she performed regularly with several San Francisco-based dance companies, such as the Russian Collection, Khadra and the Decobelles, a historical dance troop recreating the looks of the 1920s to the 1940s.
She and a friend, Autumn Adamme. who had her own business making custom corsets, went to a swing dancing events on the USS Jeremiah O’Brien and to Club DeLuxe, one of the hot swing clubs in San Francisco.
“We would complain about how badly everyone was dressed,” she said. “The downside of wearing vintage clothing to dance is that it can be brittle and fall apart and doesn’t hold up very well.”
“We also talked about starting our company that would provide garments for swing dancers that looked great and allowed for the freedom of movement,” von Firley said.
Initially, she resisted. “I needed an income and knew how hard a start-up business could be,” she said.
For a while she had served as a product designer and COO at Grandiflorum Perfumes, but then between jobs, she agreed.
“She was going to take care of pattern and stitchers and I was supposed to handle marketing and running the business and doing the things that were in my wheel house,” she said.
Eventually after a year, she bought out her partner and had to learn how to do everything.
“We were being eaten alive by overhead, because there really isn’t an infrastructure for manufacturing in San Francisco,” she said. “I would attend textile shows in downtown Los Angeles to buy fabric and saw signs everywhere offering three month free leases.”
She signed one and moved her business to downtown Los Angeles in 2001, while she resided in the town of Glendale.
“I moved to Glendale in April of 2001, 80 years from when my father was born there,” she said.
A moment of synchronicity, and a good sign, the company’s first big break came on HBO’s Big Love, which she worked on for all five seasons.
She had provided garments for Carnivale during season two and the costume designer for that show ended up working on Big Love.
“I was watching the show thinking why am I not involved with it and then I got the call,” she said.
She made outfits for stars Chole Sevigny and Mary Kay Place, but also dresses for hundreds of extras for a scene on the compound.
“It was a huge order for 175 white dresses. That was the hardest work I’ve eve done and then when I watched the scene on the show it ended up being two seconds long,” she said.
That’s show business and she’s well-versed in the highs and lows of the Hollywood roller coaster. Her family keeps her grounded. She met her husband and fellow swing dancer, David Butler, a CPA and partner at a business management firm, at the Art Deco Ballroom during a swing camp on Catalina Island. They now have a 5-year-old son Stuart.
They were married in 2004 in the chapel of Konopiste Castle outside of Prague, with a champagne reception in the Rose Garden.
“Most of my father’s people live in Slovakia (the former Austria Hungarian Empire), but Prague is way more lovely than Bratislava. His sister, Elizabeth, was the prima ballerina of the National Theatre in Prague in the 30s and 40s. ” she said.
Tergin attended their glamorous wedding and the dinner reception on the grounds at Prague Castle, the official residence and office of the Czech Republic.
“If anyone was going to get married in a castle it would be Annamarie. She made her own ruby red wedding dress and she and David took the floor and are amazing dancers,” Tergin said.
Von Firley also has spent 15 years flying on the trapeze.
“I started flying trapeze because I had an acute fear of heights that I wanted to get over. I felt that I needed to hug the Monster,” she said. “I’m glad that I did because it turns out that I’m really good at it.”
In 2008 she was offered a contract to fly with a troupe with the Ringling Bros. Circus. She didn’t accept, but she did fly trapeze in the reality show The Girls Next Door, which aired on E! (2005-2008) and featured Playboy magazine founder Hugh Hefner and his girlfriends who live at the Playboy mansion, including Bridget Marquardt. Von Firley also made several outfits for Marquardt, one of Hefner’s girlfriends, who appeared on the show.
While developing and growing the operation, the company’s web site,
www.revampvintage.com now has a huge presence. Her line of clothing can be seen on the company’s website, which also serves as a resource for historic information and generates as many as 3 million hits a month. The company also offers a series of informational seminars and workshops on vintage hair and make-up.
Recent projects, include making costumes for a new production of “On the Town” in the newly renovated Lyric Theater, formerly Foxwoods Theater, which begins in October on Broadway in New York. She’s also making costumes for an upcoming exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. There’s also the possibility of working on the next Tarantino film.
“I love doing the television and movie work because I’m doing things to recreate a design in a time period I don’t always cover,” said von Firley. “But for the ready to wear line, there’s so much amazing vintage designs that are being destroyed or dissolving, lost in the sands of time.”
“There’s really a finite supply of vintage clothing and I love helping to keep alive these beautiful designs of the past,” she said.