Her speciality: Finding the new that looks like the old
June 2, 2014
Debbie Sessions had a plan for her life when she moved from the Bay Area to Reno, and seven years later she's right on schedule.
In 2009, she launched Vintage Dancer, a Web site designed to help people looking for vintage-style clothing from the Victorian and Civil War eras through the 1960s.
The idea came from Sessions' own interest in what is called vintage dancing, historic-themed parties for dancing everything from the Cakewalk to disco, but her Web site is useful to anyone looking for readily-available costumes that resemble historic clothing.
She was spurred on after meeting her soon-to-be husband, Oscar, at a country dance event at the Grand Sierra Resort.
"I found out when we met that we were both interested in dressing the part, reliving history through clothing," says Sessions. "I knew nothing about men's clothing and had a hard time finding information and finding clothes we could afford. I figured if I'm having trouble, then other people are having trouble, too."
She started investigating different eras to determine what was commonly popular.
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"Fashion history focuses on top designers," says Sessions, who studied art history in college and knew how to conduct research. "I try to find what real people wore."
Then she searched big retailers to find clothing now on sale that most closely mimic the styles worn in a given era.
"New clothing lasts longer, fits better and there are more sizes available," says Sessions.
The site provides links to the clothes she finds and the stores that sell them, all categorized by time period.
Vintage Dancer is an affiliated marketing member at about 200 merchants and gets a percentage of each sale made via a link at her site, between 4 to 20 percent of the price tag, depending on the merchant.
"In the future, I'd like to work with smaller companies that don't have affiliate programs," she says. "We're trying to do custom software for that right now."
Sessions also posts a blog full of the results of her research — such as a post on the plain, clunky women's shoe styles of the 1950s — so the site serves as a resource for information, too.
"I get a lot of requests from high school students or from people dressing up for a wedding," says Sessions. "It's really fun to help people. I'm always happy to help and it doesn't take up too much of my time. It also gives me ideas for the blog."
She primarily relies on search engine optimization, or SEO, to market the site, ensuring that Vintage Dancer pops up early in various online searches for historic fashions and clothing.
Last year, the site generated about $250,000 in merchant sales and is on track, based on the first quarter, to double that in 2014. It gets 60,000 unique visitors a month and between 1 to 3 percent go on to make purchases.
After much work to get it launched, the site takes up less time to run, which was all part of Sessions' plan from the start.
"I grew up in the Bay Area and moved here in 2007 because it was too expensive to live there. Just to get a receptionist job, you have to have a Ph.D.," says Sessions. "I wanted to be able to work from home when I got married and had kids."
She ran the site in her spare time for a few years then quit her day job as an event coordinator when she had her first child.
Sessions is hoping her husband, who is a software engineer and does much of the coding on the site, eventually can quit his day job, too, and the pair can manage the business together.
"It's been the best fit," says Sessions. "I started all this before I had a husband or kids. And now I have a two-year-old daughter and another on the way."