In The Studio With Courtyard LA: A New Breed of Vintage
Welcome to the best of the west. This week, we paid a visit to Alia Meagan, mother of the vintage clothing collective and brand Courtyard LA, in their sunny HQ in the Fashion District of downtown Los Angeles. Courtyard started as a shop on Instagram for curated and rare vintage finds—that sell out within minutes of dropping—and has grown into a full-on brand. We met up with Meagan at an exciting time, right before their CY 2.0 launch as they transition from vintage resale to original pieces designed and produced by their team. This new line is still classic Courtyard, a dichotomy of feminine and tomboy, of modern and old-school. The collection ranges from blouses, trousers, and graphic tees, to the cutest French cut panty that flatters everybody. Just like their vintage drops, this release practically sold out within the first 24 hours.
Courtyard’s Instagram, along with being beautifully curated, is playful, authentic, and candid about the lives of the women who run it. Is it weird to say that an Instagram has a personality? Because this one does. Meagan educates us on what to wear, what to listen to, and what to watch, and we’re here for it: “I’d like to think of us as the cooler older sisters that showed you all the great music and movies when parents weren’t around.”
Tell us about your background in vintage?
Back in the mid-1990s when I was in middle school I used to go to vintage stores with my mother, she had really great taste and worked for Liz Claiborne in Miami. I fell in love with clothing because of her, the way she would talk about pieces bringing them to life after decades of not having a voice. We didn’t have a fluid supply of money, so thrifting and selling vintage came early on for me. I was selling vintage by the time I was sixteen and I turn thirty-five soon.
In my twenties, I had moved on from working in traditional vintage shops to privately selling vintage overseas for shops in Japan. You name it, I’ve seen it and probably sold it. By age 32, I realized I finally wanted my own world with my own voice and that’s when I started the Instagram. I always dreaded selling online because I hate sitting behind a screen for too long, but because it’s my baby I’ve geared it towards not being too monotonous. That’s part of the shooting, the character, and the personality that we have behind it. Bringing it life.
So how do you do that? Tell me about bringing Courtyard to life.
For anyone who hasn’t seen our world, I can best describe us as the misfit toys of fashion. The sometimes comical underdogs that have fought tooth and nail with zero funding, and a strong desire to create while bringing unexpected worlds together. I’d like to think of us as the cooler older sisters that showed you all the great music and movies when parents weren’t around. The ones that made other misfits feel not just accepted, but welcomed and at the same table as some well-respected heavy hitters in the design community.
For us, the main expression is to just be ourselves and that includes documenting all of the great fun parts as well as our imperfections, that full spectrum is crucial to me. As people spend more time on phones as a culture, we seek more connection. There shouldn’t be a wall, we are working to break that down. If that ultimately leads to building a customer base of people who believe in us and we’re providing jobs for women then what could we be doing wrong? As long as we’re talking about that learning process with honesty and being ourselves, there is no loss. Even if we fail it’s all worth it.
How did Courtyard begin? Who was on your team?
Oh boy, Courtyard started out of a storage space with a WiFi hotspot. It was just me initially and I hired models from the get-go, we didn’t have a ton of money but I knew it was important to create a system to get girls paid. We’d shoot a few things a week and it was just extra income while trying to get involved with social media. I had friends who were in that world and I always admired it, but for me, I’m a very, very private person. It’s still a challenge for me to be a presence to this day.
It started to grow and become a lot to handle alone, one of my models who I’ve known since she was thirteen hit me up and she needed a job. Her name is Lucy and she’s been here since day one, she is my ride or die and such a brilliant human. She started assisting with shipping from the storage space, it was not glamorous. We were writing out everybody’s addresses that we got via DMs to send out five packages a week and it all felt very stressful, which is hilarious to us now. We reached a point where we couldn’t keep up with DMs anymore, we brought more star people in and now we have a group of five. We’re all filling in to make it grow and to nurture the baby so to speak.
What is your process for buying vintage?
A lot of people think that we’re just massively overtaking the thrift stores—it’s not like that at all. We buy from massive vintage warehouses, I still have the last say on every piece that comes in. We are dropping a couple thousand dollars just on sourcing alone per week. The only problem with vintage is that it’s a limited resource, we don’t know how or what we’re going to get.
With our demand and growth, it gets hard to meet. We’re never going to leave vintage because honestly, I love it and it’ll always be a part of me. There’s something special about vintage pieces. Especially when you get into production you learn that there are some elements that we cannot reproduce anymore, the skills to make that same garment are gone. Extinct. We’ll never leave it, we just want to shift. That way we’re not dependent on a scarce product.
What challenges exist behind marketing vintage vs clothes that are newly made?
When you sell vintage you have to source each piece, wash each piece, photograph each piece. You have to list, repair and measure each piece. Frankly, when you start hitting 300-500 pieces a week it’s exhausting and not cost effective for growth. Courtyard is at maximum capacity. When you’re doing production there’s a lot of time in sourcing and development but once it’s done it’s ready to go. You photograph that piece, you list the piece, you sell several hundred. It’s a no-brainer and it helps us grow our family.
How do you curate such a put-together feed?
It’s funny because none of us are trained photographers at all and I’m flattered you think so. We have had to teach ourselves how to photograph but more importantly how to truly be in the present moment to create a photo from your heart. Currently, there are three of us that shoot for CY. Myself, Annie Lavie and Marco Miller.
Our main goal is to make people feel accepted, to be inclusive. Overall I want people to experience that warmth, acceptance, love and light, even if it’s through our Instagram. I hope that people can feel that through a screen, I don’t think it’s perfect and it definitely takes time to build. We’ve had our challenges along the way, but it’s been so great for the people who have started with us from the beginning to see where it’s going to go.
In the age of girlfriend marketing, following CY feels genuine, like you’re staying caught up with a friend instead of a producer-consumer relationship.
We’ve always been present since the beginning. I don’t look at people as just our followers, I see us as a community of women trying to do something, not just as my team, but as a group of women altogether. From a business standpoint, I don’t look at our sales first, I look at what we’re doing and what we’re putting out there. The side effect from that comes the numbers, your sales should be good if you’re genuinely that person that cares and is trying to do things differently than a company who is just doing it for face value. Consumers can smell a fake from a mile away and we’re having to make up for other brands who have long lied to their target market for the last two decades. There are trust issues we are working on.
Aside from clothes, Courtyard is always educating us on what’s cool. How do you create a community with content?
That’s another side of us that is so important. Growing up, I worked for these two gals that were into really rare, cool shit. Whether that was more on the classic side of fashion teaching me about more traditional designers like Ralph Lauren, or something more obscure like Ann Demeulemeester, I was learning all that alongside learning music and movies as well. It was this really cool mix of everything all being accepted into one world, it gave me a glimpse that you could teach and share with other people. No matter what music or style somebody is into you can bring it all together, and that was the main thing that I want to eventually do with this company.
In an ideal world—making clothing is one thing, but creating a sense of community is the ultimate goal. There are so many good movies and songs out there and you wouldn’t know because they’re not necessarily readily accessible. Especially for younger people, it’s important to share and teach them like, “Oh, hey, you guys really need to see this movie because it changed my life. It’ll change your life.”
I want to share experiences you can’t just stream online. It’s really important to not forget the ways other artists have tried connecting with us, whether that’s a movie, song, or piece of art. That’s what makes you human, to have that depth and connections to other people.
What obstacles have you faced as a social media based brand?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because of the lack of human connection when people are on a screen, they forget that there are humans on the other side. There are so many challenges that you don’t see unless you’re behind the scenes. For instance, and this has been an issue for us which I have no problem talking about, but as a small brand getting into plus-size pieces has been a huge challenge and a lot of people don’t realize why.
People don’t realize how fucked up the Instagram algorithm actually is. Hate the algorithm, hate it. In order to move forward in terms of representation, we have to take conscious consumerism one step further by actively clicking on and “liking” things that go against traditional beauty standards. When you’re working in the algorithm versus chronological placement it gets about a million times harder. Here’s how: The amount of likes a post gets in the first ten minutes determines whether or not that photo gets pushed to the top of other people’s feeds. From our experience, a post with a model over a size 6 receives about a third of the likes and about 30% of the sales compared to when we post smaller sizes. It’s not something that we’re happy about, it fucking sucks. The worst part is that people literally aren’t even seeing it, it just gets pushed down.
The history of fashion has been dominated by the stereotypical skinny model, what you’ve seen in magazines for the last 50 years. It puts insane pressure on small brands like us because it actually does sell. As a society, we’re trained to buy from that typical beauty standard. It’s so important to be consciously clicking where if you do see a plus size model or a person of color, make sure to double tap. Maybe you don’t like the jacket, but just double tap because it’s important to bring these things forward, that can literally push it into another person’s feed where it won’t get ignored and it helps to start changing our beauty standards. As a community on a platform like Instagram, we can actually make social change with those likes.
What’s happening right now for Courtyard?
A lot of people don’t know but we have a whole other business that we’re trying to launch. We’re known for vintage and a few little pieces that we put up, but we’re doing a full on brand within this next year. While we kick that off, we’ve also been holding down vintage and it’s challenging to do both. I never thought that I would want to be in production, but working in vintage you realize there are so many lost design elements that we’d like to bring forth for people to enjoy again. That’s the main drive behind it, plus it’s been fun working with new creatives to bring pieces back to life. Seeing people respond to it has been the most rewarding part, it’s cool. I just always thought we were so small, nobody would like our stuff but people do, it’s been great to have such a strong positive response.
Is this new brand inspired from the vintage pieces Courtyard collects now?
Definitely. Bringing back those forgotten loves is where it’s at but we also want to express our own ideas. All of our designs so far have had that mix of old and new. We might take one element of a design idea, for example, a fit that we know is timeless: a wrap silhouette. We love it, but we want to put a twist on it that’s of our own voice. We’ll build the foundation off a vintage idea or an actual vintage piece. Other times, we’re going based off of a current trend and an adding a different old-school element to it. There’s a marriage between the two.
Lastly, your HQ is located in LA—how does this city inspire you?
There’s so much about California that I’m inspired by. I lived in New York for 12 years and I saw it change a lot. I saw rent get too high for creatives, whereas here it’s doable. There are still challenges in LA, but ultimately there’s so much going on, whether it’s visually or culturally that’s so inspiring. The fashion history that stems from California, whether from the nineteen twenties, or the old school styles of zoot suits, into the forties, the fifties, the mid-century movement. It’s allowed us to have access to 60-year-old factories that are down home where you know the person sewing your pieces. It’s all very close-knit. Pun intended.
There’s the nitty-gritty side of downtown LA that I honestly appreciate because I saw New York turn way too clean, too normal and it just wasn’t really reflective of real life. Who’s inspired by a Verizon Wireless on every block? LA is this really interesting mix. As a brand, if we tried being somewhere like New York, we wouldn’t survive. I mean this office would cost way too much to sustain, we wouldn’t even be able to function, so it’s allowed us to even become a brand in the first place.
Images courtesy of Courtyard LA
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