Fashion Secret: Why Big Designers Haunt Vintage Shop 'The Way We Wore' Unlocks Past, New Ideas; Zac Posen's Request By STEPHANIE KANG LOS ANGELES -- Here in a jam-packed retail shop and neighboring warehouse, Doris Raymond presides over a trove of vintage fashions. Her grab-bag collection includes clothing from the Victorian era to the 1980s, as well as items such as bits of lace and a sleek silver hat in its original box from the 18th century. Antique pieces like these have helped Ms. Raymond become an unlikely resource for top designers looking to push fashion forward by plumbing its past. In planning his spring 2006 collection, New York fashion designer Zac Posen knew just where to turn -- Ms. Raymond's La Brea Avenue store, "The Way We Wore." To help him translate imagery into actual garments, he gave Ms. Raymond buzz words like "organic Deco" and "decorative futurism" to describe his brewing aesthetic. Armed with clues, Ms. Raymond then dug through her eclectic wares, pulling antique dresses, coats and other items she felt might match Mr. Posen's vision. One piece, in particular, stood out: an inch-wide piece of ribbon -- embroidered in gold, maroon and shades of yellow -- from the early 1920s. Toying with the pattern and colors, Mr. Posen created his own trim, which became the basis for a $2,400 knee-length halter dress he ultimately produced. The trim also inspired patterns for several knits in the same collection. "It was the beginning spark" of those pieces, says Mr. Posen, who also collects antique clothing and closely studies fashion history. Fashion, he says, is often "about having a conversation with the past." In the competitive global fashion industry, the consumer appetite for fresh styles is huge. And yet few ideas are all that new. For the past several seasons, for instance, retro fashions that hark back to the 1960s have been runway staples: A-line tent coats, lollipop-size buttons, Pucci-esque prints and pencil pants have made a fierce comeback, turning up in stores at every price point. "All things are resurrected in today's fashion world," says the 53-year-old Ms. Raymond, who wears bohemian styles like long, flowing skirts and chunky, colorful jewelry. To create marketable looks, designers use many reference points, often starting with their own company archives to see what garments might be recast or updated in the future. Industry houses often shop at vintage stores not just for inspiration, but to find pieces from past collections. For instance, Ms. Raymond recently shipped 17 vintage Halston dresses to the revived fashion house, which she says are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Ms. Raymond, who has worked for costume designers of films like "Legends of the Fall" and "Forrest Gump," began aggressively buying high-end vintage fashion more than a decade ago, after she opened her first retail store in San Francisco. While Ms. Raymond has long catered to vintage-clothing shoppers, her business today plays a much bigger role on the fashion stage. Her consulting business began when representatives of midprice European retailer Esprit began dropping by her burgeoning Bay Area warehouse for design ideas. In one case, they paid $150 for a damaged 1920s chiffon blouse because they loved the beautiful floral print, Ms. Raymond says. "If I'm buying damaged goods, it may be that the print has integrity, or the pocket detail or the hardware on a purse," Ms. Raymond says. "All of these things have value, because to create it from scratch costs a lot of money." As her high-end collection grew, she decided to relocate to one of the main hubs of vintage retail: Los Angeles, where she opened her current store in May 2004. Today, she sees up to 10 designers a week, hailing from hot fashion brands like Marc Jacobs to youthful mall retailer Forever 21. Taking notes before they arrive, she culls pieces from her collection based on specified silhouettes, technical details or fabrics. The designers then "shop" the items, deciding which pieces might influence their next collections. The service isn't free: Clients are expected to purchase the pieces, and aren't typically allowed to photograph the designs. This year, she says she expects to generate $2 million in sales, with about half driven by sales to designers. Keeping a well-rounded collection requires a lot of legwork -- and a good deal of luck. Ms. Raymond scours auction houses, flea markets and house sales both in the U.S. and in Europe. One particular big score was six Parisian couture dresses from designer Madeleine Vionnet -- a contemporary of Coco Chanel -- found in a beat-up Louis Vuitton trunk in an Idaho couple's barn. Last September, Ms. Raymond hit the mother lode, scoring a 5,000-piece designer collection spanning five decades, which she acquired from the estate of a California socialite. Many of the garments still bore their original price tags. The first floor of Ms. Raymond's museum-like store is organized by chronology. Garments from the Victorian era through the 1950s line one wall; another displays accessories and clothes from the 1960s through the 1980s. Upstairs, a leopard-print carpeted floor and white tufted-vinyl walls are the backdrop for some of Ms. Raymond's priciest pieces, including $850 Missoni gowns, and in the back, treasures such as the Vionnet dresses, which go for as much as $35,000 and are stored in acid-free boxes. On a recent afternoon, two designers from French fashion house Sonia Rykiel browsed the store. Head designer Gabrielle Greiss and assistant Rikke Ruhwald said they were busy mulling Ms. Rykiel's summer 2008 collection, and checked out the tiniest details, such as the hardware used on buttons and the stitching on a pocket. The two first perused the stack of fabric swatches and silk scarves Ms. Raymond had chosen. They moved onto a rack filled with sheer, brightly colored dresses and coats, and then went upstairs to try on their finds and discuss how they might fit into the collection. One jacket especially caught their eye. "We could definitely modernize this," says Ms. Greiss. Nearly three hours later, the pair had spent more than $2,000 on four items, including the form-fitting little jacket that Ms. Greiss says may inspire a piece in the upcoming collection. "I'll wear it out on the street and see if I get any reaction," she said. "Then you'll know."