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Meet Dem, The Vintage Boutique Bringing Island Vibes to Chinatown

On a Friday evening, sounds of reggae and calypso music spill out onto the street as a steel drum player delivers an acoustic sidewalk set.

On a Friday evening, just before sunset, sounds of reggae and calypso music spill out onto the street as a steel drum player delivers an acoustic sidewalk set. But far from the balmy shores of Trinidad, or even the industrial backlots of Crown Heights, this resort-ready performance is taking place at the southern end of Chinatown courtesy of Dem, the summer-long pop-up shop specializing in punchy vintage pieces and island-friendly ephemera. Opened by Michelene Auguste, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, in late May, Dem is bringing a touch of Caribbean flavor to Lower Manhattan.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

In the weeks that Dem has been open, Auguste has found that most patrons wander in attracted by the store’s playlist or the boisterous flower wall that graces the entrance. “I think a lot of people are just interested in something different,” says Auguste. “So I just want to bring as many vibes as I can.”

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

Their curiosity is rewarded by the playful mix of vintage and lifestyle items that Auguste stocks. The narrow boutique’s exposed brick walls are plastered with Polaroids of Trinidadian locals, styled and photographed in jewel-toned vintage dresses. Hand-painted canvas totes hang like pieces of art, and creamy conch shells overflow with neon earrings. On the rack, hot pink slip dresses, Roberto Cavalli zebra tank tops, and snakeskin Gucci mules are ready to be snapped up. “At first I was just buying things that I thought were cute, but I have such an extreme taste,” says Auguste laughing. “So now I kind of look at the trends a little bit and mix in the pieces that are really unique.”

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

Auguste discovered her love of scouring for vintage as an up-and-coming model making her way in the fashion industry. Secondhand designer buys were her way of keeping up with her peers at go-sees. “My agency said, ‘Oh, you need to have a Chanel bag.’ So I started collecting vintage in London and Paris mostly because I needed to have expensive things.” Auguste’s love of throwback finds quickly morphed from a personal passion to a full-fledged side hustle. “I just got really excited about finding these treasures that have so much history,” says Auguste. “At the time I was just like, oh it’s a nice hobby, but I also needed to make money.” Once she settled in New York, she decided to sell her wares online before deciding to translate this to a physical space earlier this year.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

Diving headfirst into the vintage business has led Auguste to go against the conventional Caribbean attitude to shopping, where the notion of buying secondhand clothes is traditionally frowned upon. “Honestly, I did not learn about vintage until I came to Europe,” Auguste confesses. “Growing up, I got secondhand clothes from my cousins, but the last thing you’re thinking about is going to the store to buy somebody else’s old clothes.”

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

Auguste has also taken a creative approach to breathing new life into vintage garms: collaborating with her boyfriend, artist Jordan Sullivan, on hand-painted denim jackets, workwear trousers, and silk dresses inspired by Auguste’s life back in Diego Martin, a suburb of Trinidad. Dipping her toes into apparel design was not a stretch for Auguste. As a youth growing up in Trinidad, she learned an appreciation for crafting and DIY design from her grandmother Molly Ahye, a creative in her own right, who founded the Oyakairi dance company in Port of Spain, Trinidad. “[My grandmother] was a maker of everything,” says Auguste. “She would make all our clothes, teach us to tie-dye and paint. She really inspired me.”

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

Rounding out the store’s vintage offering is a curated selection of household goods such as floral tea sets, a selection of books by Caribbean literati like Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul, as well as impressionistic prints from the Trinidadian artist Che Lovelace. By packing the pop-up shop with all of the tings that fit her fancy, Auguste has created a portal into the Caribbean right in the heart of Downtown NYC. Those hoping for a summer mini-break in the middle of the city, look no further.

PHOTOGRAPHED BY GRACE ANN LEADBEATER

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