Sarah Cellier scours Maine’s thrift and antique shops for rare haute couture to please a growing (and international) clientele.
By Lorry Fleming
Photographed by Cait Bourgault
[I]t’s a brittle, bright day on the midcoast, and Sarah Cellier is hunting — not for moose or deer, but for well-preserved vintage haute couture. Cellier enters Miles Memorial Hospital’s volunteer-run thrift shop in Damariscotta, where manager Joy Walker greets her with a hug. Cellier has been coming here for years in search of Bridget Bardot–era Chanel suits, Gucci snakeskin sandals, and other rare accoutrements that she sells to an international — and sometimes famous — clientele through Rice and Beans Vintage, the online store she runs from her home in the Georgetown woods.
Walker presents Cellier with an armful of items she’s set aside for her: a striking black lace wrap with no label; a gorgeous, milky-hued, sequined jacket; a stunning, midi-length fur vest; and a woven Western-style belt. Cellier’s eyes light up. The fur vest is a go — “I love this!” she says — as is the Western belt.
Browsing the costume jewelry, Cellier carefully examines the back of a bright-gold earring, looking for its mark. She moves about the store, and a slinky, full-body mink wrap catches her eye. “Ugh, I would never wear one of these,” she says, “but they are kind of cool. People buy them.” Onto her pile it goes, along with a ’70s-vintage fringed black leather poncho.
Stores like the Miles in Motion Thrift and Bargain Basement Shop are a crucial link in Cellier’s couture food-chain. Its three floors are bursting with home goods and clothing, but it takes an experienced eye to find a gem like a Chanel bag. The store is one of a few favorite haunts that Cellier is willing to divulge.
As a child growing up in the Casco Bay lobstering town of Harpswell, Sarah Cellier enjoyed playing dress-up with her little sister and getting lost in books. “I wasn’t sporty at all,” she says, laughing and shaking her head of brown curls. While on a family trip to New York City, she convinced her parents to take her to Screaming Mimi’s, Cyndi Lauper’s favorite vintage boutique. There, the fifth grader bought her first piece — a red 1950s crinoline, just like the one Lauper wore. By the time she was in high school, Cellier was hooked on vintage style. “In my last two years of boarding school, we would have dress-up dinners every Sunday, and I would pull out all the stops: ’70s dresses with platform shoes.”
In 2002, as a graduate student in San Diego studying Chinese medicine, Cellier launched her retail business as an eBay store, giving it the nickname her husband, Luke, had bestowed upon her — Rice and Beans, a nod to her paternal grandmother’s Cuban roots. It was, she says, “a hodgepodge of all things vintage,” found mostly at San Diego thrift stores.
But in 2004, after a couple of fairly successful years, Cellier, back in Maine and raising a child with special needs, was concerned that eBay was becoming saturated with vintage merchandise — not all of it authentic — and she felt its sterile, cookie-cutter environment was tamping down her passion. “When Jacob was born, I knew I wanted to stay home, have a creative outlet, and feel good about what I was doing,” she says, “and eBay wasn’t making me feel that way.”
Around that time, she picked up a vintage Gucci handbag at an estate sale, and an eager buyer snapped it up almost as soon as she posted it on eBay. “People started emailing me, asking me to find them Gucci bags,” Cellier recalls. “I started really focusing on designer vintage in 2006, when I saw there was a demand for authentic, affordable luxury designer vintage, and I launched my own site.”
These days, many a vintage fashion die-hard knows Rice and Beans as a trusted retailer of quality vintage fashion, particularly rare Chanel goods. Its customers span the globe, from Maine to the United Arab Emirates to Australia — not to mention Hollywood. Rice and Beans Vintage provided ’70s-era clothing to the Golden Globe–winning and Oscar-nominated movie American Hustle, when scenes were being filmed in Boston. “I have a few celebrities that I work with, and a number of celebrity stylists too,” Cellier says. “I get a lot of requests from Miley Cyrus’ stylist, but it’s always too last-minute. Once she asked for ‘something like a Chanel piece that you could wear to a rave.’”
As anyone who has enjoyed (or suffered) a romance with couture of the past knows, finding a Chanel fringed boucle skirt or a Hermes Kachina and Christopher Columbus scarf jacket in good condition takes time and energy. One imagines Cellier’s waking hours devoted to thrift stores and estate sales from Cape Elizabeth to Caribou, but she confesses, “I don’t go too far. In fact, I am so fortunate now to have collectors from around the world sending me pieces to sell for them. I do still enjoy the hunt, which is half the fun, so I go out about once a week, searching for stock. I definitely have my secret spots. It’s amazing how much is out there, especially in Maine. I am always blown away by what I find, or what people pull out of their closets for me.”
Online retailing has advantages beyond its international reach. A brick-and-mortar outlet would cut into Cellier’s bottom line — and her ability to stay on top of Jacob’s day-to-day needs.
Charles Harris, the owner of Indian Trail Antiques in Newcastle, is ready for Cellier when she makes the next stop on her vintage couture safari. He’s turned on the heat (this time of year, Harris’ cavernous barn-turned-shop is open only by appointment), and he has some items he thinks might interest her. Cellier sifts through and scores a couple of stunning Victorian-era ostrich-feather fans, two early-20th-century shawls in pristine condition, and a bright-pink-and-green wool jacket by quirky New York designer Gemma Kahng, who dressed Madonna in the 1980s. Just another bountiful day on the hunting grounds.