"Many stores call themselves vintage stores, but they're basically second-hand stores," says Tali Kushnir, 27, who recently closed Hamahteret (The Underground ), the veteran vintage clothing store she operated for the past six years in Tel Aviv. "The customers don't always know the difference and the salespeople don't always point it out."

Hamahteret, situated on a nameless alley near King George Street, was a place of pilgrimage for fans of vintage items, who found a large collection on sale there. It included quite a few Israeli brands from past eras, but mostly a large selection of items from Maskit, the well-known Israeli company that was in business from the 1950s until some 20 years ago. Due to financial problems and renovations in the area, which made it hard for potential customers to get there, Kushnir closed Hamahteret. Now she has moved on to new premises in the Tel Aviv Port.

"Awareness of what the term vintage means is still very low," she reiterates, "and only a few people are willing to spend money on things that look like second-hand clothes to them. But actually, vintage is any item made between 1920 and 1980 - whether it's a piano, a car, a book or clothing. An antique object is considered to be anything that is over 100 years-old. These are definitions that change constantly. Items from the 1990s are already starting to be referred to as vintage, such as iconic designs by Calvin Klein and other notable designers from that period."

Kushnir first became interested in vintage clothes and other items as a child, but says she really discovered antique and traditional garb at the Israel Museum's ethnography department, where she taught as part of her national service (sherut leumi ). Thereafter, she studied costume design at Rakefet Levy's School of Design for the Performing Arts for a year and a half, worked as a dresser and costume designer on student films, and in 2006 became a partner in Hamahteret, which had been open since 1991.

"It was a store that was ahead of its time," she says of her first years there. "There were vintage clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac. At the time we also sold collections of new clothes with a retro look, and small collections by 17 young designers. I think that in a certain respect, the city wasn't ready for it. It was a megalomaniacal project that was ahead of its time.

"That was a time when no one referred to these stores as vintage, but as second-hand, and most of the stock in these local stores consisted of used items from recent years - second-hand in the simplest sense. At Hamahteret, on the other hand, we specialized in clothes from the 1970s, pedal-pushers and synthetic blouses, which we occasionally recreated. When I moved to a smaller space and became the sole owner, I decided to focus exclusively on vintage."

The seriousness with which Kushnir takes these definitions is not merely semantic, and indeed she was careful to adhere to other criteria: "I tried to maintain a level of quality, avoid items that were torn or had holes, and I also tried to choose things I like, even though I knew there were other things that sell better - like old Adidas sweatshirts, for example. I tried to bring to Hamahteret clothing whose manufacturing process included forgotten crafts, such as [seen in] hand-sewn hems or linings, or men's jackets made of different fabric layers in the collar, sleeve and lapel. Or clothes with unique details, such as buttons from shells or unusual plastics like Lucite."

At a certain point, Kushnir started traveling and buying items commercially in the United States and England, and gained a more professional understanding of the field.

"In international standards, you need to be careful about the dating of vintage items, to distinguish between vintage and retro, and attempt to bring in old and antique items. In Israel, which is a young country, they don't know these rules, but in the United States and Europe, this is an extensive and established culture.

"Over the last few years," she adds, however, "there's been increased awareness of vintage in Israel. The client pool has grown; more people whom I hadn't seen in the past would come in - a more mainstream crowd that in recent years discovered vintage. Many people who once hated used clothes started buying these clothes. In general, I think that Israelis have eclectic taste, [so one has to offer a] little bit of everything: classic and simple items along with lots of playful and really colorful items - an illogical combination that is also magical."

In addition to her standing in the local vintage scene, Kushnir is also among the biggest collectors of local fashion designs.

"I got my first piece from Maskit when I was 12," she relates, "a brooch made in the Yemenite filigree style. Afterward, my grandmother gave me an oval jewelry box with Yemenite embroidery on the top, a classic Maskit design.

"Even then, I felt that this brand refined Israeli taste in fascinating way - I felt it in the combination of East and West, the fine fabrics and the use of a variety of handicrafts. I was very interesting in studying this field, and because there is no formal museum or archive of fashion in Israel, I realized that if I didn't do this, no one else would.

"As a young adult, when I studied costume design, I learned about Ruth Dayan [founder of Maskit] as part of an individual project we were assigned, in which we were asked to choose an inspiring Israeli figure. Since then, my interest in Maskit increased, and when I opened the [first] store I started collecting clothes and other items by the brand. I used to go to yard sales, kibbutzim and little by little expanded the collection. Over the past few years, women started coming to the store, bringing me things they had been holding on to and knew that no one else would appreciate. So my collection grew. When I realized I have a large and unique collection, I went back to the Israel Museum and met with Kochavit Shiryon, the head of the textile conservation laboratory there and at the Israel Antiquities Authority, who taught me how to clean and preserve these clothes. That is how I learned that they can't be hung on wooden hangers because they are made of natural materials that may oxidize and turn the clothes a yellowish color, and that embroidered clothes cannot be folded."

Currently, Kushnir's collection has over 400 items from Maskit, including a desert coat with a special seam along the back the likes of which even Ruth Dayan doesn't have, she says, alongside hundreds of other locally made items such as clothes by Gottex, Ata, the famous "keffiyeh dress" of Roszie Ben Yosef, dresses by Lula Bar and others.

Nuns' handiwork

When Hamahteret, Kushnir was offered a small space in Bayit Banamal, the comme il faut complex in the Tel Aviv Port, which organizes a variety of cultural events along with the Spaceship Gallery, where she sells vintage items that she's collected.

"There I can focus exclusively on collecting and buying, without managing and selling," she says. "It's a space where they encourage discourse on fashion from all kinds of angles and I'm happy to be part of it."

Kushnir displays some 200 items there; these are rotated from time to time and include a variety of sizes and styles. On sale are both daytime clothes and evening wear made from 1900-1980.

Kushnir: "The oldest item there is a bunch of old handmade cotton slips from the 1920s that I miraculously found in a pile destined for shredding. There are also a few 1920s slips that I bought from a merchant in New York who specialized in vintage undergarments. She told me that in the United States, 100 years ago, there were nuns who in their spare time used to embroider lace on undergarments such as garters, slips and underwear, and sell them to supplement their income. I immediately bought two, mostly because I liked this bizarre dissonance between nuns and undergarments."

Other items such as 1950s' dresses, Gottex beach dresses from the early 1970s, art-deco bags, robes from Emilio Pucci's first collection in 1961 and more can also be found in Bayit Banamal.

"I hope that the new space prompts people to appreciate handiwork and ancient arts that are practically gone from the fashion world," Kushnir sums up. "This is an opportunity for me to present things I really love, and for people to encounter unique fashion that is hard to find in other places."