Vintage pieces serve as tokens of idyllic times, their vibrancy crystallized within each thread. Vintage is elusive and enchanting: it travels, cycles through different owners and yet it always arrives precisely where it’s meant to be.
Some of the most timeless and unique pieces find themselves in the hands of Beverly Chowning of Savant Vintage and Couture. She’s built her business on harnessing the magic of vintage for over 12 years in a little cottage on 12th Avenue South.
Savant has been on the avenue since 2003, when the city corridor didn’t sparkle and shine with the gloss of gentrification. Her building stands in stark contrast to the sleek and angular architecture indicative of new Nashville. Savant’s shabby exterior seems just quaint enough to inspire folks from the sidewalks to see what’s inside.
Opening the glass storm door you enter a vintage Eden. Leather and fur jackets hang meticulously organized on a rack by color, their sleeves draping in rich fabric parallels. A rack of elegant furs stands beside it with coats of ivory mink, black seal and red fox; each garment possessing its own brand of timeless beauty.
This vintage store circumvents the stereotypes of vintage as being musty or gaudy; one would be hard pressed to find even a patch of polyester in her store. She refuses to work in kitsch. Instead, she strives to showcase the classic pieces that epitomize what she calls the “meat” of good vintage.
Chowning sits behind her counter on a gray leather barstool. She’s shrouded by a hanging jewelry rack which allows a slight view of her cascading platinum waves and thin black framed reading glasses. Amid the golden trinkets, tufts of fur and sparkling jewels, it feels as though she’s about to read you your fortune.
Viewing the breadth of Savant’s wares begs the question: how could one person amass such an extensive collection?
“It’s intuition. It just happens. I don’t feel anything physically, it’s almost as though I can hear a voice, but I don’t,” said Chowning. “I just walk out the door and it just finds me. It falls on me, practically.”
Collecting was a passion she’d fostered all her life, starting with small trinkets and evolving into fine clothing. Growing up in southwestern Missouri, her creativity was contained in an area that only approved of sterile occupations; you either became a doctor or a secretary.
Chowning came to Nashville through the music industry—in defiance of her small town roots—and assumed a role as a stage production manager for acts such as Vince Gill and Faith Hill. She attributes much of her work ethic to those tour days which would last until 4 a.m.
In a sense, Chowning’s role at the helm of Savant requires many of the same sensibilities of a tour production manager: attention to detail, a well-communicated vision and an ability to seamlessly unify the two to create a lasting impression.
Savant is like the grand production of her life.—the store abounds with clothing and furniture elegantly curated to communicate her vision: vintage, but differently.
A short trip up a steep and spiraling staircase that creaks with age brings you to the attic, where Chowning keeps her men’s clothing. Savant’s second level is more like a hidden fortress full of elegant vestments that would turn an old boy into a dignified gentleman.
Heavy leather jackets line the walls, one in a Nashville standard light caramel with long fringe on the sleeves juxtaposed by a sleek, fitted coat in deep carmine. Crisply molded wide-brim hats hang from the antlers of a taxidermy buck. Savant’s attic seems like a place where you could slump into a mid-century sofa, have some bourbon, neat, and listen to a great story.
The story of Savant is an almost unbelievable one marked by serendipity and chance; and it all began on a simple car ride taken on a whim.
“I was driving along and I said, ‘God, I need a career,’ and I looked up and there was a billboard right there that said, ‘Your career is calling,’” she says. She felt an urge to return home immediately.
“I just knew, I’m on to something,” she says.
She returned home to find a message on her answering machine from a woman who owned an antique mall on 12th Avenue South, asking her to stop by. Back in 2003, 12th Avenue South had garnered a reputation as dangerous and shady, a stark contrast to the vibrant city corridor it resembles today.
“Everyone was fleeing from the area…Nobody came in here or came on 12th South past five at night,” she says. Despite her doubts she stopped by the store anyway.
The woman had apparently been trying to call Chowning for months with an offer to fill a room in her emporium with just her clothes. She agreed to occupy the room—which she refers to as “a dustbowl”—and within six months she outsold the entire emporium. This “dustbowl” would eventually become Savant Vintage and Couture.
Chowning recounts a dream from the night before signing the papers to own the building. A ship sat waiting in the driveway.
“My ship had come in. I knew I was doing the right thing,” she says.
With Savant in place, she finally had a venue to collect fine clothing and goods as she had been doing for years, but this time she could share it with Nashville. The heart of Savant Vintage and Couture is Chowning’s overwhelming passion and encouragement for each person who tries something on in her store.
Chowning will often chirp at her customers from behind the counter with excitement. Her warm voice carries throughout the shop, surprising many of her customers enraptured by the store who had no idea she was even there.
“Let me see that on you!” she exclaims to a woman trying on one of her luxurious furs. The woman whips around to find Chowning sitting behind the jewelry counter and gives her a twirl, beaming.
Her praise invariably comes from an honest place, she doesn’t care for money necessarily, she simply relishes in the opportunity to help someone grow.
“It’s easy for me to help people and read what they’re doing. I know where they’re going and I usually take them one step further,” she said. Chowning’s pieces seem to fall into the hands of her customers, as if they were destined for them, she just gives the final push to cement their union.
Brett Warren, a local photographer experiences this first hand as a long-time customer and close friend. He happened upon his favorite garment at the shop: an olive green, wool Eisenhower jacket, a piece he says garners the most compliments of anything else he wears.
Warren goes to Savant for a special experience with vintage, but also for the warmth that Chowning emanates as his friend.
“She’s always encouraging me as an artist, and she does that for her customers as well. She encourages them to be unique with their clothes,” he says.
Businesses like Savant Vintage and Couture don’t last 12 years in an it-city without a certain it-factor, and Chowning has it. Her unfaltering kindness and spectacularly curated collection of vintage is what has sustained her business in a vibrant neighborhood that turns and burns businesses like clockwork.
The essence of vintage is a quality of timeless beauty, but also one of mystical connection to a past human experience. Chowning exhibits a capacity for harnessing this quality in a way no one else can, much like a savant. She magically pulls unique pieces from the ether and hangs them on a rack. In a sense, she is the savant of Savant Vintage and Couture.
Her gift is enchanting, mystifying yet clearly seeded in a true passion, and with it she wants to reach others. She extends a simple bit of wisdom from behind the twinkling jewelry rack: “Just pursue what you love to do. Don’t do it selfishly, but don’t be afraid.”