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Vintage collector mixes past couture with present-day styles for elegant fashion statement

To Preston Smythe Beck, rummaging through shoeboxes at garage sales and flea markets is more a calling than a hobby. Like an archaeologist, she's digging for signs of life from a distant past, objects that tell stories about ghosts.

The elegant flapper who pulled a black cloche hat over her chic bob and hit the town. A young, earnest man who gave a locket to his sweetheart with his tiny picture inside; a hint of a smile, his fedora pushed back from his forehead.

"Wouldn't you love to know where that's been and with whom?" she says, modeling an elaborately beaded bag from the 1920s against her hip. Its hues are unexpected, almost psychedelic: navel orange, lavender, aqua, sea-foam green.

"Beaded bags are a tough sell because they're usually very, very, very dressy. But this one is so much fun. That's exactly why I went to it," she says. "It's because the color combination is so out of the box. It's whimsical. I would wear this with white jeans and a T-shirt. It says bohemian -- not red-carpet glam."

Beck is a collector -- of shells, rocks, bird nests, "whatever," she says. She also has a keen eye for the one worthy bauble beneath all the junk -- like the bone bracelet she unearthed, polished off and took to a local jeweler, asking him to add 11 delicate, 14-karat gold balls to the piece.

The revamped accessory now looks as though it belongs on the twiggy arm of a model stamping down the catwalk at fashion week.

"I spend a shameful number of hours digging through shoeboxes to find that diamond. But I find it. And I get great delight in it."

Beck has a knack for breathing new life into classic couture, finding contemporary applications for vintage styles, fabrics and silhouettes. Her company, Past Meets Present, is aptly named.

"A lot of the clothing, I'll have remade -- I will design it -- so it's very wearable," she says.

She pulls a darling black cocktail dress, its bodice covered with a fiesta of multicolored beads and winking sequins, from a rolling rack set up between her expansive kitchen and wood-beamed living room.

"This was a down-to-the-floor ball gown with these bouffant sleeves," she says. Beck instructed her tailor to banish the poufy sleeves, lop off the capacious fabric and fashion the hem into a bubble skirt. And with that, the unwieldy mother-of-the-bride formal becomes one hot little number.

She's been hunting down and reinventing classic couture for some 20 years, at first for herself -- "I just started buying pieces that I liked," she says -- then for friends and private clients.

Select pieces from her expansive, high-end collection can be found at Adina & Company in Woodmere, but only recently did she decide it was time to showcase her stash.

"It took me a few years to get up the courage!" she says. "And if it weren't for all my girlfriends supporting me and being honest with me, whether they're doing food for the show or helping me dress the girls or being a model, I wouldn't even know where to start. Honest to God. I certainly wouldn't have the guts to get it out there alone."

The models are all pals of Beck's, including her zumba teacher. The youngest is 26. The oldest? Let's just say north of 50.

"Each one of them has a distinct personality with their own look. And they're real comfortable in their own skin. Everybody loves what they're wearing; anything that they didn't feel like they would wear, they're not wearing."

That way, Beck says, people can see that real women can pull off fashions their mothers or grandmothers wore by mixing them with modern pieces, smart updates and a little sass. A halter top from the 1950s -- like the red one Beck happens to be sporting -- can be paired with a white, scoop-neck T-shirt and boyfriend jeans, elevating a run-of-the-mill look with a burst of color and texture.

"These are what our moms wore in the sun with the little shorts, you know? Or with tap pants."

It doesn't hurt that at 54, Beck can wear just about anything and has a gamine quality that recalls Audrey Hepburn. Still, she won't bare her midriff -- she's leaving that to the twenty-something model in the show.


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