The vintage community turns fashion into a festival, and corporations aren't invited

The vintage community turns fashion into a festival, and corporations aren't invited

CultureJuly 08, 2019 By Brian Frederick

It’s a warm spring night on the crowded city streets of Colorado. About a half-dozen bodies are quickly moving back and forth across a club’s patio, unloading boxes of clothes and accessories they’ve spent years accumulating. Cheap beers clink in the corner. A faint Goodwill-type stink floats over the outdoor area: not exactly grandma’s house, not exactly minty fresh. On the rail, hundreds of used t-shirts and coats hang loose, everything’s for sale.

Flea market time. But tonight isn’t like any Antiques Roadshow type stuff on local late night television. It’s a small part of an expanding worldwide trend: the pick and flip. Young hustling entrepreneurs are finding treasure in another person’s trash.

David Bywater is one of the vendors at the 715 Club located in the Five Points Neighborhood in Denver. He’s tall, soft-spoken, with a thinner build completely drenched by a white beat-up shirt that’s at least 20 years old. He’s well known around this quickly changing area because of a now-defunct brick and mortar shop he used to own called Station (it still sells plenty online, however). He also runs ThriftCon, a local convention for collectors and vendors just like him. The shop’s empty shell sits directly across the street from where tonight’s action is.

Some of what Bywater sold there was high-end fashion, but most of it was ‘80s and ‘90s vintage. Over the past several years those two worlds have collided. Resale stuff, found, bought cheap and then flipped for a premium.

“It’s fun,” he says of why he continues to do it even after sky-high rent pushed his team out. “Everyone wants to have a fun job.” And just like that, he ducks away to sell a few shirts to an awaiting customer. One’s a Grateful Dead tie-dye in “well-loved” condition. Another is a faded Harley Davidson. Two others also made the cut. Cost: $100.

[A group of "pickers" hunt for the latest grails at a past DFW Vintage Swap Meet in Dallas, Texas // photo by @shotbyluna]

Thumb through Instagram and it’s easy to find hundreds just like the people at this local flea — enterprising men and women with a love of the find and connections to come up on the hottest and most unique vintage gear. Grails they call them, and anyone with a few extra hours and a social media account can play too.

The scene is even starting to attract the eyes of the big leagues. Last month, Tommy Hilfiger dropped an “archives collection” bringing back 7 classic red, white and blue styles from the 1990s. Igloo is in the game too. It ran a special edition “ThrowBack” line to market coolers in warmer months — the bright pink and turquoise that was everything in 1992 sit awkwardly between teens in marketing shots who wouldn’t even be born until a decade after the run’s initial release. The two corporations are among dozens looking backward for fashion inspirations.

Hell, even Netflix is in on it. A new 11-part series called Slobby’s World dives deep into the culture and has put the community, and its unofficial vintage expert, into the mainstream.

“I started with anything to do with style, sneakers, clothes, jewelry, kinda gangster shit,” explains Robert Hall. Now known the world-over as “Slobby Robby,” he jumps on a call with us while traveling to Las Vegas to check in on his newly opened store just blocks from the strip. He’s spent his whole life collecting vintage goods and specializes in reselling high-end used luxury fashion and pretty much anything he and his team can get their hands on from the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

“A lot of my collecting is based on stuff I couldn’t afford when I was a kid,” he explains. “Especially when it comes to sneakers, I didn’t have all those Bo Jacksons and Jordans. I didn’t have $100 for shoes.” 

Then, the Internet happened. “About the time everyone started getting high-speed Internet in their house, I started discovering eBay and NikeTalk — communities that were talking about the same thing as me,” he says. But it wasn’t until he set up an art installation called Generation Cool (he has a Masters in art education with a concentration in gallery curation) that mouthy fans gave him inspiration. “Drunk people would just shout out, ‘How much?’ and I’d yell back some insane price like ’80 bucks!,’” he laughs. “And they bought it!”

From there the idea to open up a permanent shop in Tucson, Arizona (also called Generation Cool), fell into place quite organically.

Consider for a moment this: an unopened 1985 copy of the classic “Super Mario Brothers” game recently made headlines for selling big. Someone dropped over $100k on it — an anomaly for sure, but other come-ups like it aren’t. A vintage Bugle Boy tank found for $2 can be flipped for $20. Old band or rap tees can fetch hundreds of dollars no matter the condition. Rare jackets, in the thousands. Higher end gear, like what Slobby sometimes hawks to celebrities, the sky’s the limit.

Prices and hype are fueled by the online economy. Jake Quere is a 27-year-old seller who lives in Denver. Although he’d like to turn the hustle into a storefront eventually, the CU grad says he does just fine selling via eBay and Instagram for now. He’s turned it into a full time gig, and is still shocked at how fast merchandise gets turned around even though he’s been hunting for over a decade.

“Anytime you find an old rap tee, I sell those within maybe 15 minutes of me posting them,” he says. “A lot of denim sells really well, pretty quickly. It just depends on the piece and how you price it.” 

This has been Quere’s main source of income for three years. And for him, there’s a noticeable change in the people he sees out at thrift stores and flea markets, he says, but the extra competition doesn’t matter. In fact, more eyes out there tend to boost available inventory even more.

The interest has grown so large that multiple events across state lines can be held weekly without getting saturated, and most are adding in a larger number of vendors and seeing bigger crowds come through the door than ever before. Jason Won, founder of the DFW Vintage Swap Meet in Dallas, says he has had to bump up venue capacity for his regular events. He even brings in live DJs and special celebrity guests for them — Slobby Robby will be there in August — to give the swaps more of a festival-like vibe than a garage sale one.

“The beauty of the swap meet is we can bring people of all ages because they remember things from that era,” Won says. “It brings them into a time-lapse in their brain and they want to buy everything. They either have to have it or someone that they know has to have it!”

“We had 50 vendors at ThriftCon last time,” says Bywater. “It’s almost getting to the point where we have to be more selective and screen sellers because there’s just so much stuff to go through and it’ll be impossible for anyone to go through it all.” He and his team are working on another ThriftCon right now, hoping to get it scheduled before college classes are back in session after the summer.

It isn’t such a stretch to see why the scene is trending. Fashion is often cited as the second-most polluting industry behind oil production and consumption. The available numbers on whether that’s entirely true are vague (likely for obvious public relations reasons), but what we do know is that it takes over 108 million tons of non-renewable resources to produce clothing each year and will account for 25 percent of the global carbon budget by 2050, at least according to thredUP, a fashion resale website.

Fast fashion, one of the main culprits, is a stain on consumerism.

However, if every person replaced a potential new item with a used one in a year, it would save 5.7 billion pounds of carbon emissions, 11 billion kilowatts of energy, 25 billion gallons of water and 449 million pounds of waste. Buying one used item reduces its carbon footprint by 82 percent. It’s insane not to.

Data suggests too that the resale trend may soon help reverse the damage as people shift to more eco-friendly alternatives — favored by over 70 percent of younger consumers. The market for used clothing has grown 21 times faster than the retail apparel market over the past three years, thredUP’s report also says, and is expected to grow to a $51 billion space in 2023 — compared to $12 billion in 2013. Women, men, it doesn’t matter. And 18-31 year olds, not just frugal senior citizens, are leading the trend’s rise by a long shot.

Everyone we spoke with in the vintage community had their own take on the stats. Quere loves that he can have a revolving wardrobe, wearing a piece he likes once or twice and then reselling it to further minimize his footprint. Won feels like it’s his obligation as a human to just do good things for the world so it’s a no-brainer to shop thrift. Bywater and his ThriftCon team donated almost 1,000 pounds of perfectly usable clothing to the Denver Rescue Mission at the last event. Slobby says he continues to make a concerted effort to be more savvy with his purchases, making sure they’re mostly legitimate vintage items and not new items from large corporations simply riding the trend. 

Read the headlines and it’s sometimes hard to figure out what we’re doing wrong as consumers. Buy too much and the oceans and forests suffer. Don’t buy enough and it’s everyone else’s fault the economy crashes. Change the way goods and services end up on our doorstep in a little brown box and the entire retail food chain loses its mind.

Maybe that’s the point: keeping corporations honest and accountable. It only happens via the bottom line. Kill profits and most will change, how convenient. But if you’re also able to still rock a one-of-a-kind piece that stirs up fond memories of the past while doing it, all the better.

[all photos shot by Salvador Luna (@shotbyluna) courtesy DFW Vintage Swap Meet]