Vintage and deadstock are not just for denim diehards anymore. Millennial and Gen Z consumers are turning to vintage denim to satisfy their wants for nostalgic, sustainable, one-of-a-kind fashion with a story—and the experience that comes with hunting for blue gold.
“As long as it’s vintage, it’s selling,” said Natalie Como, owner of the New York City vintage boutique, Empyrean Vintage. The store stocks vintage denim by obscure brands like Brittania and Bloomingdale’s old private label brand, Studio 54. Como says the demand for vintage denim has been constant during the last three years.
The draw of vintage denim could be part of a much larger shift in consumer behavior—a new sharing economy forged by new generations that has made company names like Zipcar, Airbnb and Uber part of the everyday vernacular. Whereas in the past owning a home and a car were signifiers of success and adulthood, consumers are turning to more affordable sharing alternatives. Likewise, the stigma with shopping for used and pre-owned fashion has faded. A 2017 report by Thred Up, an online resale store, estimates the resale industry will grow from $18 billion in 2017 to $33 billion in 2021. Meanwhile, resale clothing, footwear and accessories account for 49 percent of the market.
While there are economic benefits for shopping vintage, consumers are also coming to the realization that the perfect pair of broken-in jeans cannot always be found on the racks of Saks Fifth Avenue or even at a denim emporium like American Rag. Instead, coveted items are tucked away in vintage boutiques ready to be discovered. In fact, the same Thred Up report said high income shoppers that earn $125,000 or more a year are 35 percent more likely to try secondhand than low income shoppers.
This might explain why customers flock to San Francisco-based Brent Edward Vintage for vintage luxury fashion. The boutique’s Versace and Moschino vintage denim are in demand. Brent Amerman, a self-proclaimed vintage connoisseur and dealer, said customers are also reaching for luxury denim by YSL from the ’70s and ’90s.
It doesn’t hurt that fashion darlings like Calvin Klein Creative Director Raf Simons and Gucci Creative Director Alessandro Michele are adding a fresh coat of gloss to vintage shapes and washes in their recent collections. Or, that mainstream fashionistas are adopting denim. Earlier this year, Vogue editors published “foolproof” tips for buying vintage denim, while V Magazine drenched beauty Bella Hadid in Bulgari jewelry and Guess denim in an editorial that went viral this summer.
Instagram has undoubtedly had a hand in the rising popularity of vintage and customized denim. From wanderlust images of travelers in vintage cut-offs, to gratuitous selfies of Kylie Jenner’s and Kim Kardashian’s denim-clad rear-ends, the photo-sharing platform has introduced an entire new generation—which wore skinny jeans as toddlers—to anti-fit denim from the ’80s and ’90s.
Another factor? Access to vintage denim has never been easier, suggested Haley Pelton, co-owner of Wayward Collection, a Philadelphia-based vintage store. “There are a ton of people selling curated vintage denim, so consumers have more access and familiarity with it and have come to see it as an exciting, collectible and sometimes thrifty alternative to contemporary pairs,” she said.
The retailer noted that social media has created a feeding frenzy for vintage, especially for Levi’s. “Every fashion girl is wearing a pair with their Rosie Assoulin top or Balenciaga, so it has come to symbolize luxury in a lot of ways: being able to find a pair of vintage jeans that fit perfectly enough to pair with high-end designer,” Pelton explained.
Bill Curtin, owner of Jersey City-based BPD Washhouse and the New York City-based trade show BPD Expo, understands the link between denim and social media. This year Curtin opened BPD Vintage, a denim pop-up shop in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, offering a curated selection of vintage jeans, tops and jackets as well as shibori kits, vintage books, art, pins and patches. “The vintage stuff we customized at the washhouse always sold the same day and made it on people’s social media feeds regardless of brand,” he said.
Curtin added that Manhattan shoppers sought pieces that were “just a little pretentious” and were a step above Goodwill or the Salvation Army. “The young New York City consumer is special. They are savvy, they want something trendy but not at designer prices.”
Fast fashion retailers have supplied consumers with a flood of affordable vintage-inspired styles to emulate the look. “The brand designers knock off vintage all of the time,” Curtin said. Both Zara and H&M have churned out denim collections made with rigid fabric, open-end optics, wider cuts and unisex pieces. Likewise, denim stalwarts Gap, Guess and Tommy Hilfiger advantageously launched product lines featuring iconic styles from their ’90s collection, reminding the fashion world that they are still relevant.
At the crux of it all is Levi’s, which has showed its support for brands that rework vintage denim, including Re/Done, Off-White and most famously, Vetements. The vintage market continues to feel lingering effects from Vetement’s Fall 2015 collection, which introduced $1,450 jeans made from two vintage pairs, sewn together. Ironically, the collection was born out of a roadblock that all new independent labels encounter: high minimums. The brand chose to rework existing vintage pieces to create new jeans because its quantities were too low for factories.
Part of what made Vetement’s line so successful was its authentic look and washes. Despite new fabrications and wash techniques that capture vintage looks, the final goods are not making their way into stores the way consumers would like to see it. “We can’t get the same washes now,” Como said.
Pelton from Wayward Collection, which stocks gems like ’70s-era Lee Jeans with clear PVC pockets, agreed. “It’s hard to recreate the color, hand-feel and fit of pre-worn denim, so in some ways contemporary pieces don’t even compare,” she said.
The slowdown of skinny jeans and the rise in vintage may confirm that consumers are on the hunt for fashion that doesn’t exist in stores.Maresa Ponitch, owner of Dusty Rose Vintage, a Brooklyn vintage clothing store, pointed out that women are wearing higher cut jeans, like ’90s mom jeans and that reversely, relaxed ’70s jeans are also gaining traction.
Women’s denim from the ’70s is in demand, with paper-thin high waisted bells by Double R and 517 cropped flare Levi’s Orange Tabs among the most popular styles at Wayward.
“As far as ’70s jeans go, it seems that the Jane Birkin effect has remained very strong for a few years, meaning women still want that high waisted, effortless look that continues to elude modern denim design. It’s hard to fake years of wear,” Pelton said. “And frankly, I think people who are very serious about their denim, but who aren’t slim hipped 21-year-olds come to realize, after trying on a lot of jeans, that the Levi’s 501 isn’t the ‘end all be all.’”
High waisted mom jeans are on the up and up at Bargain District, a Brooklyn-based vintage store owned by Monique Sinha, offering up everything from denim to pint-size purses. Dark wash workwear-inspired overalls by Lee are also resonating with her customers.
Wrangler, Lee and Calvin Klein continue to be in be the most in-demand vintage brands, according to Ponitch. “Personally, I think it’s because [the brands] are very trendy. People who don’t know much about denim, but want to do the trend right are going to gravitate toward what they see. Levi’s from the ’80s and earlier definitely fade in a unique way that a lot of people love, but there are tons of other great brands for the more adventurous spirits,” she said. Some of Ponitch’s personal favorites are C’est Ne Pas, Landlubber, Jag and Jordache.
Como’s clientele favors jeans by hard-to-find brands like Brittania—which she resells for around $175—and Studio 54. The now elusive brand was sold in Bloomingdale’s in the 1970s and featured the iconic nightclub’s branding of ‘54’ stitched onto both back pockets.
Like with all retail, vintage has its hurdles to overcome. No matter how old or unique an item may be, fit is still a crucial factor in purchasing decisions. “The number one thing I hear from women is that they just want something that fits,” said Elizabeth Parks Kibbey, owner of Collection, a vintage showroom in downtown Los Angeles. While most vintage denim shoppers seek a worn-in look and feel, Parks Kibbey’s clientele wants clean washes and no rips. Meanwhile, a smaller number of her clients invest in pairs based on their age and fabrication details like whether it is selvedge or single stitch.
A good vintage find is something that a shopper connects with and feels confident in, said Fox Garza, co-owner of the Los Angeles denim repair and customization shop, Foxhole LA. Garza explained that the key to a good vintage find is keeping the longevity of the old piece and making it new. The shop breathes new life into vintage denim transforming it into custom pillows, motorcycle blankets, ponchos, purses, rugs and more. Foxhole also repairs damaged denim and offers a wide variety of customization to make a piece truly original, including tailoring the garment for a better fit.
With vintage, consumers are getting the untold story and the idea of what could-have-been in the pre-worn jeans. New York City-based denim repair and customization shop Denim Therapy sees denim owners bringing in personal pairs, or those passed down through generations, for both resizing and customization.
“We get a lot of older clients,” said Jessica Azoulai, Denim Therapy CEO and owner. Azoulai said her team, which includes Head Seamstress Marcia Cordero who previously spent 30 years working for Levi’s, fields requests from clients to take-in vintage pieces at the waist and legs.
Other jeans are precious and have sentimental attachments. “[A client] sent us a letter along with the jeans saying that she was wearing the jeans when she met her husband, and she was still wearing the jeans when she brought her husband to the hospital and came back home alone,” Azoulai said.
In a world of fast fashion and instant trends, denim proves to be an outlier. Consumers have a desire to grow old with their denim, showing that a good pair of jeans—whether passed down through generations or bought in a vintage store—can in fact withstand the test of time.