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Q&A: Denim Dealer Eric Schrader on the Future of Vintage

In the denim industry, there are a select few who have earned the right to be called a denim expert. Eric Schrader is one of them.

Known in the industry for identifying rare denim, Schrader traverses the world collecting and selling vintage jeans. His eye and passion for unearthing denim gems was even documented in the 2014 documentary, “Blue Gold: American Jeans.”

Schrader turned his hobby into a full-fledged business in 1995 by using $30,000 a customer paid him for three pairs of jeans (Levi’s one pocket buckle backs) to purchase Junkyard Jeans, a Boise, Idaho–based vintage denim store he still owns today. He took his business global in 1997 by launching the Blackship Vintage Clothing Auction in Japan, a live auction where he once sold a pair of Levi’s for $22,000.

“When you get paid for better items, you learn quickly what is the best and where you can find it,” Schrader said.

Today, in addition to his work as a denim dealer, Schrader is also a guest lecturer and on the denim advisory board for the first denim major at Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.

Here, Schrader shares with Rivet his predictions for the future of vintage denim, why a fair price is always the right price and reveals the one denim item that has evaded him for the last 15 years.

Rivet: Tell us a little about your background in vintage apparel.

Eric Schrader: I have bought and sold about $20 million worth of clothing, shoes, accessories, furniture and Americana over the last 27 years. When it’s your own money you’re spending, you will be an even quicker student to learn the right stuff. Last month alone I bought over $200,000 in vintage denim jackets. Over the years, it has become my passion, and I’ve found that it’s something I have an eye for. I often find myself watching movies more than once because the first time I’m looking at and analyzing the pieces of clothing and seeing if they are correct for that time period.

Eric Schrader
Eric Schrader

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Rivet: What attracted you to denim?

ES: At first, because it was worth more money, but then somewhere along the way I fell in love with it.

Rivet: How did you become a denim expert? And how did that take you to recognition in the business of vintage denim?

ES: Once I realized that “the denim experts” were asking me more questions than I was asking them. When you have a real passion for something, it becomes your life.

I really have done little or no marketing. I just think the way I have gone about doing business has paid off. I’m honest and pay a fair price for great pieces. Those things have gotten me so many more great pieces through the years than anything. If you hosed someone on a piece and they find out later it was worth a lot more, they will remember that even more than getting paid well.

Rivet: What are the qualities you look for in vintage denim?

ES: Details that tell the story of the person’s daily life that wore that item.

Rivet: What is your best-selling, most in demand denim item?

ES: Small USA Levi’s 501s.

Rivet: What brands are most popular in vintage denim?

ES: The [Levi’s] 501XX STF. To me, everyone has chased this for the last 15 years.

Rivet: Is there denim you’ve been searching for for years and haven’t been able to find?

ES: Yes, Levi’s Deadstock 606 with flashers still attached.

Rivet: Why did you start Blackship Vintage Clothing Auction?

ES: I could sell more vintage there than just once a month at the Rose Bowl Flea Market [in California]. I had a lot of customers in Japan. It ended in 2014 after two years of not really making a profit. We have discussed starting it up again by the end of this year.

Rivet: If you had to forecast your vintage denim business’ future, what would that look like?

ES: I really only see this getting stronger domestically as people become more educated to vintage clothing and design.

Rivet: What do you think of the current state of the denim industry?

ES: I don’t know that I can speak for the denim industry, but anything with Lycra or spandex is not denim to me.