Swamp Rags Vintage brings near nostalgia to one of the oldest neighborhoods in the U.S.
Located in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans, in a storefront dating back to the 1800s, the 1,500-square-foot shop pays homage to ’80s and ’90s denim, graphic tees, jackets and other pop-culture collectibles.
A pandemic-born business, Swamp Rags Vintage was created by co-founders Chris Olsen and Dante Graziani when their love of vintage became a solution to the disruption caused by shutdowns. As a tour manager for international bands, Graziani saw his industry grind to a halt overnight. Olsen, a partner at a creative agency whose New Orleans clients were primarily bars and restaurants, felt a similar shift.
Like many people, Olsen and Graziani turned to their passions to make ends meet. Graziani began sourcing and selling vintage T-shirts, and Olsen formed Vice & Graft, a vintage clothing and furniture business within the antique warehouse Merchant House co-op. After working together on and off for months—and running into one another at estate sales in the area—they decided to join forces.
“It was like a fresh slate,” Olsen said. “With everything closed, when things re-opened, we could do anything.”
While the business partners knew they wanted to their venture to be in “the Quarter,” (Graziani was born and raised; Olsen lives there with his family), the “aha” moment that led them to arrive on the idea for Swamp Rags came when they happened upon an estate sale early one morning with over 3,000 vintage T-shirts on offer. The former owners had put their shop stock in storage ahead of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating touchdown in 2005, and their store had been shuttered ever since.
“As soon as I started looking through the boxes, I knew we just had to have it,” Graziani said.
Olsen and Graziani offered to buy it all and the shirts became the foundation of the new Swamp Rags Vintage store.
The new business keys into two themes in fashion that show no signs of letting up: nostalgia and resale.
The pandemic was a time for many to find comfort in the pop-culture distractions that colored their youth. Nineties sitcoms like “Friends,” “The Nanny” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” enjoyed second winds on streaming services. Music videos rallied, avoiding a similar fate as CDs and cassettes, and became incubators for trends like bodysuits, rodeo fashion and watermelon-themed accessories. And there was plenty of time to revisit the films that shaped millennials’ mindsets.
The comforting allure of the era’s nostalgic treasures wasn’t lost on Olsen and Graziani.
“We wanted to curate a store of the things we grew up on,” Olsen said. Clothing and collictables from the movies, cartoons, video games and music of the ’80s and ’90s stock the store’s shelves. Their inventory also includes dozens of Nola-themed items like early Jazz Fest shirts, rare Saints clothing, historical pieces from Pontchartrain Beach, the 1984 World Expo and more. “We just filled the shop with the things we love,” he added.
Shoppers will find jean jackets with Chicago Bulls patches, a selection of men’s and women’s jeans and gems like a “Titanic” T-shirt probably originally sold at Spencer’s in 1997 and now going for $300. The T-shirt category, like denim, has its own group of diehard collectors, Olsen said, noting that a Disney “Aladdin” T-shirt from 1992 recently sold for $6,000 during a livestream auction.
But as the ideal companion piece to tees, denim makes up approximately 20 percent of the Swamp Rags assortment. While Levi’s Orange Tab is the “gold standard” for Olsen’s Vice & Graft clientele, it’s all about ’80s and ’90s novelty fits from Levi’s, Lee and Guess for his new venture. Think Mom jeans, jeans with cinched waists or elastic waistbands, cutoff shorts, and loose-fitting shorts à la Princess Diana in the ’90s. The store also recently nabbed a collection of deadstock Wrangler bell-bottom jeans and Olsen said he’s closely watching JNCO jeans as the next big revival in denim.
Then there’s the “crossover stuff” like Iceberg pieces with The Looney Tunes licensing, he added. “Those more decorated styles have been really popular,” he said.
Flush with gift shops and boutiques that play to New Orleans’ charms (though not as many as prior to the pandemic), Swamp Rags Vintage offers a fresh fashion experience in the French Quarter.
Other vintage shops pepper the edges of the Quarter and on Magazine Street. A little friendly competition is welcomed in the Big Easy, however.
“I know all four of our competitors. They’re all my best friends,” Olsen said. “If I can’t move something or something doesn’t quite work for me, I know that there are a few people to call who will want it and vice versa. That’s what’s really nice about a place like New Orleans.”
Olsen anticipates its eclectic and ever-changing assortment will draw locals and tourists alike as they begin to trickle back to the quarter’s historic streets. New Orleans enjoyed record tourism prior to the pandemic when it welcomed 19.75 million visitors in 2019—a mind-boggling figure for a city home to approximately 340,000 residents, according to last year’s census data.
“There are absolutely better places in the world to open a vintage clothing store. I probably would make a lot more money opening it in Austin or L.A. or New York,” Olsen said. “This place is basically our home, and for us it was more like, what’s the best place to live and have an awesome life and that’s what we’ve found here.”