Why I buy vintage (with Levi’s 501s)

Monday, May 18th 2020
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The word ‘thrift’ is not used that commonly in the UK as a verb, or an adjective. 

People talk about thrift as a virtue, and indeed a spendthrift (which of course means the opposite). But it is rare to hear of thrift shops, or seeking bargains being ‘to thrift’. 

That is unfortunate in one way, in that it can be helpful to distinguish thrift from vintage. 

Thrift presumes an element of cost. Although items might be bought for their character or uniqueness, there is an assumption that they will be cheaper than a newer alternative. It’s inherent in the idea of prudence. 

But vintage doesn’t. Many vintage things, whether clothes, watches or furniture, are extremely expensive. They are valued for their beauty or rarity, with little regard to price. Indeed, sometimes a high price can seem to be part of the attraction. 

‘Vintage’ is not always used in this way, of course, and usually purely signifies age (in terms of its original use, more than 20 years old). 

But the contrast between the two terms is helpful - I think - because it can be used to describe two different approaches to buying old clothing. So let’s stick with it for the moment. 

Last year I wrote a series of articles on vintage clothing: one telling a personal story, another looking at the evolution of the vintage industry, and a third another seeking the buying advice of experts

Some readers commented that it did not cover what they thought of as vintage, which was seeking cheaper (or better-value) clothing than they could buy new. They didn’t recognise this world of Brown’s Beach vests and rare militaria.  

With our helpful distinction, they were expecting something on thrift, not vintage. 

I admire those that thrift. It takes a huge amount of time and patience, and it’s something I will cover in more detail soon. It deserves its place in any discussion of quality and value. 

But I don’t thrift. I’m fortunate that my income means I don’t have to, and as a father of three, I am always time-poor. 

I buy old clothing for its beauty, and for its uniqueness.

I buy old Army fatigues for the amazing feel of the cotton sateen. I buy horsehide for wearing-in that would take me 20 years (or more) of daily beating. And I buy vintage jeans for their character and story - the little rips, patches and wear marks that make them the only one in existence.

Such as my vintage 501s, pictured. 

One of the tenets of Permanent Style is one should buy better clothing for the way it ages.

It’s something we’ve covered in the ‘How great things age’ series, and in the recent Instagram Live talks I’ve been doing with Blamo’s Jeremy Kirkland (usually every Friday, announcements on IG stories).

Well-made clothing rewards investment over time - not just because it lasts longer (though it does) but because it will look better for that whole time. Indeed, it will often look better and better and better, while something cheap will start out looking OK, be a bit tired after a year, and fall apart soon after.

Vintage clothing for me is an extension of the same idea - just with the ability to buy things that have worn well for other people, rather than just me.

Old clothing like this is usually more expensive than a new version.

Not always: some great vintage is not expensive, and can combine the best of vintage and thrift; but usually. The action of collection and curation, whereby 50 jeans have been sorted through in order to find this one beautiful pair, has a cost. 

I’m also aware I pay for the convenience of having a local shop, which collects from other shops and from dealers. But that also means it often comes with great information and advice (particularly at somewhere like Wooden Sleepers in Brooklyn, for example). 

Indeed, I've even occasionally bought vintage from RRL shops - which is extremely expensive, but also extraordinarily curated. Just two or three pieces (in the current London store) but all things I would wear.

The only thing I make sure I do as regards cost, is to be educated enough to know when I’m paying for rarity, or for fashion - neither of which I care about. It doesn’t matter to me whether there are 5 of this particular Levi’s 501 left in the world, or 500. 

As Max Sardi from The Real McCoy’s (above) commented in our experts piece, vintage pricing is particularly susceptible to such fashions, given the clothing has little intrinsic value.

Fortunately, the current vogue for 90s sportswear doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m sure I benefit from that. (In the same way my furniture buying benefits from the fact I prefer French antiques to Scandinavian mid-century.)

I’ve used my jeans to illustrate this piece because I think they’re a particularly nice example. They're also a style I managed to find that works well with soft tailoring. 

Aside from the normal fading and whiskering, there are several places where random nicks or wear marks give them individual character. The inside of the right ankle, for instance, where the largest hole has been carefully darned by hand.  

Or the fraying of the hip pocket, from thousands of repeated puttings-in and takings-on of the hands. (Interestingly, it’s one area Blackhorse Lane specifically changed in its manufacture recently, to avoid fraying, illustrating a rather different set of priorities.)

There is also a patch carefully sewn in under the crotch - using a piece of denim which is now as faded as the jeans themselves. 

Of course, modern jeans are usually aged artificially, to get a similar effect. (Requiring a huge amount of water usage.) But almost no one is going to sew in patches like this, or hand darning - it’s too expensive. And even if they did, they’d be pretty much the same patches on every pair. 

Such artificial distressing can also look too uniform. The fading on the leg seams, for instance (known as track tracks) will often be consistent all the way down, and look slightly odd as a result. Almost like lines painted on. 

It’s impressive that of all the types of vintage clothing, jeans can have this particular appeal, despite the size of the industry dedicated to recreating it. 

“Old Levi’s have such a unique ‘look’ or ‘atmosphere’,” said Max when we were discussing this piece. “Jeans show the character of the wearer almost more than anything else, which I’m sure is one thing that makes them so popular. I particularly like the fading on the upper thigh and the honeycomb whiskers [on the back of the knees].”

I won’t go into the details of different models of 501s, their expense or their rarity. This isn’t what drives me, as mentioned. 

But for those that want to know, these are the 1966 501XX, dating from around 1968-1970, which have a mid- to high-rise, narrow hips and a slight taper to the leg. The fit isn’t perfect on me, but it’s good enough, and the leg line in particular makes them look relatively neat, and contemporary. 

They were bought at Fake Alpha in Tokyo, and cost just under £300. Not cheap, but still towards the bottom end of prices for vintage 501s. Again, for tips on buying vintage see our experts interview piece here

The shoes are canvas Doeks from Trunk. The grey T-shirt is also from Trunk, their in-house York model (which I highly recommend) and the knitwear is the PS Indulgent Shawl Cardigan.

The other vintage pictured is my leather folio, and my vintage Filson bag.

For more on the topic of beauty in vintage - and how it can become almost a fetish, see the article on boro cloth here

Photography: Jamie Ferguson