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

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Anonymous

Interesting article,
If I were to be a cynic one might say that buying vintage & these stories is just a shallow & shortcut way to buying someone else’s stories and experience. That beautiful patina on a horsehide jacket belongs to the person that wore & beat in the leather, by buying vintage we are just purchasing it from them to display for social status in Mayfair (or a trendy bar in Peckham)

Kali

We do buy houses from others to live in and try to make them our own – is there a difference apart from cost?

Max

Where do you buy your French antiques from Simon out of interest?

Max

Alfies?

Darryl

I often buy vintage or ‘thrift’ and mix with more current offerings. However I wouldn’t buy second hand jeans, although I can understand most of your reasoning, as to why you do. What gets to me is the issue of some sort of personal identity, which Max Sardi says, is projected by the wear patterns on the material. Buying second hand surely negates this. The personality of the jeans is then the ‘wear pattern’ of an unknown individual?

CHIEF

To be honest, I don’t think I could ever spend nigh on £300 for a used pair of jeans from the 1960s. Just thinking about how that £300 could go to 2-4 new Rota/Incotex/Pescarolo trousers instead. They’d probably fit better and would last just as long. Importantly for me, the aging on a new pair of trousers is mine, not someone else’s.

With something like furniture or watches for example, I can see the appeal in expensive vintage, even discounting the rarity premium. I just think for clothing I would never really buy vintage and pay more than what a new item would cost. This is especially true as there is tons of good vintage where the prices are much lower than new items.

Paul Boileau

I am sure the fact you spent £300 on a pair of vintage/ secondhand jeans will generate some interesting discussion! If I had a popcorn emoji it would go here>
My only comment is that I only buy vintage if it is something that a) is no longer available; b) is of better quality or c) is good value and something that will be rarely used. Patina/ wear/ rarity do not play into these decisions…

Tim Cooper

Hello,

With the “sustainability ” trend becoming bigger and bigger, vintage or thrift, is going to become a bigger part of our wardrobes.

We buy someone else’s house when they are done with it, because we admire the great bones or architecture. Why not wear a second hand pair of jeans because we admire the craftsmanship and patina?

Triskel

Smell. That’s the big problem. Clothes that can be washed might lose the smell. But anything with structure won’t. If you have it cleaned you get that awful chemical smell, which fades eventually, but the mustiness returns; likewise with any clothes you hang outside on the line even for months – you think the small has gone bit then it sneaks back and catches you (in the throat) most unpleasantly. There is no way that you can avoid smelling like a charity shop if you wear pre-owned (other than washable). Quite a high price to pay for distinctiveness!

ANM

Like Simon, I have not had that issue with clothing…but furniture….It is impossible not to get the mustiness out of furniture, it seem the smell (makes me think of my grandparents – for better or worse), permeates the wood, and there is really no equivalent to “dry cleaning”

A.J.

I’ve been buying thrift for years and wash everything in liquid Era in a Maytag Circa 1989. All my Denim comes out very clean and odor free. Today’s machines suck, I had experience with the so called new tech efficiency machines that sapposedly use less energy and water. To get my clothes clean I had to run them through a whole extra cycle. Later the machine had spin out issues and the loads would come out still dripping after a spin. So I would have to double and triple spin. There was NO efficiency here. My vintage machine works wonders. I have over 200 pair of quality used 100% Cotton jeans, some I had shortened or lengthened, patched or mended, nothing as old as the 1960’s though, but heavy grade cotton Denim made before Levi’s started to get really cheap. Now Levi’s are crap.

Roger Seegobin

Simon, given the times we are in now, when we emerge from the pandemic and all the jobs don’t return, thrift might be all the rage, and all the folks with high priced clothing, may well be heading to the vintage shops to cash in ( here in Canada we call them consignment shops ). We sure live in interesting times.
Roger.

Ricky Takhar

Simon,

How does the trunk t-shirt compare to sunspel’s Riviera? I have a few sunspel’s but would like something shorter in the arms.

Did you keep the same size?

Chris

Funnily enough, t shirts, of all things are the bane of my life. I have never found that perfect tee, with perfect fit , a perfect white, that wears in and lasts more than a dozen washes. Every season I buy one I think is perfect and bit by bit become disenchanted. The simplest of items yet in some ways one of the most complex. I would pay good money to have a tailor also be able to make good tees, the length and fit of my body with the neckline to wear under a soft Italian jacket.

Chris

This looks quite interesting! I will order one and report back Simon.

Fernando

I have 15 or more shirts and 3 custom sweatshirts from son of a tailor and the product is great and very well priced. However they are terribly inconsistent in the measurements of the shirts… Nonetheless they always respond well and if you are patient enough the results are good

EZEQUIEL

chris, have you tried ASKET?

Michele

I may be alone, but I’m interested in more coverage of antique furniture and home decor. Lockdown has me refurnishing my apartment, but so far I’m buying all mid-century. I’ve definitely felt that I’m losing value to fashion.

Chris Cherry

I must confess a fondness for both vintage and thrift. Would you be able to offer some recommendations for London stores?

Tim

I’m not immune to a bit of second hand either. I have far too many Ralph Lauren shirts. I know the size and cut that fits and must have bought dozens off ebay. BTW, better to buy them in America (tiny fraction of the price, ten times the choice) and get them shipped via a shipping company.

Did you know that Status Quo never bought any new jeans, they would just approach people in the street, check the size and offer them money!

Oh, and I think your Lot 1 jeans are much, much nicer.

Peter Zottolo

At least in the States, there’s a difference between “thrifting” and “vintage shopping”, more or less in line with how it’s described here. Thrifting requires much more time but is arguably more rewarding when a scoring an incredible find. However since the whole process is time-consuming it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, which is why specialty vintage shops exist. The prices are higher because of the effort involved in curating, cleaning, etc but if you’re short on time, it’s the best way to go.

The argument of whether or not marks and wear are authenticity “yours” may be important to gatekeepers, but it shouldn’t dissuade one from getting into vintage. To my mind the beauty of an individual aging garment is what moves a purchase. Viewing it cynically is one way to look at it, but it sadly ignores the fact that people usually buy these items for their uniqueness and beauty. It’s not for everyone, which is fine, but the aesthetic of a time-worn building or weather-beaten furniture not too far from vintage clothes.

Florian

Very well-written article and I really enjoyed reading it. Though I wanted to ask if Vintage (being this clothing or accessor ) does necessarily mean that it has been worn (or used )?
Thanks a lot.
Also going Vintage (or thrifting) i believe we are making a great good deal to the Planet.

Bjorn

I’m not sure whether Scandinavian mid-century furniture is a “fashion” in the same way as 90s sportswear. In fact, it’s been valued in Scandinavia ever since that period.

Dr Peter

I agree. “Thrifting” is my principal means of acquiring clothes and shoes. I would never buy an off-the-rack suit given the current vogue for tight-fitting trousers and bum-freezer jackets, LOL. And most shoes seem to be made cheaply in China. I once had a pair of Chinese-made Clarks come apart in a few weeks!

I have a collection of vintage shoes ( as well as items of clothing ) picked up over the years. Vintage Florsheims, especially, are to be prized. Cordovan leather ages beautifully and calf leather also acquires a patina with aging that is difficult to obtain with the artificial darkening of toes and such done by certain cordweiners and shoe firms. Cordovan leather folds rather than creases, and some if it acquires a very slight olive tint that goes very nicely with the brown. Similarly I have calf leather shoes that have acquired a mottled darkened pattern here and there that is part of the aging process. Most of my items, shoes and clothes, were acquired at what we call thrift shops and consignment shops here in the US.

RTK

I regularly shop in thrift stores. I find that most clothes made prior to the mid 1970’s were of superior quality with good fabrics and a lot of hand stitching. Sport coats or “odd jackets” are particularly good from this era. A good dry cleaning and airing eliminates almost all bad odors. Remember to check for moth damage before purchasing the garment. However after dry cleaning you may find previously unseen moth damage.

Keith Taylor

“I admire those that thrift. It takes a huge amount of time and patience”

I’m not so sure. I’ve lost count of the number of hours I’ve spent browsing eBay to build up my wardrobe, virtually all of which is vintage (or used, in any case), but I can’t say it took as much patience for me to seek out my entire wardrobe as it does for you to wait for a single commission. The thought of waiting months and going through multiple fittings for a jacket holds zero appeal for me. I just don’t have the patience, even if I did have the money. The thought of browsing eBay for an hour or two, finding a nice Hartwood or Caruso jacket for $50, waiting a couple of weeks for delivery and spending a day or two making minor adjustments, on the other hand, is like miserly old fart Christmas for me 🙂

Karl

If you love the jeans, will wear them regularly, and keep them for a good few years, then £300 is a bargain

H

Insightful article as usual. I would be interested to read about your views on luxury consignment websites such as TheRealReal. I have been buying a few vintage Kiton blazers/ suits over the past year from them and have been impressed on how well maintained they were (sometimes even hardly worn). It just takes my excellent tailor for any adjustments and some pressing. The purchases were only partly driven by thrift, but more the fact that e.g. some materials such as a particular cashmere or 14 Micron wool pattern were beautiful and probably difficult to obtain otherwise unless newly ordered as made-to-measure/bespoke.

Some other readers commented here on sustainability and thrift versus vintage. My view is that the luxury vintage/ thrift market will continue to significantly expand for men, especially for clothing categories that have aged very well/ hardly worn or eg where the price gap between retail and second-hand relatively new/ vintage becomes so unreasonable. Just look at women’s handbags and the like…what are your thoughts? Thanks

Noel

Hi Simon,

I can certainly see where you’re coming from. However when it comes to buying used items (I guess not strictly vintage) I’ve always felt a sort of irrational fear that the item would have been mistreated (and will therefore fall apart soon) or that the information given is incorrect. Sort of like the archetypical process of buying a used car from a dodgy salesman. Add to that the slight discomfort of wearing an item in which somebody else has sweated, eaten, stained, etc.
When I’ve bought pre-owned items it has usually been directly from people I know.

As I read what I’ve written, it does sound somewhat absurd but the feeling is there and makes it harder to appreciate a vintage garment.

Duncan McPhie

I’d like to see you branch out into running more lifestyle features, Simon. You have great taste in clothes, both vintage and contemporary, and now we learn about your taste in antiques. Spread your wings!

Ben

What percentage of PS readership is so discerning about their denim that they are not only able to identify hand-darned holes or a slightly more natural fade pattern but also willing to pay a huge premium for it? At what point does taste become fetishism?

EZEQUIEL

hi simon! would you expand a little regarding how did you find this specific pair? why this one? did you compare different pairs when choosing this one? did someone call you and tell you they found something you might like? did you have a certain image on your mind of the perfect faded jeans? did it has to be levis? were you knowleadgble of the different models? etc.

EZEQUIEL

oh thank you. yes! i find jeans to be one of those items that if you are chasing the perfect pair you will know it when you see it. and of course that pair is in permanent danger of being replaced by a new perfect pair soon!

HS Wilberg

“Thrift” issues from the same root as “thrive”, so maybe there is some potential to it beyond the drive the economize.
The best thing about vintage is that it allows for a free use of the past, as opposed to the attitude of the collector, who takes an object out of circulation in order to preserve it in a weird protest against both fashion and the notion of a commodity. The story is the superficial (and market-friendly) side of vintage, it can be something more: it’s not a stretch to say that wearing and repurposing clothes from other people and eras is a way of sharing the world.

Kingstonian

I was reminded of the old song :-

‘The second hand trousers I bought in Belcoo’.

Darryl

Simon, the number of comments from readers who do seek out vintage/thrift items is really surprising when viewed against the average income of readers which you published several months back. You either have a lot of very wealthy readers who are happy to buy second hand or lots of poorer readers who chose not to respond to your survey? Either way it’s good to see people being creative with their choices.

ANM

“…. You either have a lot of very wealthy readers who are happy to buy second hand…”

Everyone loves a bargain, regardless of money.

I remember travelling with one of the founders of the company I was working for. We were at the Pan Pacific Hotel in San Francisco, and having a leisurely breakfast, as our first meeting wasn’t till late morning.

I remember asking him, why he moaned about $12 coffees, etc., since he had “all the money in the world”…(we were on expense accounts, anyway) he replied “just because I am rich, doesn’t mean I like overpaying for something..it still has to be of fair value..”

Sebastian

I once bought a pair of jeans at a small store in Gothenburg, the shop had a rack of reused jeans next to the new ones; one of the reused ones caught my eye and fit me nicely, even the length was right. The brand was Nudie jeans, it didn’t tell me much back then but I loved the fit and the concept. It seems they have expanded and I continue liking their Scandinavian ethos and products. It was the first time I bought something re used, it wouldn’t fit the concept of vintage or thrift (the price was more or less the same as for new jeans) but the idea appealed to me back then and it still does,

Anonymous

Interesting. It seems I definitely associate “vintage” with “thrift”.
One question though: you speak a lot of thos vintage Levi´s here (as well as vintage jeans in general on your blog). Despite caring for them, all of my jeans end up with the same issue:
a hole in the crotch, preventing my jeans to ever become “vintage” (or even really age, since a pair of levis won´t last me more than 2 years).
How do you avoid that?

Mark

Nice! Takes me back to the 80’s, rummaging through the huge pile of vintage 501’s in the basement of American Classics on Endell St. Always had to make sure they were selvedge.

ANM

Simon,

Good piece. Just curious, where are (vintage) 501’s made, when sourced in the UK?

A few years back, in a boxI found a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths’ I wore on the squash courts during undergrad. Put them on Ebay, and realized many times more than I originally paid (albeit with inflation)…Turns out the buyer was a fellow in New Jersey, who then re – sells them in Japan, for many times what he paid me!

ANM

Simon,

Thanks for the reply, and question.

Simply, if one purchases a pair of 501’s in the U.K. (new, or otherwise), where are they manufactured?

The USA? Europe? Asia? Central America?

Just curious, as I don’t believe Levi’s actually makes jeans in the USA any more….

ANM

Simon,

Timely column and with today’s’ economic earthquake, becoming both a necessity (saving money), as well as an opportunity (I have already seen an uptick in the sale of high – end items – like watches – being sold just months after being purchased new.)

The next few months are likely to see the market flooded with items deemed surplus to many peoples’ (new normal) needs.

Rune

I prefer to buy raw jeans like Japanese Full Count. They have a variety ogf models that are probably close to a copy of old Levis models. Some of their models age faster than others. Some age in a year or two others take a few years more for the patina to arrive. This way I get the pleasure of my jeans for a long time and the patina becomes «personal». Full Counts jeans are also made from ecological cotton, which I appreciate.

george blumfield

I’ve quit buying Levis 501’s a long time ago; MUCH to expensive; am now buying Wranglers; I’ll make them vintage myself!

Brad Waggoner

Hello Simon, fantastic article as usual. I’m wearing a pair of vintage 501s STFs right now. But does it count if you ‘vintage’ them yourself? As in, I bought them new for probably $35-40 at J C Penny a couple of decades ago. Also, may I ask what boots you are wearing in the photo with the Filson bag? Love the bag as well, I have their briefcase. And grew up with their hunting vests; sadly the original is no longer available (except in a vintage shop somewhere?) Regards, Brad

Brad Waggoner

Thank you Simon. I thought as much. Must be the Brown, aged nicely even darker. All the best, Brad

Simon

Hi Simon
Do you know anywhere in London which has a similar offering to Le Vif in Paris – I love the look of some of their vintage college sweatshirts but don’t really (can’t at the moment) want to go to Paris just for that!
Thanks

Simon

Thanks Simon

Daniel Hawes

I enjoyed this article and know what you mean about purchasing vintage leather Jackets. In the early 00s I worked for a shop in Covent Garden specialising in Horsehide jackets we would frequently get people asking how long they would take to break in and as most guys buying these jackets were proffesional only wearing them on weekends the honest answer was sometimes a few years. A new stiff leather jacket on a middle aged man can look a bit naff too. I personally love thrifting though, especially in the charity shops of SW3. I’v had everything from Cleverly shoes, to Tellason Selvedge denim, a couple of nearly new Filson bags. Everytime you go in these shops you never know what you will find and to me that’s more exciting than going into most stores.

SVT

I think that the purchase of woolen and leather products is more justified. Since these materials last longer. It’s no way to buy a vintage simple cotton t-shirt – it is either yellow or smells bad.
You did not serve in the army and are not in it now, so why indulge?

Robert

Simon,
How would you compare your vintage Levi’s with the custom pair you had them make you?

Linda Schanz

Not the same material! So annoying 🙄

Alexander

Unfortunately I have (yet) no knowledge about jeans. What is so bad about modern jeans having 1% elastic fibres in your jeans to make them more comfortable (like the 502s I own). Is it because they will overstretch? Is it because they will not last as long? Thanks in advance for teaching me!

Alexander

If I would buy a raw dark indigo denim like these 501s: https://www.levi.com/AT/de_AT/collections/levis-vintage-clothing/levis-vintage-clothing-501-1947-jeans/p/475010200
I guess it would show high-contrast fading after some years, similar to your pairs from Lot No.1 (especially the Cone Mills 13.5oz)
My problem (apart from being too impatient) is, that I strongly prefer the low-contrast fading of your vintage pair in this post or the ones I saw on Mr Newton (https://www.permanentstyle.com/2018/01/best-dressed-man-2017-ethan-newton-or-how-to-dress-the-larger-man.html)
Is there any way to get this look aside from real vintage? I was also thinking about pretreated selvedge like these https://www.levi.com/AT/de_AT/promo/levis-vintage-clothing-501-1947-jeans/p/475010206
But I guess this is also not an option, if you want to avoid a special place in denim-hell…

Alexander

Thank you! That sounds perfect!

James

Many of us love jeans for the patina they develop over time and their casual, rugged style but wouldn’t you say they are a fairly impractical garment? Monty Don once said: “[Jeans] are absurd items of clothing – cold in winter, hot in summer, slow to dry once wet and chafe in places where chafing is not required.” Of course he spends a lot of time in the garden, but I tend to agree with his points. Personally I’ve been wearing less and less jeans over the years simply because they are less comfortable and flattering in terms of fit than other fabrics.

Anonymous

I buy vintage because modern jeans now all contain lycra, so which only survives a few washes and are very uncomfortable to wear