L.A.’s Thriving Vintage Scene is a Personal Style Paradise
Some people will tell you that the Internet killed style subcultures—or a least turned them into a global, universally accessible phenomenon. We say that’s bullshit. Even as the world is shrinking, there are still truly unique groups out there: Men and women doing precisely their own thing, in their own place, in a way that can’t be replicated elsewhere. And we wanted to find them. In this five-part series, Esquire traveled around the world in search of the groups that take personal style to the peak of its meaning.
If you want to travel back in time in L.A., all you need is a free afternoon. From houses, to cars, to fashion, the sun-soaked City of Angels does the first 60 years of the American 20th century quite well, despite its reputation as a town with no history. And a large portion of this is due to a close-knit band of retro-obsessives who, through their shops, flea markets, gatherings, clothes, and general enthusiasm, ensure that the present is never too far removed from the past. If you prefer your cars carbureted, your hair pomaded, and your jeans selvedge, then welcome to L.A. vintage.
Richard Halverson, owner of Pickpocket Vintage.
“There are like four million people living in L.A., and everyone here is looking for their own identity, a way to stand out,” says Mike Hodis, owner of Runabout Goods, a popular vintage and vintage-style clothing and accessories shop in L.A.’s Eagle Rock neighborhood. “Vintage gives you that. It gives you the ability to create something unique.”
That's one of the primary unifying threads among the vintage set: uniqueness. In most fashion tribes, repetition is almost a guarantee. Look no further than the Balenciaga Triple S during fashion week for proof of that. But don something made in small quantities half a century ago, and the odds of running into your sartorial twin are almost nil. “You can walk into a vintage shop and put together an outfit where you’re going to be the only person in that getup, as opposed to wearing whatever’s on the runway or what’s current,” says Hodis.
Of course for Hodis, as well as for most who find themselves drawn to all things vintage, the real siren song is in the craftsmanship. “It transports you back to a certain point in time when things were done to a higher quality,” he says.
His style, which can best be described as a cross between 1940s off-duty painter and 1950s college student home for the weekend, stems entirely from a world of slow, small batch production. At Runabout Goods, which is really more of a workshop with a retail component than a traditional store, the whole point is to create a space where people feel as though they’ve stepped into another era. Located in a nondescript industrial garage, the space is rife with elements of nostalgia—a boat truss frame ceiling, antique denim sewing machines, even a 1940s Indian Scout motorcycle tucked in the corner—and, with its wood paneled walls and scattered Americana, it conjures images of a grandfather’s old barn workshop.
Ben Starmer, Global Marketing Director for Levi's Strauss & Co.
The brand’s offerings are a mix of both new and old, with the new looking like something recovered from a 1940s time capsule. Runabout’s lineup of traditional, sturdy outdoor wear—flat-front chinos, anoraks, sweatshirts—conjures images of For Whom the Bell Tolls-era Ernest Hemingway fly fishing in Montana. Beyond selling his own wear, Hodis, a sort of guru among the L.A. vintage set, also opens up his space to other vendors on the occasional Saturday, creating a mini flea market of sorts, with vintage denim, Navajo jewelry, custom hats, and throwback outdoor gear all on offer. To complete the Hemingway picture, there’s even a table full of old-school fly fishing gear, run by Hodis’ friend Naoki Mizusana, a Japanese X-ray tech who moonlights as a fly fishing tackle-maker. More than just giving vintage aficionados a chance to paw each other’s goods, however, the gathering mainly serves as an appetizer for the L.A. vintage scene’s main course: the Rose Bowl Flea Market.
Naoki Mizusana, X-ray tech.
The Rose Bowl Flea, which occurs on the second Sunday of every month, is a world unto its own: a sprawling marketplace of 10 x 25 foot booths occupying the outer grounds of the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California. Within its gates are row after row of one man’s junk, another man’s treasure—a sort of living spreadsheet full of material remnants of the 20th Century, all organized into cluttered cells of A1, A2, A3.
Even before dawn a stream of collectors will dribble in, some coming from as far away as Japan. It’s a hardcore crowd who occasionally pay vendors a premium to dig through the piles of clothes before the crowds arrive. For the less dedicated, early morning is when the real action starts. Though the Rose Bowl Flea attracts all manner of shoppers—millennials hunting for mid-century furniture, Gen Xers looking for toys and trinkets from their youth, hipsters just looking for a dose of American kitsch—it’s not hard to spot the vintage true believers. Usually they’ll be dressed in some version of heritage Americana—1940s factory worker, 1950s greaser, an occasional zoot suit—and selling and buying among themselves.
Tommy Abbott, owner of Tommy's Good Stuff.
“This world is pretty close knit,” says Garrett Miller, a 35-year-old vintage shop owner who moved to L.A. three years ago from Queens, New York. “It can be a little insular, but I’m always trying to connect to more people who aren’t so much on the scene. I want to help them understand why certain things are important, why something might be special because of its history.”
Along with his shop, No Grand Rituals, Miller also runs a booth at the Rose Bowl Flea. His attraction to vintage is that, unlike mass-produced contemporary clothing, it tells a story. “I love how each piece had its own life and soul before I found it.”
Dressed in jeans, a blue work shirt over a white tee, and a wool cap, Miller embodies a fairly common type among vintage clothing lovers—that of a midcentury blue-collar lunch pail worker. Though he does admit to changing up his look from time to time. In fact, during his 20s he exclusively wore vintage suits. One unifying factor to his rotating closet is that the clothes have usually been repaired. “I definitely like things that have been mended, whether because it was just stored for a long time, or because somebody wore it until it was almost dead and then revived it.”
Devin Pietschmann, Zee Bernardo, owner of shop Seulement, Garret Miller, owner of No Grand Rituals vintage shop.
Walk about 40 yards north of Miller’s booth and the Rose Bowl’s time warp will transport you from the 1940s into the late 1960s. And, for lack of a better descriptor, into a much more L.A. vibe. With his cowboy hat, bandana around his neck, and vintage T-shirt, Richard Halverson looks like a backup guitarist for the Rolling Stones during their Exile on Main St. tour. His story serves as yet another example of how, in the vintage world, accumulation often leads to vocation.
Originally from the northern English town of Newcastle, Halverson first collected military memorabilia as a teenager, a gateway drug common among the vintage set. Eventually, looking for a more creative outlet, he turned his eye to vintage fashion.
“I was going to flea markets and estate sales at least once a week and couldn’t resist buying stuff that I found interesting,” he says. “It got to the stage where I had so much stuff, it was either stop buying or start selling. And I wasn’t going to stop buying.”
Along with his booth at the Rose Bowl Flea, he also recently opened a shop in L.A.’s Atwater neighborhood called Pickpocket Vintage. “I got friendly with a few vendors, and they told me I should because I have an eye for vintage.”
Brandon "Bud" Amato, Tattoo Artist.
Of course, vintage shops are not exactly a rarity in Los Angeles. While the scene itself has exploded in the last decade, mostly courtesy of the internet, L.A. has long been a haven for vintage seekers. Shops like Jet Rag in West Hollywood—with it’s famous $1 Sunday sales—and Squaresville in Los Feliz have served up vintage duds since at least the 1990s, a decade that boasted a major nostalgia boom courtesy of swing music.
“The swing revival in the ‘90s really changed everything here,” says Frank Barone, a 42-year-old body shop worker who’s lived in L.A. his whole life. “We used to go the Derby in Los Feliz [a swing club made semi-famous in the 1996 cult film Swingers], and there were guys that were hardcore swing or rockabilly, with the pompadour and the whole look.”
Though swing died a fairly quick death, L.A.’s taste for vintage remained, which Barone chalks up partly to the weather. Easy access to vintage clothing and thrift stores are a definite plus, but the absence of harsh winters and broiling summers make total commitment to the throwback lifestyle a relatively painless pursuit—especially when it comes to cars.
“In California, it’s easy to drive cool cars. I can drive my Ford [1920s open-top roadster] in the winter time here,” says Barone. That's no small thing. With his slicked back ‘50s hair, wide-leg cuffed vintage dungarees, white tee, and Corcoran Paratrooper boots, it wouldn’t exactly enhance the mood to see Barone roll up in a sensible 2015 Hyundai. His ability to fully commit—with the clothes, with the classic cars, with the regular gatherings and of likeminded souls—is a real advantage. And it’s one that surely helps fuel Los Angeles’ thriving vintage scene.
Mikael Kennedy, photographer, vintage textile collector, occasional rug dealer, King Kennedy Rugs.
L.A. doesn't have a monopoly on vintage by any stretch of the imagination. Mark Fogwell, a vintage accessories dealer who specializes in Navajo jewelry, and a regular world traveler, says that it’s big everywhere now. In fact, while Angelinos certainly appreciate their sartorial nostalgia, he says Japan is where the true experts lie—although he does concede that L.A. brings a certain degree of chicness to the game, a fact best illustrated by the ascendance of the Rose Bowl Flea.
“I’ve been selling there for 30 years, and now I find that people from all over the world are coming to the Rose Bowl to buy cool shit,” Fogwell says.
That being said, “cool shit” is a relative term. In fact, one thing that annoys Runabout’s Mike Hodis is the word “vintage” itself, and how it’s so casually thrown around. “Just because it’s an ‘80s polo shirt doesn’t mean it’s vintage per se,” he says. “The important thing is that the piece has the right pedigree. It’s the right piece made at the right time, where everything clicked just right.”
So what gives something pedigree? More often than not, it’s in the small details. For Hodis, that includes stitch-per-inch count, where the more stitches-per-inch—say 14 as opposed to five or six—generally mean an older garment. Or buttons. Plastic buttons usually mean something modern and mass-produced. But horn buttons, or mother of pearl, often point to something with a true vintage story to tell.
Of course, for vintage fans, the eye for spotting such detail takes time to develop. “You start out making the wrong choices,” says Hodis. “And along the way you get better and better. You become more aware of certain details, especially if you have a circle of individuals around you who can help.”
That helps explain the tendency of vintage fans to stick together. You want to make sure, after all, that you’re getting something truly special. And you want to make sure when you wear that something truly special, the people around you know what the hell it is.
Then again, while pedigree and subtlety of detail are all well and good, the real power of vintage, at least according to Mark Fogwell, comes down to one simple element: mojo. “New shit, most of it doesn’t have it,” he says. “And when you find something old, or some little label or person who’s making cool shit that has mojo, you want it.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.