How to become a fashion expert, one vintage item at a time
Done right, shopping vintage fashion offers superior craftmanship and a happier bank account, David Brennan of Reign Vintage in London concludes. Please enjoy his advice based on decades of experience.
I saw a t-shirt some years ago saying — “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s cool”. I felt like yeah, I can totally agree with that. There’s some monstrosities out there from the sixties and seventies made of terylene for example. That’s unwearable and just nasty. But, by the same token, you can get some stuff that’s only a few seasons ago and really beautiful, interesting and relevant.
I like to put things on the rail that can be put together your own look. We give people a broad palette to mix and match. You’ll end up with an outfit that is not repeatable. We’ve had some very well known customers shopping vintage. They’ve got big budgets and they still choose to shop vintage. They know they are going to find something different. Even though they could walk into designer stores and spend thousands of pounds, they still come into a vintage store and spend a hundred or so and think they’ve done out really well, because they found something special.
In contrast, many high-street stores tailor their products for trends. It’s kind of a prescribed thing. With vintage you can surprise yourself and find a look that you didn’t even think would work for you. Vintage is so much more diverse. I’ve been to some vintage stores that’s all within a certain decade or two. It’s all beautiful things, I love the things they have and how it’s set up. But it’s not a concept I relate to in terms of what I want to sell. I’m more focused on wearability than trends. You just want a cool jacket that looks interesting, it doesn’t have to be out there vintage at all times.
It also doesn’t make a difference what your budget is. There’s ideas that some vintage can be overpriced or expensive, but there are also bargains. Even things that tend to be a bit expensive in vintage stores can be bargains, because new they would be even crazier, like really, really expensive. Say I’ve got an Yves Saint Laurent jacket there on the rack for £400. It would probably be over a grand brand new, so comparatively it is still a bargain.
Then there’s a sustainability perspective as well. It gets rid of waste. I always find it really sad sometimes when I find an item that’s gone damaged or torn or ruined, it is just a shame. It’s not that I can’t sell it and lost money. It’s a beautiful thing and I can’t present it because it’s been damaged.
I’m sure that some vintage is much more sought-after than other.
People are into the branded at the moment. There’s been times where people didn’t care about brands at all, but the younger buyers for vintage now are quite into brands. It’s one of their things where they are into Hilfiger stuff, the Ralph Lauren and Lacoste polo shirts, certain types of Stone Island jackets or even the designer brands like say Thierry Mugler or Valentino. Modern classics if you like. Apart from the brands, there are the classic items, genre items, like tweed suits, stalking jackets and hunting jackets. They’re imbued with some attachment to their sport or activity and therefore they’re kind of classic in that way. But the idea is, you have your own thing that you want to find, your own look. It could or could not be a brand.
I’d be fascinated to hear how you got into the vintage scene from the beginning.
Years ago, in my teens, there used to be shops a shop called Flipp. It was a big store in Covent Garden, mostly Americana, that was the really big thing. European vintage came in a little bit later. At first, it used to be either British or American stuff that was the really the party.
For me it almost started by accident. I was a Fine Arts student and used to wear vintage all the time. I also used to collect vinyl. It came to the point where I started to sell off the vinyls that I didn’t want. I thought that while I am doing it, I had to put some of my clothes out on the rail as well. Initially, the first rail was my wardrobe stuff that I used to buy in charity shops or in some of the vintage stores. I found out that I actually made quite a lot of money on the clothes. And so while I was continuing to get rid of records I bought some more clothes because the rail was getting empty. That was in Camden Market at first and then Portobello Market. Portobello Market at that time was a very vibrant place before, but later the gentrification started to take over. So we, my business partner Susanna De Santos and I, decided to look for a store location in London together. That’s some 12 years ago that we started working together and now we’ve expanded into several shops.
Looking back, I suppose you have to have a certain personality to be drawn to working with vintage. As a fine arts student, it was an obligation to be outlandish and different. I mean that is just the thing. Most Fine Arts students are a little like that, so I designed shoes and other original designs at first. It also extended into having other kind of things in the wardrobe. I’ve always been looking for interesting and quirky things. It grew fairly organically from a personal interest. Susanna started in languages and then went into public relations, but didn’t find it creative enough or interesting enough either. So then we met and shared this interest in unique pieces of design and went into business together.
Having worked with vintage for such a long time, it must be difficult to pinpoint particular favorites over the years.
I have found plenty of beautiful and extravagant things, but quite often for me, I like graphics or prints, being from a fine arts background. For example, just recently, we got in a sixties Walt Disney sweatshirt with a skinny Mickey Mouse jumping around. I think it’s very, very beautiful. It’s a nothing thing really. We have had very exclusive Chanel and Thierry Mugler pieces through and different haute couture designer’s work. They are amazing, they are extravagant and they are beautiful. But often it’s just quirky funny little things, or interesting designs that excite me. It’s about all of the everyday things, funny graphic labels or the way a part of the piece is constructed. The quality of the way things are made. I was just looking at a coat earlier on. You turn the collar up and it’s plaid wool. Small things like that, it’s just all of those little details which offer a really nice touch the way they’ve been done.
There’s must be something in the nitty gritty of the process that keeps you excited after all this time.
Well, yeah. I’ve been in this business for almost 20 years, one way or another, and I am still continuing to see things I just have never seen before. We work with multiple suppliers in Europe and I always looking forward to opening the deliveries. They do tell us a bit about what’s coming. We order by categories, such as fashion sportswear or designer pieces. But we don’t get each individual piece photographed and sent over to us. Instead, we rely on our suppliers. We visit them regularly and tell them what we want and brands we’re interested in. After that, it’s an organic process of give and take. So it’s always a surprise exactly what’s coming.
But I never get tired of unpacking stuff and going “Wow, look at that! That’s amazing! Look how that is made! Look at the colour of that! Look at the quality of that!” I never get tired of it. Since it’s a sincere interest of mine, I never actually get bored of it. It’s genuine excitement when I see stuff that’s good. Some highlights could be when it’s very old and in amazing condition, when it’s like funny or clever or beautifully finished or, you know, or just very classic. The money element is quite secondary. You’re there to make a living, but in reality I’m in the business because I really enjoy sourcing interesting products. Sometimes I even have to stop myself. The deliveries arrive and someone’ll comment “Should we not tag this stuff?” and I’ll answer “No, I just want to open one more bag first!” I’m still the kid in the candy store even after 20 years.
You must have learned quite a bit about fashion history. Perhaps you have some advice for our readers who want to learn more.
There’s always loads of gaps, but, there’s also lots of information that I do have. Learning about fashion is just a process, the process of putting yourself in situations where you come across things and always think “What is this?”, “Who is this?”, “What’s this brand?“ Obviously the internet gives you a world of information, there’s almost nothing that somebody hasn’t posted something about.
I rarely will put something out without knowing something about it. Not just because you obviously need to understand what value something may or may not have, but also I like to know what something is and why and how it came about. So, coming across an odd brand, an obscure piece or a fabric that you’ve never heard of, you kind of think, well, what is that?
I started out originally setting up shop at markets and that is a very good way to start out. Today, I think online is good as well as a starting point. I do think something that gives you a lot of direct feedback is key. For years I started out doing Portobello Market and so on. And got a very clear idea of what people think about vintage, what people like, what they think is good value, what they don’t like — how people react to what you’re offering them. I think that you can’t beat that one-to-one. Now that I have the store here, I could easily just not be here. But I am regularly here on the weekends, because I like being here. I like seeing who the customers are, I enjoy being part of it. I like to be actually involved and to see it from the grassroots-level. If you want to learn some business, especially if it’s got a lot of one-to-one, it’s useful with this straight-down-the-line type of feedback. You get to know whether people think it’s too expensive, whether people think it’s not very good, whether people love it. People will always tell you what they do and don’t like. Often people will tell you “that’s not very good”, “that’s great”, “I love your shop”, “I don’t like your shop”, or whatever. Most of the time, people are fairly vocal.
Then you’ve gotta sort through it and figure out what people like about what you do. If there’s other things that they don’t like, you got to pay attention to that as well. Otherwise, how will you pay the bills? Because they are not gonna come back if they don’t like what you do or if they don’t like your attitude and your approach. For example, the kind of atmosphere that you create creates makes a large difference in retail. We aim to keep it quite organized and pristine, an orderly store where everything is perfectly on the rail and colour-coordinated. However, I’ve noticed that sometimes, when we bring in the rails on the weekends and it’s a bit messy, people really like that buzz. They see there’s stuff happening and they can see that it’s busy. Walking into the store at other times might not stimulate that same nerve, so sometimes we allow this slight edge of hustle and bustle.
My experience is that quality is really something you can find in vintage, compared to a lot of newly produced pieces.
The bulk of things things were better made before. The quality of wools were made better, better yarns and better production. There are still good things now, but you’ll pay a fortune at the designer store to get that quality. When you go into a vintage store and buy a really beautiful vintage wool-coat for, say, £50, the quality of everything about it, the way it is lined, the weight of the wool, the stitching, the amount of work that has put into. It is really something special. And since you’re not paying someone to do that manufacturing process again, you’re buying into all of that quality but without paying for the process. To get that level of quality now, you would have to pay the production costs nowadays to get that. What would it cost for you to buy an English Harris tweed jacket? A beautiful tweed, really beautifully lined, for someone to make that now in England, where it is made, it would cost you a hell of a lot of money. However, since it’s from a different process, you can buy it for perhaps fifty quid.
By default a lot of stuff were made like that before, simply because fast fashion didn’t really exist yet. They made things that that people payed quite a lot for, because they expected to keep it. People invested in their clothing, so because of that the quality was automatically a lot better. So, yeah, I’d say it is hard to beat vintage in terms of quality. Especially when you get into the Autumn — Winter season. The difference between, say, a seventies polyester blouse and something from H&M right now is probably not massive. But if you go for a sixties or seventies vintage wool coat, and then try to go to the high street with the same budget and see what you can, you won’t be able to come close. That’s where it really counts.
I’m sensing that you care a lot for the clothes in the store.
We repair a lot of stuff, we clean everything and we steam press it before it is sold. If we do discover any faults, say buttons missing or anything like that, we don’t let it go out on the shop floor. On a few occasions we do mark something down if it’s damaged in some way or another, but we do care about what we present to our customers. So it’s very much so. I can’t bear the thought that someone having to fix something up after being in our store. Say there’s a big stain on piece or there’s a hole in it. That’s not ok. Some people have the idea that it’s vintage so it is doesn’t matter. It does. If it’s vintage it doesn’t mean it does not have to be in mint condition. As far as I’m concerned it should be in near perfect condition, regardless. That’s just my mentality, mine and my business partner’s.
The fashion industry is rapidly changing as we move towards a digital society. I’m curious if this is noticable in the vintage community as well.
Well, it’s harder to source. A lot of stuff is sold directly online. Like people picking up stuff or selling online, on Depop, on Etsy stores or even Ebay. This has made the process of acquiring vintage much harder. At the same time, we’re working against the clock. Every year another item bites the dust, you know something happens, something gets ripped, it doesn’t matter who owns it or where it is sold. And if you remake it it’s not vintage. We’ve moved away from that production quality that we are known to offer.
For example, the 60’s original Tootal scarves. I used to be able to go and buy maybe a hundred scarves in England. I haven’t bought any in England recently and I’ve been lucky enough to find ten or so from international suppliers. They’re just gone. Tootal went out of business in the eighties. So you’re looking at a situation where you are decades on from the final supplier. And if you make it again, it’s not the original. Then it gets even harder because every year someone happens to burn one, loose one, tear one and so on. They just become more and more rare as time goes on.
There’s some agreement on this as well. When we talk to the vintage wholesale companies, who have managed to been able to source things on a larger scale and sell to the likes of us, they’re always saying that the supplies are diminishing. There’s going to come a time, probably within the next 20 years or so, when people are gonna go “Where’s all the vintage?”.
As for now, we are still able to get a decent amount of quality vintage from the fifties, sixties and seventies in good condition and with high quality. But there used to be a lot of it. A lot of it. It is going to get harder and harder to get and more expensive as this goes on. People will end up paying a lot of money for things that now you would still be able to buy relatively cheap today. ◆
You can visit Reign Vintage on 12 Berwick Street, Soho, London W1F 0PN, 136 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JJ and online at