Inside the lucrative top-secret world of rare vintage fashion
Entrepreneurs make thousands selling roughed-up Levi's and rock T-shirts
Kirby Fisher is always on the lookout for his next fix — the kind of garment that will prompt what he calls a "scream-out-loud moment."
"I'm just constantly running around like an ant looking for a crumb, trying to find the diamonds in the rough," he says from his small showroom in East Vancouver, tucked away in a former sheet metal factory.
The front section of the wiry 32-year-old's shop is crammed with old band T-shirts, jackets and jeans — the clothes he says he sells to "cool kids," or who others might call hipsters.
Rarest of the rare
But it's the equally small section at the back of his showroom that's the real pride and joy of his business, Dead Union.
That's where he keeps the rare pair of Vivienne Westwood T-shirts that he bought for a song at $1,000 and says he could easily sell for twice that price. It's where he keeps the tattered jeans a friend found under a tarp in a barn in Alberta, including a pair he recently sold for $1,000 on eBay.
Vintage stores abound in Vancouver, but Fisher says he's one of a handful of people in the city who trade in rare vintage fashion. And its popularity is surging across North America.
"Like anything in life, if it's hard to find, it's going to have a little bit of value," Fisher says.
His is a small, secretive industry built on knowledge of manufacturing standards of the past 150 years and subject to the whimsy of a shifting market based on an ever-changing definition of cool.
'One man's trash...'
Fisher says he sells about half of his stock on eBay, to buyers all over the world but mostly in the U.S.
"It's like one man's trash is another man's treasure. And I just really try to find the stuff that is of the rarest in every section of clothing," he says.
A search for "Vintage T-shirt" on eBay — one of the ways people who deal in this industry evaluate their stock — reveals an Iron Maiden top sold for $2,600, a Harley Davidson T-shirt advertised as "paper thin" sold for $1,700, and a Prince T-shirt went for $1,100.
The items all show signs of being well-loved and well-worn, and their history is a big part of their appeal.
Fisher speaks of the patina of his stock like a wine connoisseur might discuss terroir.
"I don't really like things that have no soul to them. That's kind of what this is to me — every single piece tells a story," he says.
The vintage Fisher buys and sells is strongly based in a rock 'n' roll esthetic that's rough around the edges. He says he has no trouble selling garments that somebody's mother would throw in the trash.
It's also an esthetic that's always shifting; quickly changing the value of his stock. After Justin Bieber was recently photographed in a Nirvana T-shirt for which he reportedly paid $1,500, the value of that particular design shot up overnight.
<a href="https://twitter.com/justinbieber">@justinbieber</a> Is so much hotter in that NIRVANA😍🔥 shirt <a href="https://t.co/ztx3BJIuFf">pic.twitter.com/ztx3BJIuFf</a>—@Taylor_ilene_
Drew and Jesse Heifetz, brothers and co-owners of Main Street boutique F as in Frank, specialize in '90s vintage.
"We sell what the kids want," Jesse Heifetz says. And the kids apparently aren't looking for replicas. They want originals.
"It's the difference between getting a classic car and one of the remake Ford Mustangs," he says over the phone from California, where he regularly visits the legendary Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena.
Heifetz says the strongest trend in vintage clothing right now is "American heritage brands" like Ralph Lauren, Levi Strauss, and Nike. These clothes, originally manufactured in the U.S., are known for their durability as much as their classic style.
His biggest deal to date was a 1914 mining shirt from work clothing manufacturer Filson, which he says he sold for $20,000.
Big in Japan
Like Fisher, Heifetz sells his stock to buyers from around the world. But both Heifetz and Fisher agree the hungriest and most lucrative clients for rare vintage are from Japan.
"Japan is probably the biggest market in the world for collectable American vintage clothing, much bigger than the United States," Heifetz says.
Fisher says he regularly gets visits from high-end Japanese clients on buying trips, as does Heifetz.
"The Japanese really are at the forefront of vintage fashion," Fisher says. "They kind of dictate what's going to happen in the vintage world."
But both sellers agree other markets are emerging as well. Fisher says he has started shipping more and more vintage rock T-shirts to Malaysia and Thailand. Heifetz says he's been doing increasing business with European clients.
Fisher was initially reluctant to speak publicly about the inner workings of his business.
"There's a side to it that no one knows about," he says. "Honestly, it sounds like an exaggeration, but it's not ... it's turf wars."
The secrecy revolves around two main aspects of the business.
One is knowledge of historical manufacturing standards and what is considered valuable. Small details can raise a garment's value by several hundred dollars. Fisher says customers often buy from less experienced retailers and then turn around and sell items for a profit.
The other is the fact there is only so much rare vintage to be found in the world, and buyers protect their sources like gold diggers in the Klondike staking out their claims.
Fisher says he spends most of his time hunting for stock, which he finds through sources as varied as Instagram, yard sales and other collectors. He also relies on people soliciting him with their dad's old clothes.
But his biggest top-secret source is a warehouse that processes thousands of tonnes of used clothes per day. Fisher describes it as a place where "clothes go to die."
These are clothes thrifts shops don't want because they've been on the showroom floor too long, or because they're damaged. They get sorted into grades, with most of them then shipped to Africa, and others simply turned into rags.
Fisher is protective of his spot in the warehouse. He pays a weekly minimum to access clothes by the pound, which he then diligently sifts through looking for rare garments that will fetch him a good price.
Although most of the garments Fisher deals in are T-shirts, the real money is in denim. Specifically, Levi's.
"Levi's is the holy grail. It's the Ferrari of denim," Fisher says.
Vintage denim regularly sells for several thousand dollars more than any T-shirt could bring in. And the iconic Levi Strauss brand is definitely the top seller.
That's something the historian for Levi Strauss & Company, Tracey Panek, knows very well.
"Levi's jeans are the original, the authentic, the blueprint for all blue jeans today," she says.
"They are iconic and we've got fans everywhere from here in San Francisco to Mumbai, India, so you can imagine there are a lot of people who have a passion for it.
As part of her work, Panek manages the company's archives and says the collection is valued at several million dollars, with the rarest pieces kept in a fireproof safe.
She says despite the company's resources, she does occasionally get out-bid for ultra-rare vintage denim.
Fisher still remembers the time he found a pair of rare jeans at his secret warehouse in 2013.
"I pulled them out, I screamed, I literally screamed. I was shaking," he says.
He won't go into specifics about how much he sold them for, but suffice to say it was enough for his band, War Baby, to record an album, print 600 vinyl records, and go on tour.
It was such a rare find, he doesn't expect it to happen again, but he won't stop searching for another scream-out-loud moment.