Vintage shops, once regarded as the place where undesirable things go to die, are experiencing a renaissance. The burning question is: Why now? The answer might be found in the reemergence of classic styles and the meteoric rise in popularity of genres like streetwear. Flared pants, high-waisted jeans, white sneakers, corduroy, joggers, sweatsuits and band tees are reinserting themselves in the bloodstream of popular culture.
Even more, the exclusivity, durability and sustainability offered by vintage is unmatched. There’s a thrilling factor to finding a piece that fits your style and can’t easily be acquired by others. It’s the essence of individual expression. And, in a world where brands produce seasonal styles en masse, with materials that rarely stand the test of time, it’s no secret why the vintage clothing industry is booming (and evolving) in cities like D.C.
“Without a doubt, vintage pieces are better quality,” says James Hackley. “If you want true Gucci or Louis [Vuitton], you have to go back to the pieces when they were made better, [with] better materials and workmanship behind [them].”
Hackley, the co-founder of Bespoke Not Broke in Takoma Park, Maryland, acquired his penchant for vintage in a past life as a corporate sales professional before transitioning into the fashion industry six years ago, following a major life decision.
Spending most days on the road, Hackley made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and successfully dropped 50 pounds in four months. But reaching this milestone had two consequences: He was forced to part ways with ill-fitting luxury clothing pieces and let go of his fixation with high-priced fashion.
“I had a lot of nice things, like $150 Thomas Pink shirts. When I went from a [size] 42 to 38, I had to give away all those shirts. So, I vowed never to spend that much money on clothing again.”
He slowly rebuilt his closet by visiting thrift stores and vintage shops before his acumen for marketing and love of fashion sparked an idea: Open a shop where people could find items that felt “custom-made for you without breaking the bank.”
Hackley’s perspective shift reflects how negative attitudes about vintage clothing — and their place in the fashion world — no longer apply.
“The business of vintage has definitely evolved, and it’s either evolve or die.”
Hackley goes on to describe the practice of high-end brands recreating vintage designs — a clear indication it’s going mainstream.
Once regarded as time machines for older generations eager to preserve the nostalgia of their youth, vintage shops are now vehicles for self-expression across generations to pay homage to the enduring swagger of classic styles.
In that vein, Bespoke Not Broke designed their space to attract loyal customers and newcomers alike in search of signature, niche garments to add some elegance, personality and flair to their wardrobe.
And Bespoke’s holy grail of vintage items are pieces procured from what Hackley considers the heyday of well-known fashion houses, pre-1980s when quality, not mass-production, was the standard.
Bespoke is an old soul with a youthful spirit: Think well-worn leather, wide-brim hats, kimonos, Chanel bags, dinner jackets, jazz music, beautifully finished wood and a Union Jack flag for effect.
It’s what a British customer once described as a “Kingsman”-esque resale shop — a nod to the 2014 spy movie. Imagine well-dressed men and women bloodying bad guys while outfitted in custom suits and polished brogues.
Bespoke’s return to the past is in line with a broader trend in popular culture. The reemergence of vinyl, roller skating, ‘80s horror and drive-in movies signal how cyclical style tastes breathe new life into retro — and bleed into fashion impulses.
It’s a twist on a classic adage: What’s old is cool again.
Right at the Edge
D.C. culturally is a city rapidly evolving and reinventing itself in every sense. It’s home to an increasingly diverse and close-knit community of vintage shops, like Bespoke not Broke, beckoning residents to expand their style aperture.
Take Joint Custody, a badass local vintage shop at the edge of the U Street Corridor. It’s a haven for vinyl enthusiasts, sneakerheads and streetwear loyalists who prefer the scarcity but not the price tag of fashion. Their location is at the precipice of where they live and where they feel fashion is moving.
“We’re on the edge,” Joint Custody Co-owner Gene Melkisethian says. “The music we were into all along, the art, the movies — everything we like is counterculture.”
His admission lands more hopeful than preachy and is a direct response to my prodding about the trend of celebrities exploring androgynous fashion — most notably, but not exclusively, Harry Styles, A$AP Rocky, Janelle Monae and Jaden Smith. I imagine the legion of youth following suit are turning to vintage. It’s a topic Melkisethian picks up on while describing their shop.
“There [are] stores that try to appeal to a certain group of people based on what they think they’d like. I think if you take those barriers away, people are in a free space where they can decide, ‘I like this element. I don’t like that element.’”
Melkisethian describes Joint Custody as a safe space for fluid self-expression, where the constraints of conforming to gender and societal norms are left at the door. A T-shirt is just that, come who may to snatch it up.
“We didn’t want [the shop] to have a connotation that it would be gendered, [such as] ‘This is a guy’s vintage store’ or ‘This is a women’s vintage store.’ We want it to be more unisex. Anyone that wants to wear whatever can wear whatever.”
Joint Custody’s origin traces back to Melkisethian’s long love affair with music, a passion that became the gateway into all things vintage.
“For us, it’s always been intertwined, because we’ve always been into music and collecting records. As very young teenagers, maybe even before being teenagers, we were going into places where there was older stuff. Being into records gets you attuned to old things.”
The collision of vintage and fluid style blends into every aspect of the eclectic shop, including Joint Custody’s 10 employees, a group as distinctive and diverse as their store’s collection.
“We employ a lot of creative people. People who work at our store have very recently published books [and] released records. They [make] magazines. Everyone’s doing something creative.”
The shop is replete with LPs, hats, tees, music posters (including a record release party flyer for Rites of Spring, a local influential ‘80s punk band), and even a rare pair of metallic purple Jordan Ones (for display only). It’s whimsical, gnarly and welcoming, like Melkisethian’s cherished Cold Chillin’ Records T-shirt: the perfect ‘80s callback.
In the ‘80s, Cold Chillin’ catapulted the careers of iconic hip-hop pioneers like Biz Markie, Kool G Rap and DJ Polo, and Big Daddy Kane. Their lyrical energy still survives today and, like the mark being left by Joint Custody, continues to influence those who follow in their footsteps — emulating their sound with their own finesse.
It’s the most apt metaphor for the way vintage is reemerging in D.C. in every corner as an art form to be driven by individual tastes.
Stitching a City Together
A sentiment echoed by Hackley and Melkisethian, Common Thread’s co-founder Warren Weixler is acutely aware that shopping vintage is both an act of stylistic liberation and a conscious choice to support sustainability.
“We’re in a very unfortunately wasteful society,” Weixler says. “I think vintage is the opposite. You don’t have the [same] volume. If they’re in good quality, and they’re not tattered and ripped over time, there’s a very low quantity of those particular pieces. In a way, they’re almost luxury pieces, but not [at a] luxury price.”
Weixler, an architect by profession, appreciates how the upcycling of clothing through vintage gives them new purpose that’s unique to each individual.
“We’re not throwing these clothes out. They’re actually being revamped and reused in a new way. How it was worn originally in the ‘70s or ‘80s, you don’t have to wear it the same way. Now, you can put your own style on it. You can add a patch. You can embroider your name. Whatever those things are that make you feel like it’s yours.”
Common Thread takes a community approach to its curation. What started as a clothing drive to support those in need became a place to showcase local “small brands and vendors” anchored by a constantly rotating selection of vintage clothing and goods including starter jackets, dresses, necklaces, rings, bracelets and other wearable cultural artifacts.
The shop is cool personified with vibrant artwork, music, old-school cameras and even a few vintage Playboy magazines strewn about the space.
“We just have a cool vibe. We’re inclusive, we have great music and the product is good. I think that’s where we are at the moment. Everybody that walks in has an unexpected reaction to it. They’re like, ‘Wow, this is cool. This doesn’t feel like D.C. This is something different.’”
Weixler, who idolizes his vintage Levi’s jean jacket from London most of all, dreamed of Common Thread as a glimmer of hope during the pandemic and in the wake of increased social activism in the past year. It’s delivering on that promise and more by continuing to run as a local clothing drive, inviting in emerging entrepreneurs and giving patrons a connection to the past.
“It’s that nostalgia [that] gives you that memory. Just like when you smell something that your mom used to make, or you hear that song that somebody used to play all the time that was important in your life. It just transports you. I think vintage goods do that.”
Many are waking up to the cool factor vintage delivers, but for others, vintage is in their blood.
The OG of D.C. Vintage
Mercedes Bien has been a vintage groupie since her youth.
“I am a fourth-generation Washingtonian,” says Bien, who owns a vintage shop of the same name in Adams Morgan. “When I was young, my mom would take me to thrift stores or church sales. [She] always would mention how items are made. For instance, plaids and lines should meet on the side [seam], bound buttonholes, [etc.] — different aspects of well-made clothing I developed an eye [for].”
For Bien, vintage is something she just knows like the back of her hand. She describes the experience of growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a time when present day trends we’re seeing in vintage were commonplace.
“I think we dressed with a lot of individuality back then. Everybody wore vintage.”
Bien, who loves quirky prints from the ‘70s, began selling vintage after college in the Georgetown Flea Market before opening a permanent space on M Street. She later closed the store and opened her current shop in 2007.
She’s seen the city and industry change and acknowledges, like others, that shopping habits across genders have evolved. It’s the same free space for fashion described by Melkisethian that is giving vintage new life.
“We are definitely in fluid times. Men have so many more options now. They’re wanting to wear color. They’re wanting to wear different silhouettes. It’s just a real positive aspect. The same with women. They want to wear men’s shirts. They want to [try] military wear. They just want to experiment. It’s a really good thing,”
Bien’s style, like her shop, is aging with grace. She’s had items of clothing for more than 40 years and thinks that’s what makes it so special.
“When you buy something vintage, you generally will probably have it for the rest of your life if you’re taking decent care of it. [It’s] because you’re making your own character with it.
I just love so much of what I have.”
So You Want to Vintage?
Leaning into that adaptable space, Bien encourages first-time vintage seekers to follow their intuition.
“What I think is a good thing to do is just let yourself walk around and see what you are attracted to. If you’re attracted to it, generally it’s going to be because you’re attracted to the form, the color or something [else that] speaks to you.”
Other local shop owners offer similar advice.
“I think the first thing is to find out and go after something you really care about,” Melkisethian says, “and not just go for what everyone else is into because you’re going to be chasing a bouncing ball that’s getting further and further away from you.”
For others, it may be about finding exclusive pieces to flex when the moment strikes.
“[A vintage piece] may not be something you wear every day,” Weixler says. “You’re going to bring it out for an occasion: a dinner or going out with a friend. I tend to pick and choose the moment when I debut [a new find].”
It also might be a chance to dive into the visual and creative feast offered by vintage shops. Fashion spaces are more fluid than ever and there are no rules: only the ones you make for yourself.
Hackley says, “The creative types, the folks who may come in breaking all the fashion rules — [wearing] stripes and plaids or dashikis on top of camo. Folks who dress like that and come in, they’re like, ‘We’re in a candy store now.’ They love it.”
Whatever your approach, the best advice is to not hesitate or you risk missing out on something that’s uniquely meant for you.
“It’s like artwork,” Weixler says. “If it hits you, just get it, because you’re probably not going to find another one.”
Curators of Vintage Style
While by no means an exhaustive list, here are a few local vintage heroes to check out in and around the District.
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