(Work)Wear and Tear: Detailing the Understated Beauty of Used Garments

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Like it or loathe it, when Kanye West wears something, people take notice. Back in 2019, the fashion and music mogul shunned formality at a number of high profile public events in favor of all-American workwear classics. At the Met Gala, he appeared in a Dickies Eisenhower jacket costing $43. Then he showed up on the red carpet at FGI Night of Stars Gala sporting a double denim outfit consisting of a Levi’s Type-II denim jacket and 501 jeans. In between that all, there were countless sightings of Ye in and around LA where he was captured wearing a Carhartt “Detroit Jacket” - a $75 piece of outerwear, which is described on the Carhartt site as being “built on a reputation of toughness.” Who would have thought that West — a man worth $1.8 billion, who once made his wife cry by throwing out her wardrobe and replacing it with high-end gear aligned with his own tastes — would be making a case for humble workwear?

Kanye’s choice to wear inexpensive clothes in a landscape that has positioned luxury as standard, is certainly refreshing. Not only did it prove that you can get a flawless ’fit off without a designer name on the tag, but it also put a renewed focus on functional clothing that is built to last. And at a time when the fashion world is saturated with clothes not meant to last longer than a season, what better remedy could there be than trusty utilitarian staples that are literally engineered to withstand the test of time?

If the past twelve months taught us anything it's that we don’t need new clothes, let alone need to buy anything discretionary in such uncertain times. But it wasn’t just that we didn’t “need” new clothes this year. The catastrophic fallout following the fashion industry’s decision to cancel billions of pounds of clothing orders at the start of the pandemic that forced workers into debt and caused food shortages (not to mention the mounting climate crises) gave reason for fashion to lose some of its luster.

As a result, the pandemic accelerated a new collective environmental consciousness among shoppers. We were forced to stop and reassess our purchasing patterns and think more critically not just about the brands we buy from, but also to reflect on our own personal responsibilities as consumers.

The hard truth for many of us is that we buy too much stuff. And not only do we buy way more stuff than we need, we also buy the wrong stuff. In the majority of clothing stores today, you’ll see racks overstuffed with cheap clothes that look and feel good in their prime, but they soon lose their vibrancy and shape as you continually use and wash them. Part of the reason we accept this kind of low quality is because, ultimately it doesn’t matter much. More often than not, we buy cheap clothing on impulse and end up throwing it out long before we can wear it out.

This lifestyle may be convenient, but it’s terrible for the environment. It leads us away from investing in clothes that can actually get better over time; garments made from high-quality materials like the cotton used for Kanye’s Carhartt workwear jackets, which only improve as you break them in.

There’s a good reason why brands like Carhartt, Dickies and Levi’s are heralded as the titans of workwear. They have an extensive track record of producing clothes built to withstand a hard day's work. Their garments which were made for manual laborers in the early-20th century, have weathered the test of time, becoming immortalized into the canon of men's style. As GQ recently said, “when you wear a Carhartt vest or a pair of Dickies work pants, you aren't just paying tribute to the people who literally built America over the past century. You're hanging with the skaters, rappers, and grunge rockers who built entire cultural movements around their style in the '80s and '90s, like Tupac Shakur, Kurt Cobain, and the Beastie Boys, whose influence continues to loom large today.”

“Workwear and the vintage resurgence resonates with a younger audience as not only is it accessible, affordable, and durable, but it pushes the trend of ‘if-you-know-you-know.’”

— Trystan Quita, Damaged Glitter

These cultural pioneers who took workwear from the factories and construction sites to the streets did so more out of necessity rather than thinking about what was considered “fashionable”. It was a product of their environment. The stuff was durable, as well as being readily available and inexpensive. And for a typical skater or young artist, options were limited. This often meant digging through racks at surplus, vintage and workwear stores. Thrifting might have become somewhat of a sport today, but back then, sifting through racks of secondhand stores wasn't exactly the idea of luxury.

What united these subcultures in their love of workwear was the desire for an unpretentious look that reflected the ruggedness of what they lived. Plus they didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg to do it. For skaters, that meant cheap nylon Dickies pants that could endure days hitting the asphalt, while rappers favored Carhartt’s oversized cuts and rugged fabrics as they chimed with the masculine ideals and aesthetics that underpinned much of hip-hop at the time. With such street credibility opening a compelling new market, Carhartt in particular built on these robust American archetypes, releasing the now widely-regarded Carhartt WIP imprint. Purpose-built to align with this subcultural embrace, Carhartt WIP presented a slew of new cuts and styles that recontextualized its utilitarian past.

Over the past 30 years, these utility staples have continued to transcend their function. Chore coats, carpenter pants, and utility vests have become wardrobe staples for both guys and girls. “Today you’re just as likely to see celebrities such as Travis Scott and Hailey Beiber in the same Carhartt jackets as the dusty construction worker on the subway,” says Kirsten Fleming of The New York Post. “The very same style worn by moneyed Manhattanites, hypebeasts and cool kids in Europe is the uniform for farmers and ranchers in rural America.” No longer just a utilitarian workhorse, items like Carhartt’s Chore Coat have become one of the most unifying, universal garments, especially in such strange, politically divisive times. “It’s a piece that crosses socioeconomic, geographical and political lines and age demographics,” says Fleming.

“The growing majority of the younger vintage consumers already have a well developed understanding of style and designer fashion, and acknowledge the current trend of juxtaposing designer with vintage workwear pieces.”

— Trystan Quita, Damaged Glitter

So what makes workwear so appealing in today’s disposable age? In a difficult year that’s seen unemployment skyrocket and businesses collapse under the global pandemic, the shift toward workwear, in particular thrifted and vintage options could come down to a desire for less-conspicuous fashion. “It doesn’t exactly feel appropriate to wear a flashy logo or head-to-toe runway look right now, whereas the 20-year-old coat you fell in love with at a vintage shop has the added benefit of making a quieter statement,” says Vogue’s Emily Farra.

Today, it's never been easier to shop vintage or pre-owned clothing. While in the past most high-quality vintage was only available in major cities like New York and Paris, or those rare lucky scores in small, out-of-town thrift stores. Today, that has all changed thanks to the internet and Instagram. Online vintage shopping is getting even easier with the growing number of specialist sellers that tap into specific eras, styles or brands. Take for instance@damagedglitter, an IG-run reseller account specializing in vintage Americana. The type of perfectly faded workwear jackets and jeans, rappers like Kanye West and Travis Scott wear.

“I think that the shifting trend for vintage to become so popular on a platform like Instagram, has allowed vintage sellers to showcase workwear, and introduce tons of new pieces and silhouettes to their audience,” explains Trystan Quita, founder of Damaged Glitter. “As people begin to become familiar with numerous vintage sellers, the overall curation pushes an aesthetic that can influence people to become more knowledgeable on vintage workwear.”

Quita’s online store, is amongst the small sect of specialist Instagram sellers that are igniting a new appetite for the old and worn. With their highly-curated feeds, Damaged Glitter along with his peers like@unsoundrags,@blindateco and@tiredlaundry are winning the hearts and wallets of vintage enthusiasts thanks to their tight edit of handpicked vintage. Their feeds are packed with visually pleasing images of chore coats, carpenter pants, and jeans that are selected for their unique fading and distressing.

Quita believes that it is this sense of focus on natural wear and fading that sets this new vintage resurgence apart from the 2010 workwear wave which was exclusively focused on heritage. Rather than focusing solely on rare vintage pieces like WWII U.S. Navy Deck Jackets, turn-of-the-century style denim, and rugged Red Wing boots like guys did a decade ago, the 2021 approach to vintage is far more fluid. “The growing majority of the younger vintage consumers already have a well developed understanding of style and designer fashion, and acknowledge the current trend of juxtaposing designer with vintage workwear pieces,” he says.

The growing interest in vintage workwear has risen in tandem with the current “archive” movement that has been dominating menswear over the past five years. Online resell platforms like Grailed, along with eBay, Depop, and a whole slew of archival-focused Instagram dealers and dedicated fan pages has seen access and awareness around covetable designers become greater than ever. “Workwear and the vintage resurgence resonates with a younger audience as not only is it accessible, affordable, and durable, but it pushes the trend of “if-you-know-you-know,” says Quita.

But as the archive market becomes more and more saturated and resellers inflate the market with astronomical prices — a Raf Simons Fall/Winter 2001 "Riot Riot Riot Camo Bomber" recently sold for staggering $47,000 — it's understandable that people are looking for alternatives that are more attainable. Workwear is filling that void due to its universal appeal and a new taste for items that wear the marks of passing time. “Not only does workwear offer classic cuts and fits, but the unique natural aging of each vintage garment adds to this individuality and sense of exclusivity, as no two pieces can fade exactly alike,” says Quita.

Current cultural influencers such as @virgilabloh or @nigo are known for their high-low style which mixes classic vintage with luxury designs and contemporary sneakers. It’s typical to see Virgil in an upcycled Gallery Dept. hoodie or a pair of Chrome Hearts reworked vintage Levi’s and some Louis Vuitton sneakers. “Vintage Levi’s are just as important as a Hermes bag and today they’ll come together in the same outfit,” Abloh said in an interview with Business of Fashion.

Abloh acknowledges that vintage is one of the new ways younger consumers are transforming the definition of luxury. “If I buy a pair of vintage Levi’s jeans and I’m traveling from Paris to LA… and a custom-made belt that I ordered from Hermès that took a long time, and I really cherish, but then if I lost that suitcase and inside were a vintage pair of Levi’s jeans that were $30, bought at the Rose Bowl flea market, or this expensive one-of-a-kind belt, I would be more upset that I’d lost those pair of jeans because I can’t get another pair and I’ve worn them for years and they’re my favorite pair... I use that analogy because something luxurious, it could be expensive and well-crafted, I could get another one but I couldn’t get that.”

And he’s right. The pandemic and a new environmental consciousness among young people have helped kick off the renewed interest in vintage. Now more than ever, young consumers are looking beyond the overhyped marketing blitz that fashion has become, and are instead prioritizing a willingness to hunt. Finding a Detroit Jacket with killer fades is a sign of connoisseurship, rather than the mere ability to beat the bots on any given online drop.

“As these brands continue to highlight the uniqueness and wearability of vintage garments, people begin to realize the vintage influences in designer and essential basic garments they’ve always wanted.”

— Trystan Quita, Damaged Glitter

The global COVID-19 pandemic has done little to discourage secondhand shopping over the last year of lockdown. Bargain hunting, environmental concerns and the sharing economy have erased the stigma of used goods and at the same time technology has made thrift shopping more accessible, reliable and cool. Even as the retail industry has slumped, resale has boomed.

The statistics support this claim. Lyst’s annual Year in Fashion report, a data-heavy distillation of the most popular brands, products, people, and movements of the past 12 months, confirmed a rising interest in used clothes. In September 2020, when many of us were thinking about our fall wardrobes, “vintage fashion” generated more than 35,000 new searches on Lyst, while entries for secondhand-related keywords increased 104%. To put that in perspective, the resale market is predicted to hit $64 billion by 2024, and that the online secondhand market will grow 69% by 2021, according to a joint report by fashion platform ThredUp and analytics firm GlobalData.

Much of the renewed interest in vintage and workwear can be linked back to the small number of artisanal labels, such as BODE, Kapital, and Visvim that have built businesses on their artful reproductions of authentic-looking wear. “As these brands continue to highlight the uniqueness and wearability of vintage garments, people begin to realize the vintage influences in designer and essential basic garments they’ve always wanted,” Quita says. “Whether it’s a pair of vintage fatigue pants, or the boxy cut of a vintage hoodie, I believe that people are acknowledging vintage as a source for uniquely aged and cut garments.”

For Quita these perfectly aged items are all about storytelling. “I hope to find garments that not only look like they’ve lived a previous loving life, but will also find a new home with someone who can appreciate the garment for its unique wear, and love the piece just as much as its original owner.” When it comes to best sellers, it's all about Levi’s 501 jeans and Carhartt carpenter pants. “I think that these are the most popular as they are products that can fit seamlessly into any wardrobe as durable basics. Everyone needs a pair of jeans, and the search for the perfectly faded pair is never ending.”

Denim and canvas, the main ingredients of these old school workwear staples, are great examples of materials that age gracefully when the quality is good. The cotton softens and conforms to your body as it slowly breaks in, and they develop subtle imperfections that lend them a beauty that only comes with time and wear. Sure, it might not be fun to wear old-fashion raw denim or rigid canvas in its unwashed state. It’s stiff, like cardboard. It tends to crease rather than fold. It’s constricting and rough against the skin. But if you’re patient enough and have the determination to break through the 6 months right of passage it will reward you with a shape and look that is unmatched by any pre-distressed garment.

Understandably though, most fashion consumers just want to buy clothing with the hallmarks of hard work already built in. “People want the look of having broken-in garments without putting in the work to break them in,” Quita admits. That’s why Levi’s recently unveiled a new website, Levi’s Secondhand, to sell exclusively vintage and secondhand jeans, most of which were purchased from customers or sourced in vintage shops. It's one way that retailers are currently challenging fashion's pre-existing linear model: where a brand sells you an item, and it instantly becomes your responsibility, not the brand’s. And that’s bad for the environment as many people still throw old clothing in the trash, even if it’s in fine condition, and most of it will not decompose in a landfill.

Elsewhere in the market, a growing number of designers and brands are rushing to join the circular economy — i.e., clothing that re-enters the market or is upcycled into something new, rather than being thrown away. Take for instance Our Legacy, who’s WORK SHOP platform transforms residual fabrics and left-over pieces from the mainline into unique pieces. “One big problem within our industry is all of the excess that it systematically creates,” explains co-founder Jockum Hallin. The move to permanently embed upcycling into its business model reflects a longer-term commitment to not only the practice of repurposing scrap materials, but also a mindset shift to reevaluate what is considered waste. “Instead of considering old stuff as something that is worthless we try to refine it and make it more valuable than it is just lying around."

Another label that has clocked the rising interest in upcycled and secondhand goods among younger consumers is, Needles. The Japanese label’s signature line of “Rebuild” shirts have been a favorite for rappers like Slowthai and A$AP Rocky for years and now they're a hot commodity for streetwear enthusiasts too.

Each shirt is constructed from one-of-a-kind vintage flannel shirts, which are deconstructed and rebuilt in a collage of patchworks. The combination of colors, and the appearance totally differs from piece to piece. “I think the idea of ‘one-of-a-kind’ brings joy to those who seek distinction from others,” says Needles founder Keizo Shimizu.

The concept came about when Shimizu would visit vintage and surplus stores overseas. After many years of doing so, he began seeing a common thread across all the stores he frequented. “It was the abundance of outdated pieces that were once mass produced, and have been left unfit to wear today” Keizo said. “But they had these elements of details I found substantially fascinating, I could not leave them in the dark. And that resulted in starting the Rebuild by Needles collection.”

While Keizo’s Rebuild shirts have a rough hewn quality, they certainly aren’t the type of thing you’d typically see on a DIY Instagram feed or Etsy page. “If I’m making a product, as a professional, I would want to produce a quality garment,” he says. That involves using techniques possessed by garment factory-grade sewing machines, and utilizing multiple pieces to create a single piece. It’s like creating a new garment and doesn’t fall under the category of remakes. Hence the use of “rebuild” in the brand name instead of “remake”.

It’s brands like Needles and Our Legacy that continue to prove that clothing can retain its value, if it is high-quality enough. A polyester stretch pair of jeans isn’t the most viable secondhand score; it most likely wouldn’t make it through multiple “lives.” The brands that invest in beautiful, durable materials and construction are best-equipped to join the circular movement.

But the movement isn’t just about “being sustainable” or doing less harm; there are plenty of other reasons to buy pre-owned goods. For one, the marketplace has never been more saturated with brands, e-commerce sites, and clothes than there are right now, and it's becoming increasingly homogenous throughout the world. That means if you want a jacket or pair of pants that’s actually unique — something that you won’t see someone else walking down the street wearing — then vintage, thrift, and upcycled are your best options.

Thrifting and secondhand shopping is certainly becoming a bigger part of our daily lives, especially as it becomes easier to buy and sell online. However there is still a huge part of society that continues to feed into fast fashion, where standard operating procedure is to buy cheap and replace often, rather than invest and repair. This kind of instant gratification represented by so much of fast fashion increasingly seems simply wasteful. Understanding what you have that has lasted (and why it has lasted) will help you make better decisions later.

One simple step we can all take to maintain a more sustainable wardrobe is to only buy things we intend to wear time and time again. Something we will value and make last. What makes those types of items so special to us is the emotional charge that only comes with time and wear. It makes them feel alive. Granted, it may take more time and effort to imbue those qualities into our clothes, but they will be more fulfilling — not just to us, but for the planet, too.

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