Vintage clothing: Buy Low, Sell High. When I describe what goes into my business, people often respond that it sounds like a real labor of love. In a way, it is. I love driving around, finding unappreciated bits of our history and passing them along. Hunting for vintage clothes has brought me to out of the way towns I would never have seen otherwise. I’ve met a whole community of largely fascinating, wonderful people. But at the end of the day, what I do is a job, not a hobby. Dealing vintage clothes requires a huge amount of obscure knowledge, more time than I care to admit, and means taking on a lot of risk. There are easier ways to make money, and most of the time, the money isn’t that great.
It’s a lot like gambling. Montana still has a lot of good picking, but I never know what I’m going to find. That’s half the fun. But if I drive to Billings, the closest “bigger” town (population 110,000) to go dig through thrift shops, I have to find enough to make it worth the 300 miles of driving, 20 gallons of gas and 10 hours of time. Every hour spent looking is time spent not able to sell. Sometimes a trip like that will yield something like the pair of deadstock Levi’s I sold a couple weeks ago, or a whole bevy of vintage hats, sometimes I’ll find a single ’50s suit jacket that I feel obligated to buy so I don’t leave empty handed, and it goes unsold. It’s not even paycheck to paycheck, because I never know from month to month what I will be finding.
But every now and again, I make a big score and it feels worthwhile. Non-dealers often think that the “picking” is the biggest part of my job. In truth, it is by far the smallest. I’ve been selling a lot of ties lately, so let me just take one of those as an example to break down what goes into bringing a piece of vintage clothing to market. Again, there’s a lot of time that goes into knowing what to look for, knowing the difference between a tie from the 1930s and one from the 1970s, knowing what the market is doing and what’s selling well at the moment, what difference a stain makes in the value of something, what to buy and what to leave behind. I find a ton of mid ’50s ties, and almost as many 1950s overcoats, but I literally can not give them away, so they stay where they are. Let’s say I find a necktie at an antique shop for $5, and I buy it. I take it back home and invariably, it’s been sitting for years in a box. So I steam the tie and fold it up. Onto the mannequin it goes, in front of the studio lights, to be photographed. It gets folded back up, and once all the shots have been taken, that pile gets taken over to the computer to be scanned. And then, folded back up (if I had a dollar for every time I fold a tie. . .) Every shot goes in the computer to be rotated, cropped, and white balanced, then the shot of the tie on the dummy, the shot of the label and the scan are composited. This side of things is a lot more time consuming than the photography I see most dealers doing, but I think it’s really important to show everything as clearly as possible. Then it gets listed, the photos are uploaded, everything’s examined for condition and measured. It goes up, sits for a week, sells, and gets packed up. My average vintage tie sells between $7.50 and $20, and it’s just as much work for the $7.50 (As an aside, finding the one tie someone’s bought in a grouping of 100+ that have gone up that week is kind of like those old eye spy books, it’s even harder when someone has paid for a couple separately but they’re being shipped together). Off to the post office and a couple days later, they’re in your hand. eBay takes their fees, paypal takes their fees. So, ignoring the time spent researching to know what’s what, and the time spent looking (with many strike-outs) to find anything at all, just the post-processing, listing and shipping can take nearly half an hour per tie. My big batches of ties that go up often take the better part of a week of 10-14 hour days to get listed. If you got a ’30s vintage tie for $13, $3 goes to the post office, $0.67 goes to packaging, $0.10 goes to paper and ink, $5 goes to my initial purchase and between ebay and paypal, another $1.25, leaving me with about three bucks. Usually, only about 2/3 of the ties I list end up selling, so subtract the price of the remaining stock. Now, sometimes, I get lucky and find a bunch of ties for a quarter a piece. Sometimes I get lucky and find a Palm Beach Cloth tie that goes for $70.
I work too hard and have too much pride in what I do to be anything other than honest. I risk a lot more than three dollars of my reputation on that tie being what I said it is, being in the condition I said it is. All I am is my reputation, it doesn’t matter the price point.
I have a lot of wonderful customers, who really know their onions and really appreciate something special when it turns up. I have my regulars, my repeat buyers, many of whom I consider friends. I also deal with more (way more) than my fair share of kooks. “Do you have this 80 year old whatever in another size/color/style?” used to be pretty common. These days it’s much more along the lines of, “Hi, I see this is going for $150, would you take $25 as a buy it now?” or, “Hello, would you give me free overseas shipping on this $40 8 pound overcoat?”, or “Could you wait two weeks for me to pay so that I can save up the money?”. I also have had a record number of people buy things but not pay. Maybe it’s a sign of hard times. People have consoled me by pointing out that I still have the merchandise, but as I said earlier, this is my business, my livelihood, not a hobby. That money is not theoretical to me, it is needed for bills, for buying stock, for putting food on the table and for paying student loans. I can offer something to the second highest bidder for less (still money out of my pocket), or I can relist. Re-listed items rarely go for what they did the first time around. There always seems to be a suspicion that there was some sort of funny business, like shill bidding, that lead to the item not being shipped out the first time around. 100% of the time, at least with me, that’s not the case, and I would say 5-10% of my “buyers” any given month do not pay, whether they don’t have the money, or they forget, or it’s just how they get their kicks.
Every subset of vintage clothing has its own unique challenges, its own obsessive personalities. With hats, especially with ones with model names (the Stetson Open Road, The Stetson Whippet), it’s an obsession with color. (“Hi, would you describe this as a warm taupe or a mouse gray?). With leather jackets, it’s inexperience with vintage originals compared to reproduction hype combined with hypermasculinity (“hi, I was expecting this to weigh 7 pounds, and it’s only 2, it must not be of good quality”). With many pieces of outerwear, the challenge is an uninformed buyer. (I would like to return this waxed Barbour coat because it’s waxy and smells like wax.)
For me, the most difficult part of dealing in vintage comes after the sale. There is a combination of ignorance and entitlement that seems to come with online retail. A year and a half ago, I had a customer who bought a pair of vintage suspenders not reading the measurements and not understanding that pants were once higher rise. They did not fit his low rise pants or his girth, and he grew increasingly angry, and rather than returning them made a string of accusations and left negative feedback. People buying specialized products do not always know what they’re buying, and once someone’s made up their mind, they rarely want to learn. I get a surprising number of people who don’t read measurements, or who can’t tell the difference between colors. Every now and again, I get a random element, someone who buys something and flies off the handle without rhyme or reason. In my experience, these people usually either have guns of American flags in their ebay profile pictures. After years in critiques in architecture school and firms, I can take critique. But I’m not great with wild accusations. And then there are the times when I legitimately make mistakes. As the picker, researcher, photographer, editor, salesperson, customer service representative, stock manager, and shipping department for my business, sometimes I get overwhelmed and miss things. Sometimes things get held up or disappear in the mail. As the sole employee of my business, there’s also nothing that’s not my problem, and it’s hard to not take things personally, and despite my best efforts, customers or potential customers can ruin my entire day. It’s hard not to get discouraged.
So thank you to the people out there who post pictures of yourselves wearing hats or ties you bought from me. Thank you to the people who send me hot tips on vintage stuff for sale. Thank you to the people who are nice or polite or appreciative. You are the reason this is still fun, the reason I keep at it.