Words by Pete Anderson
Photos by Albert Thomas
Even among all the Capsule booths that looked like they were designed with antiques in mind, only Larry McKaughan's exhibit had the real thing--rare and unique vintage clothing. And although the shredded duck work pants, hickory-striped trousers, and jerseys that looked like they came off James Naismith's back all had price tags on them, they weren't really what McKaughan was selling. He was there with the folks from Warehouse promoting Heller's Cafe for Warehouse, a small line of detailed, reproduction-type clothing that takes its cues from McKaughan's extensive holdings in top-of-the-line used American clothing. The line features workwear and sportswear classics like chore jackets, sweatshirts (look for the double front pockets rather than a kangaroo pocket, and chambray and denim pieces.
McKaughan is not a "designer" and wouldn't call himself such--through his business, Heller's Cafe in Seattle, he's been dealing vintage since the mid-1980s and has been a big player on the American and Japanese market. Rin Tinaka even wrote a book with him: The King of Vintage (that would be Larry). He's well-known for a discerning eye and a collection without limits. If you're interested in buying, you'll have to have some connections--Heller's Cafe only shows privately. But the new clothes Warehouse is making are slightly adjusted interpretations of some of Larry's favorite items, so you have a chance to wear his picks after all.
Because the fall 2011 line isn't released yet, and Warehouse is fanatical and proprietary about its treatments and washes, we couldn't get a lot of pictures of the new collection, which McKaughan estimates will be about 30 pieces total. But McKaughan had some time for a Q+A on his history in the vintage market, his personal style choices, and what Warehouse has in store for Heller's Cafe.
Styleforum: Outside of the hardcore vintage collector community, Larry McKaughan and Heller's Cafe aren't necessarily that well-known. Can you give me a little background on your experience dealing vintage?
Larry McKaughan: I've been in business about 25 years. In the mid-1980s I was just somebody looking for cool clothes. I couldn't find the cool stuff I wanted in stores, so thrift became a hobby. I started consigning some things... the market at the time was for used Levis, so I started buying as much as I could find. At first it wasn't a business. If I had some product, I had to sell it that month to make rent. But I scored an entire deadstock store from the mid-60s and we did well enough with that to be able to hold onto things for a while and to sell at a fair price.
Larry McKaughan and I sort through his wonder emporium.
How did the business develop?
The Japanese market exploded in the late 80s. Really until 1997, when their [asset price] bubble collapsed. This was all before the internet, really, before eBay. I mean, we were taking out full-page ads in trade magazines to sell stuff. One year I think we spent $80,000 on advertising, which for a small business...
The business evolved, it's gone through a lot of trends since then, especially in the Japanese market. Now I'm in a place where I buy things to make money, but mostly things I find interesting, that resonate not as a dealer but as someone who likes clothes.
What's your focus?
Mostly workwear from the 1930s and before; athletic wear but not so much uniforms. Motorcycle gear sometimes. Certain trends are moneymakers. Leather Togs, Peters [leather jackets], from the 30s and 40s. I like things that are even more rare than that. Labels can determine value on the market, but my taste is for more unique. You used to be able to go hunting, and to shoot a deer, and the tanneries would make you a custom jacket from that hide. So there's great custom-made deerskin and elkhide jackets. Now I can do it the way I want to do it. I mean, I still have a mortgage, I have two kids....
We also checked out some of the Warehouse gear.
Can you tell me more about the deadstock store you found that got you started?
Well I won't say exactly where it was. But at that point I was thinking of moving to Seattle [where Heller's Cafe is headquartered today] from Sacramento. My girlfriend, now my wife, and some friends wanted to go on vacation first. They wanted to take the River Road, which is the absolute longest way to go. I was thinking "Let's get there and back, and get back to work." So as a compromise for me, we stopped at small towns along the way, and we discovered this store that had been closed a long time. We could see there was a lot of stuff left inside. We asked around found out that an older couple owned it. Their children had both died in a car accident--on the River Road--and they just closed the store. Left everything. On occasion, they would just flip the sign from closed to open for a few days, then close again for a year or two.
I didn't call them then. I figured I had one chance to have a conversation with the people who owned the store. I wanted to get my mojo together; feel balanced; get a good meal and a good night's sleep before I approached it, you know? So I went back out there, and I called from a pay phone in town. I thought in case they they said they'd let me in, I should be close. I introduced myself and explained who I was. She asked where I was, and I told her, and she said to meet her at the store in 10 minutes.
So it worked.
I thought it was the holy grail! I'm always looking for used clothing, but you never know what you're going to get. This was real deadstock from the 1960s. When I got in, the couple was very nervous. Of course, not physically afraid, but it was awkward. They didn't want me to touch anything. I thought, looking around, this is kind of good, but not really what I was looking for--which was Levis, jackets, etc. I asked if they carried any Levis. You couldn't see much--it was the kind of place where we were actually unscrewing and screwing in bulbs around to see. She threw back a tarp on a table and it was full of deadstock Levis from the 1960s. As the thrill started to wear off, I asked "Did you do jackets?" She throws back another tarp--whole table of jackets.
Pretty amazing. Did you buy everything right then?
I got in one time after that. I tried to go back a couple times, but they always canceled. The conversations were essentially "Hm, I have a headache, maybe call back next year." It turned out other guys knew about the store, and had been trying to get in for awhile. It was just the luck of the gods that we got in. And we made enough off of that to establish ourselves as a business, not just, you know, a hustle.
Are there still places like that around, waiting to be found?
There are still places out there. It used to be, guys would travel the country and still find places like that. Sometime you still see lots that have been bought from estate sales of people who owned stores and kept deadstock. But a lot of guys have been working very hard for a long time to find these places. There's more on the East Coast. Twenty years ago, I went through the south--Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee--but they just don't have clothing from the periods I was looking for, didn't have the top brands. The economy was different there, there's more local brands that aren't of a high quality.
How has your taste changed over time?
Like most collectors, in any market, not just clothing, at some point figure out what they're interested in, and it's more and more obscure. After the first couple of years, they sell off what they started collecting. They become more sophisticated. They think, that's kinda good, but I want something more unusual. I'm into smaller brands.
What about more homemade clothing from the early 20th century?
The homemade stuff is not as interesting. Custom stuff, yes. My interest is in smaller brands, but not poor-quality, cheaper stuff. We have Levis, Lee, Wrangler. A lot of that is great, respectable, and desirable. Of course a lot of those brands were just knocking each other off. Levis had teams of horses pulling apart jeans on the label, but Sweet Orr had teams of men, and another brand had two elephants. A lot of brands would take a larger brand's design, and add a gimmick or detail.
One piece I had was Canadian made--I don't normally buy Canadian stuff--but it wasn't just the material and design that was desirable, but the factory had missewn a buttonhole on these pieces, on the cuff, and instead of not selling it, like a second, they had just sewn over it and sold them. It's like a misprinted penny in that way.
How did your work with Rin Tinaka begin?
I had been talking to Rin for awhile. We contributed to almost all his books. Workwear, leather jackets. The later stuff, 1970s and rockabilly, less so. And since I do this as a business, rather than a collector, I often have to sell great pieces and never see them again. One of the ways to get around that is to take good pictures, to record what we've done and the pieces we've handled. And it worked out very well. I talked with Rin about my frame of mind with our collection, beyond business and clothes--well, everything in the book was for sale. But it moves into--and serious artists are going to want to beat the hell out of me for saying this, but--there's a sense of art in it to me. Particularly in well-worn-in pieces, there's real life. Who lived in these, what were they doing? There's something exciting about that, something that resonates, and we wanted to catalog that as well. This clothing is more than just this clothing. It's a cultural history of the United States, especially the working class in the United States. I don't mean to say it's a historical document, exactly--I'm not a historian. I just like the stuff I work with, and I've learned from handling it.
For me, if a piece is dated 1910 to 1918, that's good enough for me. Some guys want to know if it's 1910, or if it's 1911. It's more the feel and essence of a piece for me. But I'm always careful; I don't perceive myself as a historian. I'm an enthusiast who loves this stuff and has made living out of it. Rin understood the philosophy of that and the way those things combine.
What do you think of the current vintage market?
There's a lot of focus on James Dean and Brando and McQueen, but that's more the Hollywood-ization of the fashion. I don't find that interesting. I don't even care about who, exactly, owned them--if John Wayne wore these jeans (not that I don't like John Wayne), then I couldn't really care less.
Do you wear a lot of vintage?
I wear some. One has to be careful not to wear a costume. I like clothing in general a lot. I'll wear something new with something vintage. I'm not trying to dress like a steelworker in 1920. I get it, I respect it; there's something about those men in those times that's powerful, but I'm not that guy. I often say, I work with workwear, but I hope never to do a hard day's work. My dad did manual labor, that's not for me.
I normally wear vintage Levis "big E" 501s. I'll wear stuff from RRL, from Warehouse. Today I'm wearing a Thom Browne oxford. I like classic, quality, simplicity, and honesty, to some degree. I don't like to wear overdesigned pieces. I prefer the honest and purposeful.
How's the line with Warehouse going?
We've done a few years, I think we're going into our sixth season. We've been increasing the numbers of pieces in each collection and the numbers [saleswise]. We have a good fanbase in Japan. We're a niche, and we're probably going to stay that way given the nature of the clothing and the price. Working with Warehouse is great--they're fastidious about what they do and I'm very particular. It's a business relationship but it's a good relationship.
What is there to look forward to in 2011?
There's about 30 pieces in the fall collection. I think we had 18 last fall. The machines we're working on in Japan to produce the fabrics and produce the pieces, they're in demand. We're fighting for time on the machines. To grow the product, for them to dedicate machines to Heller's and take that away from something else--that Warehouse is willing to do that shows they have a lot of faith in the brand.
How does the design of the pieces actually come about? Do you design them?
I'm the inspiration guy. I'll show them pieces, tell them about specific aspects of pieces I like. They do the patterns and cutting though. We do update the cuts. We're as mindful as anyone that your butt looks good in pair of jeans. But we pay attention to the fabrics, the essence of piece.
Do you travel a lot for the line?
I go to Japan six times year. Twice we go with Heller's for exhibitions. Otherwise we just touch base. Considering the travel I do in the U.S., it gets to be exhausting!
At Capsule there were some treated and washed pieces you were calling "master washes." Can you talk about that a little?
Sure. We're not copying exact [vintage] piece. Just trying to put a feel into it. To get it to look how it might have looked had one used it for its intended purpose. An exciting part of the way Warehouse does it, at least for my taste, is that it doesn't look faux. If I don't get that vibe, I don't like it.
Are there any current lines you appreciate? Did you see much at market week that you liked?
Yeah. Haversack, those pieces were just beautiful. So many people are on this tweed thing, and so much is crap. Poorly made, looks cheap. But when I saw Haversack, I thought "God, that's beautiful." Although it's not my expertise, he's gotta be using some of the best fabric in the world. It's great inspiration. It's more design than I would normally put into a pieces.
But you see in the market, guys who are copying guys, who are copying other guys. One of the reasons we bring vintage to the shows is to say "This is where we're getting inspiration. We think this is cool." That's for clients and also for other vendors. In some sense it's also showing off my toys, but it brings legitimacy to what we do.
There's a lot of redundancy out there. So much stuff looks almost the same. That's the dilemma in mens' workwear. Some details, like chin straps--10-15 yrs ago you couldn't find a chinstrap shirt. Now almost every line has one. The difficult part is that there are just not that many details to try. "Now that we've done X, what's next? How far back can we go?1870s, 1880s?" Can't go further or you do get into homemade stuff, and costume.
It will be interesting to see how goes. There are some very creative people out there. Mister Freedom, Stevenson Overalls. But you also feel inundated with mediocrity. Not that I'm that great! But if I'm out looking for clothes, the first hings I do is touch something, see how it feels. So much feels crummy, cheap. There's definitely a tension among creativity and money and quality.
It's hard to get that feel for clothing when so much is done through e-commerce.
Yeah. I look around online of course. Sometimes I'll get smitten with a piece, and then see it in person and think "God, I'm glad I didn't buy it." The texture's wrong. And clothes are an addiction for me, so for me to fall out of love with a piece...
Thanks Larry for your time!
Keep an eye out for McKaughan's line, currently stocked at J. Crew.