It is occasionally difficult, as we walk the labyrinthine racks of Mr. Freedom, to tell which pieces of clothing are vintage and which are new. And that is the way that Christophe Loiron - Mister Freedom himself - likes it. He began his career as a vintage clothing picker, selling what he found while traveling the countryside - worldwide, really - at locales such as the now mildly-famous Alameda Flea Market, which was the place to be if you were selling vintage Levi’s ten or twenty years ago. It’s one of the reasons his store is ever-so-slightly haphazard: not only is it a gesture to his beginnings, but it encourages the hunt.
It’s both fun and mildly confusing - on one occasion I pull a boot off a shelf, ask him where he found it, and he tells me it’s one he made.
“I put the ‘old’ in the design itself,” Christophe tells me. “Everything I sell is unwashed, raw, rigid - which is a deal-breaker for most people. But to me the ‘old details’ are in the actual pattern, the fabric, the stitch count. I’ve always liked that something looks like it’s dead-stock, that it’s been sitting on a shelf for forty years, that’s what we’re trying to emulate here.”
The shop floor at Mister Freedom
There’s an order to the chaos, though it may take a tour or two to understand. Pieces are laid out by collection - Men of the Frontier over here, The Sea Hunt over there - and intermingled amongst all the little islands of clothing are special zones - vintage boro fabric, maybe; or a collection of US Military Flight jackets. And it has the effect of playing down the extent to which Christophe appears as a “designer,” that mythic author-figure that the consumers of the late-aughts have come to admire so.
We had not expected to meet him today - a pass around the store with a pair of cameras was all that myself and @Stanley van Buren really had in mind - but when he appears from his workshop/office in the loft and introduces himself, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. Especially when he tells me he recognizes me from “the Japan thing,” which, you know…is pretty cool. Fittingly, when we arrive, the ladies and gentlemen of Japan’s Clutch Magazine are there checking out the store, adding an extra layer of worldliness to the whole experience.
A rack of really, really old boro fabric
It’s that cosmopolitanism, that mix of cultures, that guides both the store layout and Christophe’s own creative endeavors:
“I really, really like where civilizations intermix. In every collection that I do, I mix French and American and Japanese fabrics, things from Africa - I really like that melting pot. And that’s reality - you have techniques of dyeing indigo that appeared at the same time in Guatemala, and then in Africa, and…what the **** happened exactly?”
It’s the still-heavy vintage presence in Japan that gave Christophe his start. Mister Freedom is produced by Toyo Enterprise, who found Christophe when he was wholesaling through a store he once had in Kyoto. But he’s lived in America for 25 years now, which, as most of us know, has seen its own explosion of interest in “heritage” goods over the last ten years - and the vintage market has grown more mainstream accordingly. Interestingly, he’s also fairly unforgiving about the clothes he sells, and the time periods they’re drawn from.
A linen stage-driver's coat from the 1800's
“The grass is greener,” Christophe says of the vintage-obsessed crowd (of which he considers himself a part). “I mean, some people tend to think that the past was rosier than it was in reality - ‘Oh, the 40’s were so great.’ Yeah, well, you had World War Two in the forties…Or, if you look at where bricks of [indigo] dye would end up, on the other side of the world, people would actually trade slaves for pieces of indigo or dyeing substances. Of course, the fact that this was not that far back - well, that should be scary. It’s a human trait, though - nostalgia.”
For example, the collection of US military flight jackets: a gesture to Mod style (perhaps we’d just call it “vintage” style now), as well as functional equipment worn by wartime pilots. They’re presented without either fuss or commentary; what they should be conveying is left unsaid - it’s just another rack of clothing.
As Christophe says, it’s the fantasy; it’s the could-have-been that’s just as interesting - if not more interesting - than reality. He’s a storyteller, both in person and through the clothing he collects and makes.
I pull out a very old, very long shirt, and ask him to give me an example. “It’s French,” Christophe tells me, “Cotton and linen - the fact that those shirts are extremely long is because people didn’t wear underwear back then. Very lovely, glamorous story: they’d wrap their shirts like this [under and between the legs]. So what matters is where you put your spin - because the clothing could be anything. That could be a shirt from a US miner in 1875, but it’s actually an apron from 1910 in France.”
One of the many "very old shirts" that populate the shop
If you're a cool store in LA, I think you're required to have a vintage motorcycle
That storytelling extends to his own creations. Take the “Sea Hunt”: it’s a collection based on a fictitious story of a group of men with different backgrounds who traveled the oceans looking for treasure. Each piece is meant to evoke one of these characters, and each is explained on the Mister Freedom blog - though Christophe warns me off of looking it up, as he claims it’ll hurt my brain.
I promise we had more fun than this picture suggests
Despite his origins and the feel of the store, he doesn’t collect much vintage clothing anymore. “I need inspiration, so I have a disease of always kind of looking for stuff. I like to save it from the trash, because I think it’s a piece of history - sometimes there are no photos, and all that remains are the buildings, the furniture, the clothes. And very often I buy it for inspiration, and then put it here [in the store].”
Hence, in the end, the haphazard nature is the core of Mister Freedom. There’s a magpie-like sense of packing a room full of treasures (that not everyone may consider a treasure), and turnover of the vintage stock can be slow: “You’ll notice there’s a lot of stuff that’s unfashionable, unwearable, people are mortified by the price. But it’s because if I want to find that again…how?” Of course, the story on the street is that Mister Freedom has been - and is still - a destination for Hollywood costume designers looking for inspiration.
The shop floor reminds me almost of geological strata. There are layers and layers of un-labeled cultural detritus that have been given new life - this is a place where a fan is invited either to pick apart objects taken from the past, to identify them and attempt to place them in their historical context - or simply admire their loveliness. And that sense of imagination that the Hollywood types are searching for - of storytelling, or even of playing make-believe - is at the heart of the experience. Mister Freedom - the man and the store - is a celebration of history. But perhaps more importantly, it’s a lesson in how history can be skewed, woven with the contemporary, or given new life outside of its original context.