For most denimheads, LA is considered the ultimate hunting ground for vintage clothing. People flock here from all over the globe for research, shopping trips and a chance to visit the holy grail of flea markets: the Rose Bowl. This epicenter of used clothing has in turn become a hotbed of style: a day at the Bowl gives you a glimpse into the essence of west coast dressers: the original rock dude with his snakeskin boots, perfectly aged Journey tee, and worn-to-death bootcuts… the boho babe effortlessly gliding the stalls in her 1920’s lace dress with a perfectly crumpled Resistol hat, the heritage hotty rocking a Type II, rayon spread collar and some kickass khaki’s…. these characters cement the stereotypical vintage scene here and inspire many an Englishman to buy a pair of cowboy boots he will never ever wear again.

Varsity Los Angeles, Photo by Kate Berry

But the old-guard of vintage is changing, and with it, the market as a whole. The original, discerning vintage-heads are merging with a new kind of collector: Generation Z archive-heads. This growing tribe of buyer was born from the collector-culture of streetwear drops and recent rarities. Local hero’s such as Sean Wotherspoon of Round Two Vintage have educated them on vintage Guess, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren whilst rappers like Travis Scott and ASAP Rocky have introduced them to the world of Raf Simons and Helmut Lang. The kids are getting turned onto vintage with a more recent-archival appeal and a personalized, eclectic taste. The High-Snob lad is getting woke to the high of the hoard. It’s like Supreme Thursdays… but on the second Sunday.

Nils, Justin and Kenna of Varsity, Photo by Kate Berry

A group of collectors who know a lot about this are Kenna, Nils and Justin from Varsity. Their store is my favorite vintage den in Los Angeles because these guys have a taste level that’s pretty unique and it totally jams with mine. In fact, it totally jams with a lot of people because they are crazy popular with the kids, the designers and the fashion crowd. It’s hard to describe Varsity’s vibe because it’s so broad and yet so niche, where a 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier psychedelic printed jean could share rack space with a Blind Jeans skate pant and it’s not weird at all.

They mix subcultures, markets, eras and taste levels and yet somehow every single piece is desirable; a niche gap in your wardrobe just waiting to be filled. The Varsity crew think of what you haven’t thought of yet, so a visit to their store is absolute inspiration-crack and their Instagram feed a daily reminder of what other treasures are waiting in their Melrose archives.

Varsity’s mix is a leap away from what most regular vintage stores carry, so I figured I’d sit down and ask them about their approach to picking and where they see the future of vintage going.

Varsity: 4357 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Photo by Kate Berry

Denim Dudes: When did you guys all meet and when did you start up Varsity?

Justin: We opened Varsity in 2016, I met Nils at the bins at Goodwill; I tried to buy a Ralph Lauren Polo hat off his head.

Nils: I actually think I met both you guys at the bins!

Kenna: I met Justin at A Current Affair. I was there because I’d found this Suicide Ski Polo sweatshirt at the bins and I was trying to sell it to his friend.

Justin: So we were either united by bins or by Polo…

Kenna: And we were all separately selling, but we realized we were selling the same sort of stuff.

Nils: There was talk of us doing a showroom…

Kenna: Yeah, we had just been floating the idea and a week later this storefront came up.

Justin: I lived in the same building as our first store. The dude who was running the old vintage shop downstairs, Big Bill, this British guy, he came to me one day and said “do you want the shop?” He told me I had two weeks to decide. We said yes.

Denim Dudes: And what do you think it is that unites you? You said you were selling the same kinda things…

Nils: At the time at Rose Bowl there was a big generation gap. There were all the older sellers who had their certain thing, all their great stuff that you would never see because the Japanese would get it, then their second tier of good stuff and at that point there was the new generation of kids who were into sports stuff: Tommy or whatever. But we were buying the big void of other stuff that wasn’t as collectible. We weren’t afraid to have 2000’s stuff, which now is commonplace but back then… you would bring that out to the Rosebowl and people would snicker at you.

Eclectic Archives at Varsity, Photo by Kate Berry

Justin: I think what unites us is being ahead of the curve, not just being about “this’ll make money” but really liking the shit, liking the music and the scene behind the look. I don’t think we’re on trend, I think we’re a way before it. Sometimes that ends in tears because you’re too far ahead that you can’t turn a profit on it.

Kenna: We all like weird shit and we all pick weird shit. I was picking Tommy in 2012, we couldn’t sell it back then but I knew we would eventually.

Nils: …or it’s just something that nobody will ever catch on to. And that’s not saying we’re on this higher plane of thinking, it’s just that I have bins of stuff in my house that to me is gold but in realistic terms is worth close to nothing. Most people will look at it and will be like ‘oh yeah that’s really cool’ but they have no desire to buy it.

Denim Dudes: So besides Tommy Hilfiger, what else have you bought into early that’s become big?

Justin: Sade Tee’s, Massive Attack now. I remember I couldn’t sell those tees at first and now they have a two-week shelf life, max. Portishead, or the Dipset stuff we’re doing now, we have a feeling that’s coming…

Nils: 90’s metal and rap shirts. I used to go out to Rose Bowl and literally spend 400 bucks and fill a huge bag with them. At the time I was only selling them for around 50 bucks on instagam.

A small selection of Varsity’s tee obsession, Photo by Kate Berry

Denim Dudes: And were you the only guys slinging that stuff at that point?

Justin: For sure. That’s how this came about because we saw a whole other market… nobody had done this outside of Japan at that point: not mixing men’s, women’s high-tier, everyday, and an emphasis on denim too, all in one store.

Nils: If we buy from 1910’s to 2008, our customer is going to be just as broad.

Kenna: I think our customer is broad but I also think what they all have in common is they like stuff that’s different. I think that so many things are exposed now. You can just go online and see anything. And I think people really crave some mystery. They want discovery in their regular life; they don’t just want to be fed stuff. When I was a kid there was weird shit that you were just attracted to. Not because some celebrity liked it! And I think all our customers have that in common. Even if they’re buying something that’s on trend.

Justin: Its disruption. And there’s kids who have been shopping with us since they were 16, 3 years ago. They’ve become friends and its funny to think they were buying a heady shirt at 16 for a premium amount and not just going ‘that’s a sick graphic’ but understanding the subject matter too.

Kenna: I think we recognize that our customer is really smart and really nuanced and they don’t just fit into one category.

Nils: But then there’s also the kids that come in and they don’t know, but they ask. And that’s as cool if not cooler than someone who does know.

Justin and Nils, Varsity. Photo by Kate Berry

Denim Dudes: How do you think people’s approach to fashion has changed over recent years?

Nils: Right now there’s a lot of older brands that are great again. But there were the dark ages of 2008 to 2015 or so. Now… I’m completely contrary and don’t like most things, but I can go into foot locker today and there’s 5 shoes in there that I could buy. I can go into places and see things that make sense to me now, but during that period it was so awful! I think a lot of people looked for something else because they didn’t want the floral print Nike Huarache or the Forever 21 jean. They wanted some original Jordans and some old Levi’s with the pocket fallen off.

Denim Dudes: So is it nostalgia that’s driving this consumer? Irony?

Nils: I think in vintage its more than nostalgia…. They’re experiencing it just like people experienced Jimi Hendrix and Black Sabbath. There are kids who are lost in this world and they will hear Mob Deep or Nirvana and that’s like me hearing Minor Threat or NWA when I was 13. I think people are more serious and honest than they were ten years ago. I remember when vintage was funny, where people would wear day-glo, new wave stuff.

And that’s a plus to the internet; people are able to find a network who they appreciate and identify with. And there’s validation there.

Justin: On a higher fashion level everybody’s thirsty for something new, something different. Not to take shots at anybody but look at the Balenciaga sneaker. I think there was a lot of irony in the design of it for sure. We see where it rooted from, obviously sketchers had some sort of influence in there… but I don’t think there’s a lot of irony paying 800 dollars. I think cats are hungry for ‘new’ in the fashion world and that’s why it became so popular. And it’s a well-made shoe!

Nils: Here’s something that kids are wearing ironically now: the Nike Monarch. That’s because it looks like that Balenciaga high-fashion shoe. I have a friend who’s ahead of the curve on a lot of stuff and he would always wear the weird Nike mid to late 90’s shoes and at the time I was like ‘those are horrible’ but in today’s climate they’re totally accepted. And the Nike Icarus: they retro’d it a year or two ago. If they’d have done that in 2010 people would have thought it was a practical joke, because it was a dad shoe. And I think that’s why the kids are getting into the super baggy light wash jeans because is ‘dad style’

A selection of jeans at Varsity. Photo by Kate Berry

Denim Dudes: And what are you guys into right now?

Nils: I like outdoors stuff so Patagonia and Northface, old Polo and old surf and skate stuff.

Justin: And… we’ve still got four Polo pieces on the wall! We have a whole bin of Patagonia that we’re holding onto. It’ll look better put out together so that’s collecting. And I love finding Gaultier.

Nils: I like the weird rave-y Gaultier stuff.

Justin: And Jeans, Paul Gaultier! And DC jeans: We come across a lot of deadstock DC’s: floral ones, white ones, pink ones….

A selection of Varsity’s 90’s printed designer jeans. Photo by Kate Berry

Kenna: I love all that Fuzzi mesh stuff. But a brand that I look for is probably X-Girl.

Justin: …if I don’t beat you to it and put it in a plastic bin! I have a fascination with X Large, Grand Royal… anything around the Beasty Boys.

Kenna: X-Girl was on Vermont.

Justin: Yeah, X-Large, X-Girl…. they were in the same neighborhood as where we started. They shared the same zip code as us. That was the worst thing about moving for me, because we didn’t have the 90027 zip code. They closed in 2012.

Kenna: We have some X-Girl stuff, we’ve been collecting it but not selling it.

Denim Dudes: Do you have any X Girl in the store?

Kenna: Yes, we have this tee

Nils: I had to drive 5 hours to get that!

Justin: You know what, it’s been in here too long, its going in the container

Denim Dudes: What’s this container you keep talking about?

Nils: We have containers of stuff. I got into this through collecting so I was collecting stuff well before I was selling and you can’t sell everything, so then you put it in a bin. And now I’m older I can’t just be wearing punk shirts that don’t fit me every single day, so…

Justin: Bin is collection, basically.

Nils: Despite being in this world my daily clothing takes up a tiny space in my closet and then I probably have ten bins of tee shirts. 

Justin: We call it the Varchive: The Varsity Archive.

Which leaves me with the nagging feeling: what I wouldn’t give to have free-rein in that Varchive….

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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.