Vintage Fashion And The Rag Trade

Textile recycling is a huge global industry with a process that begins when charities have an overload of donations they either don’t have room for or can’t keep in stock.
Publish date:
October 23, 2014

The term “vintage” has become almost meaningless, sort of like calling someone a hipster. It effectively evokes a stereotype, yet it can be applicable to an endless whorl of aesthetics, eras, and subcultures. A mid-century dress is vintage, just as an ‘80s Versace power suit is vintage. Now ‘90s Guess jeans are vintage, and I heard the retro merits of JNCO discussed recently.

A few weeks ago, I read a Pacific Standard article on fast fashion and its relationship with Los Angeles. I hadn’t realized how much companies like H&M or Forever 21 changed the way we receive trends. Trends are now ripped off the runway and instantly translated into wearable pieces for all of the suburban strip mall babies.

Our style inspiration comes from a mishmash of fashion weeks and the endless hum of images, a GIF of an ‘80s VHS here and a 1990 Naomi Campbell shoot there. We want some version of high fashion quickly, but we want something to be the salt of the look. Vintage pieces, in a lot of ways, have evolved into the anchor of our wardrobe, our personal capsule collection.

Vintage isn’t supposed to advertise itself anymore or it looks too twee. We want subtle pieces with the materials, seams, and brands of a different time, just with a modern fit. The accessible supply of vintage wear is dwindling due to obvious laws of supply and demand. Just ten years ago it was plausible to stumble upon an Edwardian-era piece. Now we get excited when we find pieces before 1980. In 2014, with our fast fashion castoffs already dominating thrift stores, how high of a premium will be placed on vintage wear, both in price and in cultural value? The answer might, just possibly, be found in the sky-high sorting piles of textile recycling facilities.

I grew up in a small Texas town, about ten minutes from the border of the U.S. and Mexico. It’s a mostly suburban area with a lot of ranches, and the closest big city is four hours away. Trends used to be slow – very slow – to reach that tiny bottom tip of the country. The Internet was the saving grace of kids like me who wouldn’t have otherwise had a timely way to know what people everywhere else were wearing or listening to.

In high school, the early 2000s fashion blogs I read told me that vintage wear was popular. My mom, who grew up where I did, remembered warehouses of used clothing that she would pick through as a teenager. She told me they were gold mines of old clothes brought from estate sales and garages around the country and dumped on a concrete floor in an unairconditioned warehouse. These warehouses exist in the rest of the country as rag houses or, more formally, textile recycling facilities.

At the time, I had no idea that people from all over the world were making the trip (or having someone make the trip for them) to these warehouses that lined borders and port cities. While I was digging through mountainous piles of clothing for names I recognized and ironic things, so was Shazia Choudry Bajwa at her father’s business in Houston.

“My family’s been in the textile recycling business for almost twenty-five years, and my father was a pioneer of the industry here in Houston,” Shazia told me. “I saw the beauty of growing your own business and having an entrepreneurial spirit.” As part of her family’s business, American National Rags Company, Shazia operates her own wholesale vintage component within the millions of pounds of clothes they receive each year from charities and other sources around the country.

Textile recycling is a huge global industry with a process that begins when charities have an overload of donations they either don’t have room for or can’t keep in stock. A 2013 NPR article estimated that 80 percent of donations to charities end up in the hands of textile recycling companies to be turned into rags, exported into other countries, and, lastly, sifted through for premium vintage.

This is where Shazia, who’s just shy of 28, comes in. For the last three years, she’s managed the vintage department within her family’s company. Her business is called Vintage Veins as homage to the family business that runs in her blood. She’s hired her own team of sorters and taught them about the ins and outs of vintage clothing, things such as recognizable brands, the way seams are stitched, and the quality of the materials. A manager runs quality control and keeps track of the wholesale accounts Shazia and her team have with notable retailers and vintage sellers in the United States and internationally. For privacy’s sake she can’t reveal her clients, but it’s safe to say fashion lovers would recognize the names.

In a fast fashion world, we hold up pieces from previous eras as our inspiration. We admire the seams, the zippers, and the material that feels heavier in our hands than the endless supply of thin cotton does now. I have a wardrobe full of clothes from cheap mall staples, but it’s a ‘60s YSL men’s button up that I wear almost weekly.

I asked Jennifer Barker-Benfield, owner of Austin-based vintage shop Blue Velvet, what her definition of vintage is:

“My definition is ‘20 years or older,’ but if you find a great item that’s from 2006, one could argue that it’s ‘vintage’ in that it’s no longer available for retail sale, although I understand when people want to keep to a stricter definition. For the purposes of our store, we distinguish between true vintage (which is 99% of our shop) and ‘retro,’ which is something cool and unusual and vintage looking, but not actually old, and we note it on the tag. I try to stay away from Forever 21-type stuff, even though it may look cute and retro, just because it’s so readily available and not particularly well-made.”

Barker-Benfield, who’s owned Blue Velvet with her mom for the past 20 years, brings up an issue that’s illustrated in fashion and on the Internet. It’s in how we borrow inspiration and how we incorporate vintage into our look now. We sew together the bits and pieces of pop culture past through disjointed images we see, and we get Internet girl with hip hop nails and aClueless plaid miniskirt. That sounds almost pejorative, but it’s not meant to. Our generation takes the past and reinvents it into something that fits – literally and figuratively – better.

How we use vintage pieces and curate our inspiration is reflected in the evolving habits of vintage buyers. Some of Shazia’s clients are looking for true vintage pieces, but many buyers understand that obtaining those pieces in huge quantities, particularly in the sizes they want, is increasingly difficult to do. Both textile recycling operations and vintage buyers have reached a solution that benefits both sides: remaking the pieces.

“Most times my clients are not just ordering clothing, they’re ordering the fabric,” Shazia explains. “They tell me I can pick pieces in any size because they’re cutting it up and creating something that’s either resized or turned into something completely different, like a clutch. It’s great for me to be able to widen my picking and production because not every client has one specific thing they want to do with a piece.

She says it’s helped her develop relationships with buyers from large companies who trust her to find what they need in the thousand pound bales of raw textile goods that Shazia and her team receive each day. Right now, genuine black leather, fur, and rayon are popular materials for her buyers.

“The mainstream public learned the appeal of what vintage means because of stores like Urban Outfitters or Madewell that derive a lot of their fashion lines from a vintage product,” Shazia says. “The material my clients purchase will be remade into something that the average shopper will find attractive because it looks and fits the right way.”

Being environmentally friendly and on-point with trends has been difficult to achieve until now. Los Angeles and New York’s Reformation is an example of this done right, at last. Reformation is a prime example of remaking dead stock material and used clothing into pieces that modernize a retro look. Founder Yael Aflalo started the brand after becoming disillusioned with the fashion industry and the constant need for new materials. Her company takes the deadstock material and clothes in outdated styles, and designs a piece that retains vintage inspiration, particularly from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

These are the sorts of clients Shazia works with, buyers who have an intuitive sense of the business and how we incorporate vintage will evolve. The term “vintage” might be vastly diffused, but maybe that’s because the concept is in the process of being reinvented. And maybe, finally, we have a symbiotic relationship that can develop between consumers who want trends delivered rapid fire and the millions of pounds of unused clothes being thrown away.

It’s nice to know there’s a solution buried in those mountain ranges of used clothes that line our borders and our port cities. “We’re nostalgic for the composition of an item, of the threadwork and the hardware,” Shazia tells me at the end of our conversation. “I was amazed the other day by the structure of these old sequined dresses I was processing. Leather, fur, and other materials can be mocked into a piece that still has a vintage appeal, and it makes the most of the material. It’s a modern day version of the design it was derived from.”

Reprinted with permission from The Style Con.