In his early 20s, budding entrepreneur Jim Buckley decided to go into the export business for one main reason — he wanted to travel. His wanderlust soon evolved into a retail savvy that has earned him acclaim as one of the most successful retailers of vintage garments in the South.
This year, Atlanta-based Clothing Warehouse is celebrating 20 years as purveyor of threads from eras past. The store has served as a resource for retailers looking for inspiration and for locals seeking a look all their own. Today, the company boasts two Atlanta-area locations and three franchise stores in Chapel Hill, N.C., Greenville, S.C., and Savannah.
Popular culture and a sluggish economy has sent consumers rushing to vintage shops in search of reasonably priced trendy clothes, creating a demand that can sometimes outpace supply. Some smaller operations have found it difficult to keep up, but for Buckley and Erin Faulman, Buckley's sister-in-law and business partner since 1995, a certain level of competition has only made them better.
"We do well in good times and in bad times because we concentrate on having a good product in our stores," Buckley said.
When Buckley founded the store in 1992, the Clothing Warehouse was a wholesale-only operation. Then he had the idea of opening the showroom to the public. The store quickly became the place to buy Levi's jeans. Emory students would crowd the showroom to search the 3,000 pairs of jeans and customers from Japan would buy 20 pairs at a time.
Buckley's careful study of his customers' habits created new opportunities.
"We would sell hundreds of pairs of jeans to Japan back in the day," he said. "We would drive down to Miami and pick them up for five dollars, then drive up to Atlanta and pack them into shipping crates."
Buckley focused on building a vintage business with the approach of a modern retailer.
"For us, it is just trying to make a better retail experience — trying to keep the prices down and having knowledgeable staff so customers can find pieces that work for them," he said.
But finding affordable vintage clothing gets harder as the decades pass. Vintage, which is generally defined as garments and accessories at least 2o years old, is subject to the same market conditions as any other product. The older the time period, the fewer the number of garments available, the greater the demand, the higher the cost. Authentic garments from the 1920s can easily cost hundreds of dollars.
When any bygone era is resurrected in popular culture — Boardwalk Empire and the remake of the Great Gatsby have done for the 1920s what Mad Men did for the 1960s — consumer demand surges. And when clothing designers reference certain eras in their collections, customers flock to vintage stores in search of the same styles and silhouettes at a lower cost.
"I hear people all the time saying, 'Oh, this is so Mad Men'," said Jennifer Alice Acker, a saleswoman at the Clothing Warehouse in Little Five Points.
"Body size is a huge thing," Acker added. Straighter shapes do well with clothing from the 1920s or the 1960s, while curvier shapes are more at home in styles from the 1950s, she said. For some customers, vintage is a foreign world. "People sometimes say [the clothing] is like 'something my grandmother would wear,' " Acker said. "They will mindlessly buy the same things at Forever 21."
About 15 years ago during a trip to Costa Rica, Buckley discovered just how connected vintage clothing was to modern-day styles. Out on the water, he struck up a conversation with the guy paddling next to him.
"He said 'Omigod, the Clothing Warehouse! We go there every year and go back to New York and knock off the designs,' " Buckley said. The guy was a designer for the Gap and confessed to getting inspiration for the Gap's puffy ski vests and bib overalls from stuff they found at the Clothing Warehouse, Buckley said.
Vintage retailers are able to shape trends in other ways. Self-editing, Buckley said, is very important.
"We concentrate on doing three or four things really well," he said. "If I can't get a bunch of stuff to sell, then I won't do it."
Lately, he said, the 1980s have been popular, in part, because that's the decade top designers have been referencing, and in part because anything pre-1950 is hard to find.
Vintage clothing continues to be a viable business, Buckley said, noting that they recently opened another Atlanta store at 10th and Peachtree. The market for vintage is huge, he said, and while the way vintage retailers do business may continue to evolve, the customer's appetite for clothing from the past is here to stay.
Event Preview: The Clothing Warehouse 20th Anniversary Party (The first 50 customers receive a $20 gift card)
7 - 9 p.m. Friday. Free.
The Clothing Warehouse, 420 Moreland Ave. N.E.
A sample of local vintage clothing shops:
The Clothing Warehouse, 999 Peachtree St. N.E., Suite 120
Stefan's Vintage, 1160 Euclid Ave. N.E.
The Lucky Exchange, 212 Ponce De Leon Ave. N.E.
749 Moreland Ave. S.E. #103
Poor Little Rich Girl, 3393 Main Street, College Park