Raggedy Dandies

The fashion-forward minds behind Rock Star Rags, St. Louis' invite-only vintage clothing warehouse

That's no accident, says Linda Welters, a professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design at the University of Rhode Island.

"The Manhattan Vintage Clothing Show -- a lot of designers go there to knock off ideas for their new designs," says Welters. "Celebrity culture's getting in on it, too. At the Academy Awards, you see Renée Zellweger wearing vintage Valentino. Certainly, nobody else is going to appear in that."

The vintage trade seems perennially to bask in a pop-culture boom. To loyalists, it's all about the struggle for supreme individuality in personal style -- which translates to ultra-competitiveness and secrecy in sourcing.

Jenny Gossmann (left) of Louisville's Cherry Bomb 
sorts through piles of vintage clothing with her boss, 
Susan Schofield.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jenny Gossmann (left) of Louisville's Cherry Bomb sorts through piles of vintage clothing with her boss, Susan Schofield.
Barb Young gleans diamonds in the rag-strewn rough 
for her Japanese clients.
Jennifer Silverberg
Barb Young gleans diamonds in the rag-strewn rough for her Japanese clients.

"There's an underground feel to it because it starts most of the trends and is really forward," says Susan Schofield, proprietor of Louisville's Cherry Bomb, a Rock Star Rags client and significant other of indie-rock darling Will Oldham. "We're set back 35 feet from the street and people will walk in and say, 'Welcome to Fantasy Island, it's taken us three years to find you.' They want to feel like they've found something special. So you can imagine how I feel about Deb.

"If the other two competing vintage stores in Louisville knew about Deb, I'd be bummed out," Schofield adds. "She's mine."

The clients from Chicago are late for their 11 a.m. "pick-through." Which is fine by Johnson, whose schedule is flexible by design.

"I have a rock & roll lifestyle to live up to," she says, speculating that the Windy City pair must have strayed the previous night to the Hi-Pointe from their lodgings at the Cheshire Inn.

Johnson is the only one of Rock Star's three-person nucleus to have purposefully chosen vintage clothing as a career, one that more or less started when she was sixteen on the streets of south St. Louis. Johnson was an independent "picker," gleaning thrift-store racks for the coolest, most obscure duds and selling them to vintage boutiques or friends at a profit. When she moved to Columbia for college and found herself in need of beer money, she continued her picking and salesmanship in earnest.

"Back then thrift stores were full of cool stuff," she reminisces.

When the Chicago clients show up only half an hour late, Johnson's theory is proven wrong: Turns out the pair stayed at a dive motor inn in Collinsville and binged on VH1 all night.

"We watched a lot of I Love the 80s," says Nancy Becker, the proprietor of Una Mae's Freak Boutique in the Wicker Park neighborhood.

Becker, clad in Joan Jett concert T and dark-blue denim jacket, is accompanied by Joel Alford and his truck. Alford's beanpole physique sports multiple tattoos, bed-head hair and, around the neck, a navy-blue kerchief. By night he plays in a band called Hyperviper.

He and Becker proceed to pick vigorously through Rock Star's cardboard T-shirt barrels. The decision-making process appears to consist of Alford displaying Ts he likes for Becker's approval. Shirts that feature bizarre Biblical sayings or pep squads at rural junior high schools are decidedly en vogue. The same cannot be said for plus-size garments.

"Ideally, we like 'em small," Becker says.

Of St. Louis' used-clothing stores, only the thrift/vintage hybrid Rag-O-Rama comes anywhere close to self-sufficiency (thanks to its Delmar Boulevard location, strategically placed near cash-desperate, fashion-fickle Washington University students). The rest scour estate sales and charity thrift-store racks but mainly stock their inventory with garments purchased from Rock Star Rags, and from larger outfits like Rock Star's neighbor to the north, General Waste, which gets its clothing by the ton from the excess inventories of Goodwill, the Salvation Army, etc. Thus, Rock Star often plays the middleman in this multilevel industry, serving as a conduit between big textile recyclers like General Waste and boutiques like Una Mae's and Cherry Bomb.

And then, of course, there's the Japanese department-store market, which accounts for a whopping 75 percent of Rock Star Rags' revenue and requires the full attention of both Martinez and Young.

"Japan has, for the last twenty years, bought American icon items, starting with Levi's," says Jana Hawley, an assistant professor of textile recycling at the University of Missouri. "Russians used to be into the black market for Levi's. I know people who used to take a suitcase of Levi's to Russia and end up paying for their trip."

Russian denim smuggling waned with communism's fall, but the stealth machinations of the era live on in the mysterious world of vintage-garment acquisition. According to Johnson, Rock Star's Pacific Rim clients and their American go-betweens answer only to the code names "Dragon" and "Chico."

Sarah Wheelock, a Yale alum and Rock Star client who owns and operates the Funky Monkey vintage store in New Orleans, recalls a 2001 New York Times Magazine article that painted an especially deranged portrait of the industry's pickers.

"They made us sound psychologically twisted," Wheelock says of the February 25, 2001, piece by Steve Garbarino. "They talked a lot about the personality type -- tending to be addicted to drugs and alcohol, hipster oriented, out to screw each other. The reason it gets cloak-and-dagger is the sourcing. People are always trying to outdo each other. Everything's one of a kind, so it's more competitive in that respect."

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