Why vintage band T-shirts are still a hit
The fashion item currently most coveted by off-duty supermodels, world-famous rappers and other style leaders isn’t found in boutiques on the Place Vendôme. It’s sitting at the bottom of an industrial-sized tub in a rag house – large-scale units in North America that become vast holding bays for second-hand clothes. These spots are a mecca for vintage T-shirt collectors and, increasingly, sellers at a time when old-school tees are enjoying an unprecedented boom.
With brands such as Givenchy, Coach and Vetements showing vintage-style T-shirts on the runway, the original articles are gaining huge interest once again. The hashtag “vintagetshirt” has more than 20mn views on TikTok, and in September 2020 a promotional T-shirt for the Disney film Aladdin caused a stir when it sold on the Los Angeles-based seller Chris Fernandez’s website for $6,000. The sale sparked conversations about a vintage T-shirt bubble, but as increasing numbers of Gen-Z consumers enter the market the second-hand rag trade has shown no signs of bursting or slowing down.
“I can think of Nirvana shirts that I sold 15 years ago for $10 that are now worth anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000,” says Kirby Fisher, founder of the Vancouver-based store Dead Union, who says the bulk of his income comes from vintage tees. “I recently used a single Sub Pop-era Nirvana T-shirt to pay for a holiday my wife and I took to Sri Lanka.” For south London-based Matt Sloane, founder of the vintage concept store Jerks, there’s been a palpable change in demand in the past few years. “When I first started about 10 years ago, there was a real focus on pieces from the ’70s and ’80s, like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. In the past couple of years there’s a new generation of buyers who want pieces from the ’90s.” Sloane agrees that music T-shirts are where collectors are paying big money. “It would, for example, be hard to find an original Aphex Twin T-shirt for under £800. For original My Bloody Valentine tees, you’re looking at between £800 and £1,000.”
“Vintage T-shirts tap into nostalgia,” says 34-year-old Deeps Samra, who collects rare hip-hop and R&B T-shirts. “I have N.E.R.D tees that immediately take me back to the summer of 2005: good, carefree times in my life,” he says. “When you stumble on those pieces there’s this sense of, ‘I’ll pay whatever they’re asking.’” Samra, who has more than 100 shirts, counts original merch from the ’90s hip-hop collective Dipset and the east coast crew The Lox among his most treasured pieces: “I’ll take them to the grave with me.”
Kirby Fisher’s collection spans more than 200 pieces, although he says it is perpetually “growing and dwindling”. “Growing up on the Gold Coast in Australia, I was obsessed with not wanting to fit in,” he says. “Hunting down rare vintage T-shirts was the easiest way to identify myself as being nothing like my environment.” Fisher remembers his first big purchase, a Genesis T-shirt that he found on eBay and for which he paid $250. “I was so excited that I didn’t even look at the size. When it arrived it was way too small.” Today his collection is predominantly filled with the merch of Australian punk bands from the ’70s to the 2000s, as well as gay and leather daddy T-shirts (“to keep the homophobes on their toes”). Twenty pieces from Fisher’s collection are so valuable he stores them in a fireproof box.
The Lox T-shirt from Deeps Samra’s collection
1976 Elton John T-shirt, $300, filthmartla.com
Nostalgia and status-signalling are undoubtedly at play here, but anyone who has worn a genuine vintage tee can testify that there’s something about the fit, cut and fabrication that often feels better on the body. “The shirts back then were mostly tubular,” says Mike Sportes, who owns Los Angeles-based Filth Mart with his wife Maggie Fox, referencing a style of T-shirt construction that doesn’t use side seams. “By today’s standards this can cause problems with twisting, torquing, and knotting at the bottom of the shirt… but that slight imperfection is what we like.”
Stella McCartney and Liv Tyler sourced the “Rock Royalty” T-shirts they wore to the 1999 Met Gala from Sportes and Fox. The couple advise against collecting with the sole intention of doubling your money. “There are some things that were extremely popular a few years ago that mellowed out,” Sportes says. “Ultimately you need to make decisions based on what you’re drawn to.” With Filth Mart selling ’70s-era David Bowie tees for upwards of $750 each, you’d better be a genuine fan of the Thin White Duke before forking out.
Where to buy
Burned Out UK, burnedout.co.uk
Catalogue London UK, cataloguelondon.com
Dead Union Canada, deadunion.com
Filth Mart USA, filthmartla.com
Jerks UK, jerks-store.com
Procell USA, instagram.com/procell
What to read
Ripped: T-Shirts From The Underground ed. by Cesar Padilla (Universe, $9.98)
The Art of the Band T-Shirt by Amber Easby and Henry Oliver (Pocket Books, £5.99)