inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode
A rack of vintage clothing inside downtown Santa Cruz shop Motherlode.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Local Business

‘It’s rare to find a pair of Levi 501s in the wild’: Santa Cruz vintage sellers on the world of sourcing

Sourcing vintage is a craft. Santa Cruz vintage sellers discuss what it looks like in practice, and what separates vintage stores from thrift stores.

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As a vintage seller, Mikey Huynh is often frustrated by the misconception he feels some have about his shop, Motherlode, and the other vintage stores in downtown Santa Cruz.

“We’re not thrift stores,” he said. “We’re vintage shops.”

The main difference, Huynh said, lies in the curation. A thrift store typically carries a wide variety of second-hand, often donated, items at a low cost, catering to people with low incomes. Customers must sift through the plenty to find the gems.

Vintage sellers put in time and legwork sourcing clothing and other vintage items — sometimes from thrift stores — to create a curated collection of high-quality, valuable, often on-trend pieces.

“Not everybody is willing to spend the time or the effort to go pick and source,” he said.

Sourcing in the vintage world is often opaque because vintage sellers, concerned with maintaining their sources’ vintage stock for their own shops, want to keep quiet.

“Everyone keeps their sourcing secrets for the most part,” Laurel Preschutti, owner of an Etsy vintage shop, said.

Many local vintage sellers source their items locally, such as from at Goodwill in Salinas. Because of this, Huynh said, some feel that vintage sellers are taking from people with lower incomes for whom these shops often exist and marking up the prices, making them no longer accessible for that clientele. But he thinks people underestimate just how much second-hand clothing is out there and consistently donated to these thrift stores. Vintage sellers see this and understand that those shopping at thrift stores out of necessity are not likely to face clothing scarcity, even with vintage sellers picking through the stock.

Also, he said the reality is that vintage sellers are running a business and providing a service to people. “How do you expect us to make money?” Huynh asked.

Markups on items found at thrift stores vary. Mely Olmeda, owner of Virgo Santa Cruz, who grew up low-income and regularly thrifted with her family, said she keeps prices at her store affordable, between $30 to 50 for tops, skirts and dresses and up to around $75 for denim, because she wants to ensure her store remains an accessible, eco-friendly alternative for people.

Huynh said pricing also depends on a vintage seller’s own knowledge base and ability to understand what it is they have in front of them.

Not everybody is willing to spend the time or the effort to go pick and source.

— Mikey Huynh, co-owner at Motherlode

“There’s a lot of people out there that really do their research and they really know their stuff,” he said. “When you’re out sourcing, you might find something that maybe a 20-year-old kid might not want, but you know that a 60-year-old collector is going to pay $2,000 for that.”

Olmeda said she’s seen an increase in the number of people, especially younger people, shopping at the thrift stores where she sources.

“The great thing about [vintage] becoming a booming industry is that it is more accessible now to people,” she said. “If you go to the Salinas bins, where they sell by the pound, there are a lot more younger people in high school that come after school or on summer break.”

As the secondhand market becomes more popular, and local sources become more saturated with buyers, Huynh said he has started to find other places to source clothing, like flea markets.

But vintage sellers often don’t source their items only from local thrift stores and flea markets. There is a wide world of vintage clothing, and sellers have to work to find and build relationships with people who can connect them to this stock. Teresa “Teresita” Madrigal, owner of Restyled Vintage in Watsonville, said that she has relationships with vintage vendors across the United States and abroad, in places like the United Kingdom and Mexico.

“Vintage sellers find clothes anywhere,” Madrigal said. “The thrift, charities, markets, pop-ups, wholesalers, rag houses, online on eBay, on Craigslist, estate sales — anywhere where they can find the ‘holy grail.’ You just have to be fast enough to find the best things and be connected to the right people. Knowing the right places at the right time.”

Working in Los Angeles as a stylist in creative industries for years, Madrigal said, gave her easier access to these kinds of relationships. But vintage sellers often hire agents who work as intermediaries between them and wholesale sources who have stockpiles of vintage clothing, many of whom Madrigal said you can’t find online. Instead, these sources have in-person warehouses filled with vintage stock.

“They have no signage outside. It almost feels like you’re going into an old building and it’s a whole warehouse with like 30,000 square feet of nothing but vintage,” she said.

Madrigal said these vintage wholesalers often buy from places where there’s an overstock of secondhand and vintage clothing. This includes many African countries whose import of secondhand clothing has overwhelmed cities and had serious environmental repercussions.

Both fast fashion and true vintage, she says, are part of this cycle. True vintage typically gets bought up by exporters and importers who sell to popular vintage wholesalers like Torgom in Los Angeles and LA Vintage. These types of clothes are rarely incinerated — a common practice by the recycling textile industry for secondhand clothing that has been cycled too many times — because of its value.

inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode
Inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Once you’re working as a vintage seller in the industry, Preschutti said, sometimes vintage wholesalers approach you. This can be an essential way of sourcing stock when it’s difficult to find your shop’s featured items through thrifting.

“It’s rare to find a pair of Levi 501s in the wild,” she said, referring to a highly sought after style of vintage Levi’s jeans. In her online shop, StellarJeansVintage, the Santa Cruz native specializes in selling vintage jeans and lingerie.

Madrigal said that the often-mysterious nature of vintage sourcing is becoming less so with social media. She said she sees people on TikTok sharing how to find vintage agents and other insider information about sourcing vintage as a novice to the industry, but she’s not worried about more people gaining knowledge and access.

Huynh agrees.

“There is plenty out there for everybody,” he said. “You just gotta find it.”