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Is the death of thrifting upon us??
Driving off the "jawnflation" cliff
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Our commitment at Blackbird Spyplane to the small-scale, lovingly made jawn — and our aversion to cursed & charmless mass-market garbage — is well known. But until today, that commitment has coexisted with an uncomfortable secret from my past:
In the fall of 2006, I (Jonah) hit the newly opened Uniqlo flagship store in Soho, and picked up 12 cotton v-neck undershirts to wear beneath button-ups. I don’t think they cost more than $9.90 a piece. In the 17 (!!) intervening years I’ve done several Full Overhauls of my “jawn infrastructural” holdings: Entire underwear and sock rotations have sprouted holes, lost elasticity, and been replaced… But those 12 undershirts? Tees I’ve probably worn, washed and dried upwards of ~400 to ~500 times each? Not only are they still in rotation, they look like I bought them 2 months ago. No holes, no split seams, no rattiness whatsoever.
And so, when I’ve posted pics of myself looking cool as h*ll rocking rarefied artisan slappers — keeping up Mach 3+ “Spyplane Appearances” with verve & panache — what you didn’t see is that, as often as not, I’ve been rocking one of these regs-a** mega-brand workhorses beneath the finery, baby.
And yet I haven’t ever written about their “tremendous value,” much less recommended them in our intel-rich Spytalk Chat Room. That’s because A) undershirts are boring, B) we haven’t copped anything at Uniqlo in ages and they don’t need any promo from the Plane, and C) we’re proponents of the “well-made things cost money” axiom, and these tees complicated that axiom in ways I didn’t care (want??) to interrogate.
Recently, though, I was out to drinks with friends & met someone who works for Uniqlo. I mentioned my tees, saying something like, “One of the reasons people think you shouldn’t cop mass-market s**t is that they start looking so grody & falling apart so quickly, because they’re made in corner-cutting ways using trash fabrics. But Uniqlo really came through with some soldiers when they made these tees, so props to you guys.”
Without missing a beat, this person (speaking candidly on some informal s**t) replied, “There’s no way the tees we make today would hold up that long.”
I thought about that exchange the other day when Spyfriend Chris Black gave an interview to Esquire serenading an oxford-cloth button-down he copped for $35 at the Soho Uniqlo store in 2007. He’s been wearing it ever since, and it’s exquisitely flambéed in a way that no subsequent Uniqlo oxford he’s bought has been able to equal.
A mass-market megabrand like Uniqlo is doubtless still capable of putting out some gems. Maybe even some of their undershirts are still hardbody. But it’s a matter of documented fact — not just a crotchety oldhead opinion — that consumer goods are, on balance, way worse today than they used to be. There was a widely shared Vox article earlier this year about a writer who replaced her go-to bra after a decade of use with what was billed by the brand as the same bra. But when the new one showed up it turned out to be garbaggio in several fatal ways (flimsier material, poorly attached clasps, etc.). She spoke to a bunch of industry experts who confirmed that manufacturing & materials standards have fallen precipitously over the past couple decades, across not just the mass-market apparel industry but also consumer electronics, appliances, etc. (This 2021 Walrus article tackles the same topic.)
We’ve written about how we live in The Era of Mids. A few factors contribute to this, but the most basic explanation is that a decline in quality and enchantment is inevitable in the free-market system as configured, where the dominant producers (and their investors) seek endless gains in market share and profitability, above all other concerns.
That supposedly should (and arguably once did) create the conditions for innovation — you got big at least in part by making things better, and more ingeniously, than your competitors. But by now innovating has come to mostly mean disrupting, e.g., ruthlessly engineering any and all margin-limiting “inefficiencies” out of a given existing industry.
In clothes, the indisputable reigning “innovator” of our time is the enormously cursed nightmare machine Shein, who figured out how to sell $3 pants that people cop as part of depressingly disposable hauls. The company might be “worse” than Zara, who are themselves “worse” than Uniqlo. But Shein isn’t some aberrant outlier — they’re just a repulsively pure expression of the same fundamental logic.
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To see this story of “jawnflation” illustrated in stark terms, just look back at, like, early-20th century August Sander portraits of workers (above left) kitted up in what are (from a circa-2023 perspective) unimaginably slapper-heavy natural-fiber tailored ensembles. Today you’re likeliest to find fits like this cut from expensive Japanese-milled textiles (because so many mills have shuttered and synthetics have flooded the zone) by a sick independent designer (because there is no broad market for s**t like this) whose list price for the set would be a rack or two, minimum.
Or look at the clothes in an Italian neorealist classic like 1949’s Bitter Rice (above right), about dirt-poor seasonal workers from Italy’s peasant class who nonetheless rock what are, from today’s vantage point, tremendously beautiful clothes. And yes, it’s a work of fiction, but the neorealist aesthetic was committedly verité, lovers!!
There are lots of reasons to dislike “jawnflation.” And a big one if you’re like me and Erin is that it it seems to mean the imminent if not already ongoing death of good thrifting??
Case in point: mid-‘90s ~ early ‘00s Gap is a resale goldmine right now. With a little patience, you can still find gems for not-too-much dough; the colors and fits are on-trend; and — without ignoring the conditions under which these clothes were produced — a lot of it was (from today’s benighted perspective) inconceivably well-made. Recently Erin has been on a hot streak of vintage Gap copping, picking up a platonic-ideal faded-red drop-shoulder sweatshirt at Varsity in L.A., a great rugby shirt from the Alameda Flea, and a killer anorak — 100% cotton, Made in Thailand — at Procell in NYC.
Peep the excellence on this jacket:
You see the lovely, faded, wine color. Hopefully you get some sense of the crinkly-soft look & feel of the fabric, which I.R.L. is giving “Japanese typewriter cotton” / “Casey Casey excellence”. There’s a similarly soft & papery high-density white-cotton lining on the hood, sewn with flat-felled seams … And when you flip the s**t open? You get SMACKED IN THE FACE with some beautiful French seams. Time consuming, labor-intensive, “inefficient” hallmarks-of-craftsmanship-a** French seams — the kind of detail that has no place in an apparel industry intent on race-to-the-bottom margin-maximization above all else.
And they sold this at the d*mn mall !!
When Erin and I were in high school, we loved thrift stores because our parents did not have a lot of bread, but we were both nonetheless interested in clothes, and thanks to thrifts we could reliably find well-made, vibey, enchanted pieces for the low: Department-store house labels, Lacoste and Le-Coq-Sportif-type Euro sportswear lines, mysterious no-name-designer lines, stray designer loosies, maybe the occasional hand-made piece whipped up by some home jawnsmith back when more hobbyists made their own clothes.
Even into the 2010s, sick Gap joints (and similarly sick old J. Crew, Banana Republic and Nike pieces) used to be abundant on thrift racks… But the march of time has removed lots of that clothing from circulation / existence, and if you hit a Goodwill these days — or spend any time watching TikTok thrift-haul videos — you will see that very little of Mach 3+ quality has replaced them. Because soon after this anorak was made, Gap went to seed saucewise, and you had H&M hit the scene & radically revamp the game for the worse, hitting the market with cheap bulls**t that, when it didn’t go into landfills, you do not want on your skin today because it aged horribly, both in terms of style & construction. You can date the hockey-stick drop to around 2000, for complex macroeconomic reasons that I fully understand but would take a long time and arcane terminology to explain so I’ll simply point to NAFTA ~ de-industrialization ~ the globalization-abetted race to the bottom.
Once in a blue moon you might luck into a banger at a Goodwill, but what Erin and I mostly find when we pop into thrift stores lately is what we fear we’ll only be able to find in the future: Gross, lifeless, disenchanted, all-synthetic-blend, fast-fashion everything. TikTok “thrift haul” videos are lousy with this kind of s**t. As the name suggests, they echo the Shein “haul” logic, where you may only wear a given piece once (if at all) before tossing it — but hey, it only cost $1.50, and the sheer acquisitive volume created its own empty thrill (“I only paid $10 for enough clothes to fill a 20-gallon garbage bag”).
What’s under threat when you relate to clothes primarily along an axis of volume, of course, is the deeper dopeness of thrifting up a piece of true treasure — the kind of garment you actually love and appreciate and can imbue with significance over time.
One simple explanation for the ongoing secondhand-workwear craze is that, while so much other mass-market clothing has become cheap and flimsy over the past ~20 years, workwear has by nature remained cheap and durable. There are better and worse eras of Carhartt, but the s**t still tends to look better with age, whereas so many other contemporary jawns do not.
“Spyplane,” you might say, “that’s all true enough, but chill — a lot of the action has simply moved from thrift stores to the internet.” It’s true that the rise and professionalization of online reselling, from eBay and Etsy to Depop and IG, has likely depleted the average thrift shop’s Mach 3+ holdings. And yes, it rips that a SLAPPER GRAIL located in rural Iowa can surface in my saved searches and soon shine on yr boy in California.
But isn’t online resale gonna go off a cliff in terms of supply, too, before too long? The last few years have been a golden age for vintage sellers, but is that golden age actually a last gasp in disguise? Every other listing has “Y2K” in the title now — what comes next? When the good 1995~2000-era Gap s**t (and other heat from that period) dries up, what comparably vast treasure troves are waiting to be discovered? ‘00s Structure and Abercrombie? I guess it’s possible. Vintage Muji? Probably some bangers there, but the styles are so simple / muted I think the results overall will be underwhelming. Mid-’00s Club Monaco? I’m dubious!! “Rue de Fleurus-tag Made in France era” A.P.C. ?? There’s something to that — I should do a search…
But, sticking with that example, A.P.C. is a brand that, though by no means small-run, makes way less stuff at much higher prices than ‘90s “premium mass-market” chains like Gap and J. Crew. Because around 2000 sauce & quality started to migrate further and further up the price-point ladder, increasingly becoming the domain of niche / boutique / designer labels.
Sure, there will be exceptions to the broad trend. Maybe some of the Lemaire-designed Uniqlo U joints, and other high-low collabs, will still look sick 30 years in the future, the way, say, 1993 Vernor Panton particleboard IKEA chairs look sick now. And yes, you’ll probably always be able to find opportunities for resale arbitrage (e.g., “yooo no one’s checking for Patrik Ervell and man had heat.”) But none of this changes the fact that there’s a swag crater in the secondhand market, and it’s only growing, because the primary market has been choking on ever-increasing varieties of garbage for more than a decade — and shows no sign of stopping!!
Blackbird Spyplane takes money from no one besides our readers, so we keep some of our best material behind the paywall. Join the Cla$$ified Recon tier if you haven’t — Jonah & Erin
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