Style / October 2016

Carpe Denim: Brit Eaton, Vintage Hunter

Who knew vintage denim – or even antique denim – was in fact an untapped gold mine? Brit Eaton did – and that’s why he’s America’s most respected denim hunting…

"When I used to uncover a gem my first reaction used to be thoughts of the money it was worth. But I've evolved," says Brit Eaton. "Now my reaction is one of 'holy shit - I've never seen that before!' I get that 'it's better to give' rush, because I can immediately think of a few people who would just get so much pleasure from it."

The fact that Eaton spends his time rummaging around dilapidated barns, redundant mines and salvage yards perhaps suggests that his gems are neither precious nor artistic, at least not in the traditional sense. That his nickname is Indigo Jones - a pun on ‘Raiders’’ adventurer-archeologist Indiana Jones - gives more of a clue: Eaton is the pre-eminent hunter of rare American denim and workwear. And collectors, institutions and designers pay big bucks for his finds, as do global brands the likes of Levi’s and Dickies looking to fill gaps in their archives.

"You just have to leave on a trip with the conviction that your empty truck will come back so packed there wouldn't be room for a cigarette," says Eaton, who spends much of his time away from his remote riverside home and two-storey warehouse - loaded with millions of dollars worth of clothing - sat in his pick-up and putting in the miles. He weaves across the American Mid-West - where the low humidity means an old garment has a good chance of having survived intact - following leads and exploring forgotten towns. And by this he means towns once thriving with industry but literally no longer on the map.

He does plenty of research before setting off, reading period books and magazines, brushing up on is 19th century American history. But practiced intuition matters too. "You need a sense of what very poor people would once have done with their clothes when they were finished with them - and they didn't often throw them away," he says. "I've found old denim stuffed into sofas, used as padding inside a boxing bag, inside mannequins, scarecrows. You find stuff in crazy ways when you start looking."

And not just any stuff, but extremely valuable stuff. There’s blue gold in them thar hills, with denim pieces regularly valued at over $10,000, which is some return when, despite suspicion, he may pay just a few bucks for his finds. “The number one reason people don't let me look around [their barn or outhouse] is that they simply don't believe that I am actually looking for old clothing,” says Eaton, who is all too aware that, on the face of it, the appeal of buying and selling old work clothes, and especially old work clothes that are well beyond functional repair, is a strange idea outside of nerdy first world circles.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.