There is a fashion movement happening right now, a long simmering trend finding full flower in the cultural practices of a new generation. The market for high-end vintage clothing is white-hot, burning bright even amid an economic downturn spurred on by the novel coronavirus. And at the tippy-top of the luxury vintage market—we’re talking twenty-five hundred-dollar shirts from Lou Reed’s 1974 Australian tour sold to celebrity customers like folkie David Crosby and rapper Trippie Redd—sit a couple of guys in Kansas City and their shop, WyCo Vintage.
The old paradigm for vintage shopping involved bargain hunting thrift shops, but the digital marketplace has upended this model. Wealthy customers want very specific pieces in good condition and are willing to pay a premium for it.
WyCo mostly sells via Instagram but also operates a storefront retail space on Broadway. Above it, there’s a private buyer’s lounge and a meticulously cataloged collection of pieces, including a leather jacket issued to the Guns N’ Roses touring crew in 1990, which goes for twenty-five hundred dollars.
Past guests have included Chiefs players like Travis Kelce and lots of national touring musicians—the list grows as word spreads about the shop, which has been covered in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal but barely mentioned by local media.
“When people come to Kansas City, why wouldn’t they want to see the world’s largest collection of vintage T-shirts?” says WyCo co-founder Patrick Klima. “You can only eat so many burnt ends.”
For Klima, it all started when he was working a desk job in the early 00s. He took notice of how many new clothing items were intentionally made to look worn. “All these T-shirts were coming out with fake distressed graphics,” Klima says, “and it made me think more about where these items originated.”
Klima started acquiring a collection of authentic vintage tees in his own size (men’s large) for personal wear. “I started looking for T-shirts from brands I’d loved as a kid, like T&C Surf, or old vintage marketing sayings I thought were funny—stuff like ‘When Smith & Wesson talks, people listen.’”
He developed an eye—just as the market was moving away from Goodwill bins and toward well-curated online shops.
“The more I got into it, the more stuff I started to see, and the whole hobby-collector aspect started growing stronger,” Klima says. “I started looking for the rarer pieces and then moving stuff that didn’t fit me quite right.”
By 2012 Klima was doing brisk business selling T-shirts on websites like eBay and Etsy and decided to take the leap.
“I got out of the corporate world and it was actually really scary, you know, being quote-unquote unemployed, trying to sell vintage t-shirts,” Klima says. Selling sites like eBay can nudge young sellers towards growth, but that helping hand can quickly feel more like handcuffs. “You’re working for eBay, technically,” Klima says, “and if Google changes their algorithm or the site changes its policy, all of a sudden it impacts you badly.”
Enter Adam Compo, a web designer and brand expert with a deep love of vintage clothing, particularly vintage metal and rock tees. After a few early iterations, WyCo launched a finished version of its webshop in 2016, and began developing weekly “drops”—an eventized release of new vintage items, typically thirty-plus items per week. As a fully owned and operated independent website, WyCo is reliant on no one but their customers and fans. It’s now approaching two hundred weekly drops, with more than 3,500 vintage garments total listed on the website. Its fervent fan base includes celebrities and rockstars, film and television wardrobe stylists and normal collectors with a love of vintage clothing.
Compo brought a designer’s eye to WyCo, pursuing high-quality photography of each individual item and developing the brand’s unique, minimalist social media presence. Time, the great equalizer, was on their side.
“As social media has grown over the last decade, especially Instagram, more people are being exposed to things they didn’t know existed,” Klima says. “People see this stuff now and see celebrities wearing it, and they go look for it and find us.”
The explosion of social media has dovetailed symbiotically with the growth and interest in vintage fashion, driven by celebrity influencers who proudly wear the styles of yesteryear in today’s selfies and paparazzi moments. Influential figures including rapper-producer-designers like Travis Scott and Kanye West, pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, pop stars like Harry Styles and Jonah Hill—all of them are vintage obsessives, and all of them have helped drive sales for rare pieces back to WyCo.
“I’ll give you a perfect example,” Compo says. “Harry Styles was photographed in a Live-Aid T-shirt back when the Queen movie came out. All of a sudden it’s showing up on all the Harry Styles fan pages, social media accounts that track his fashion. And someone comments it’s a shirt you can buy at WyCo. Now we sell them very frequently, and the T-shirt is looked at totally differently. That movie and Harry Styles contribute to the popularity of that shirt on a whole new level.”
There are more stories like this. What Travis Scott wears in a music video drives interest and traffic directly to WyCo, which stocks a deep range of tees from the screenprinting brand Liquid Blue, including the previously obscure “pile of skulls” shirt Scott wore in the music video for his 2019 single “Highest In The Room.”
The market effect is immediate. “It immediately goes from an under one hundred-dollar shirt to a shirt that’s worth more than three hundred dollars,” Compo says. “Once a design seeps into celebrity culture, it adds this whole other value
One of the most common questions of WyCo goes something like: “Which vintage shops do you find your shirts at?”
Turns out that’s not how it works. The vast majority of the WyCo collection is sourced via submissions from people who own old, rare T-shirts and are looking to cash out on them. WyCo is willing to pay handsomely and resell to their obsessive clientele. “A lot of people who aren’t keen on vintage fashion trends might not even realize their T-shirts from the 80s and 90s are worth way more now than what they paid for them,” Compo says. “People find out all of a sudden they’re sitting on this really valuable stuff they’ve been storing in the basement for the last three decades.”
The coronavirus cash crunch has only increased this part of the business at WyCo, Klima says. “In a time like this, people are looking at how to cash out and get money, and if you’re a collector of vintage shirts, it’s awesome to know you have liquidity in your wardrobe.”
It all adds up to put WyCo in a league of its own among vintage shirt sellers. Klima and Compo’s site is updated weekly with high-quality photography tied into social media, all built around the largest publicly offered collection of vintage T-shirts. WyCo has become a benchmark for the growing online vintage movement, and its deep archives are used as a point of price comparison for other sellers.
Right now, during the pandemic, web traffic is up on WyCo’s website, daily orders are up, and more and more high-quality vintage merch is being offered by sellers looking to move their own collections during a time of economic uncertainty. “We are definitely seeing more people wanting to get rid of things at a lower price and a faster pace,” Klima says. “People can submit their stuff to sell on our website and we get a good volume of people daily sending stuff over. Just now, as we’re talking, somebody sent over an NWA shirt that’s pretty dope.”
T-shirt trends for 2020 include a continued resurgence of interest in vintage shirts from bands like the Rolling Stones, Metallica, Iron Maiden and especially the Grateful Dead. “We have sold an absurd amount of Grateful Dead tie-dyes,” Compo says.
Grateful Dead shirts on WyCo from the 90s go from anywhere between one hundred fifty and two hundred fifty dollars, and prices go up from there for older pieces and especially the sought-after “lot tees”—unofficial Grateful Dead T-shirts made by fans and sold in parking lots during the band’s infamous touring jaunts.
Some recent big sales include a Warren Zevon “Werewolves of London” promotional jacket (eight hundred dollars) and an Iron Maiden tour jersey, which topped out at nine hundred dollars. Value is subjective, say Klima and Compo, dependent on an ever-shifting melange of shirt size, quality, wear and desirability. “It’s hard to put an exact value on this stuff because there are certain times where that shirt is worth a lot more than the other,” Klima says. “It’s the right size for the right buyer. I react like that, you know? I buy shirts I wouldn’t normally pay full price for but if it fits me and I want it, I’ll just do it.”
The average age and disposable income of a WyCo buyer varies, too, from long-time rock fans who lived through their favorite band’s glory years and want to recapture nostalgia to young kids influenced by the fashion moves of today’s celebrities.
“It sounds cliche, but I tell people this all the time,” Compo says. “There’s some kid somewhere hearing Guns N’ Roses for the first time and it’s changing his life forever, man. That’s why we offer financing—this is timeless stuff.”
Top of the Market
Led Zeppelin 1977 TOUR SHIRT, $700
Vintage Led Zeppelin T-shirts are incredibly hot and collectible, a testament to the ongoing influence and popularity of the band. “This is actually a parking lot bootleg,” says WyCo co-founder Patrick Klima, “but for artwork on a lot shirt, this is actually better than any other artwork the band has. This bootleg stuff is so cool because artists had their own liberty to do what they wanted. They didn’t answer to anybody.”
Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face Off” 1994 Hockey Shirt, $250
“Things are appealing to different people for different reasons,” says WyCo partner Adam Compo. For fans of the Grateful Dead, WyCo’s collection offers several rabbit holes to plunge into, whether you’re shopping by your birth year or looking for a tee from a tour or specific concert you attended in the 70s. This shirt, printed by cult Dead screen printers Liquid Blue, is perfect for someone who loves both ice hockey and crispy jams. “If you’re a Dead fan and a hockey fan, it doesn’t get much better than this,” Compo says.
John Lennon “Walls and Bridges” Apple Records Promotional T-Shirt, $900
Beatles memorabilia is an evergreen seller, but for superfans, the WyCo collection offers the opportunity to dig deep into history. I’m a die-hard John Lennon fan, especially his solo stuff, and a T-shirt like this—printed as an Apple Records label promotion for the Walls and Bridges album release—makes me feel connected to my favorite artist. T-shirts really can provide an intimate touchpoint, reaching back through history to evoke deep feelings.
KD Lang “Ingenue Tour” 1992 Shirt, $100
Wyco’s deep archives means there’s something for everyone. You can search by your favorite band or artist and find a wearable piece of history. “I couldn’t name a single KD Lang song,” Compo says, “but somebody will buy this shirt because it’s really dope. It’s perfect for fans.”
Nirvana x Butthole Surfers Concert Tour Shirt 1992, $1,200
Grunge nostalgia is huge right now, and Nirvana has become a piece of style iconography worn by everyone from Jason Momoa to Post Malone.