Buying vintage, or The Levi’s Denim Jacket Manifesto | East Villager & Lower East Sider

Buying vintage, or The Levi’s Denim Jacket Manifesto

BY BILL WEINBERG  |  Three winters ago, I left one of my gloves on the subway. It was irksome, because it was one half of my favorite pair of gloves. I’d had them for years, and they were the only ones that ever really kept me warm on my bicycle in the winter, with a wool lining that extended up the wrist past the leather — a pretty simple thing to prevent the wind from blowing up the sleeves.

I threw out the surviving glove because it was making me depressed, and resigned myself to having to get a replacement pair. I viewed it as a small bother. I never guessed it would be the start of a Kafkaesque nightmare.

I spent countless hours searching in the beastly cold for a pair of wool-lined leather gloves. First, I tried the stalls on St. Mark’s Place. Nothing. The stores on Orchard St. Nothing. 14th St., Canal St., deeper into Chinatown. Nothing. Paragon, REI, Eastern Mountain Sports. Nothing. In desperation, I ventured above 14th St., into Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and the other bourgeois places along Fifth Ave., where I feel utterly alienated and out of place. To no avail. No gloves even close to the ones I was looking for.

This demoralizing, fruitless quest repeated itself for another two winters. Each November I would start the hunt, determined; each time, by year’s end I had given up, resigned to another winter of discomfort.

I did manage to find the Web site of the company that made my old gloves, and it listed one store in the city that still sold them — but when I went there, they told me they no longer carry them.

Over the course of those two years, my raggedy old denim jacket finally gave out. I’ve been wearing denim pants and denim jackets my entire adult life. The pants used to last me three or four years, before the seat would be frayed by wear and tear (bicycling is rough on them); a jacket would last me about 10 years. Then, about 10 years ago, Levi Strauss closed its landmark plant in San Francisco and moved operations to Bangladesh and Cambodia. After that, the quality of their products declined dramatically — but not the price of course! A pair of Levi’s now costs more than it did a decade ago, but only lasts a year. So I was dreading having to replace my denim jacket… .

Sure enough…I went to buy a new one at one of those places on Broadway south of Houston, with blaring techno-pop and sexy young people ogling themselves in mirrors. I was appalled if not surprised to find the cost to be nearly $100 — and I could tell just by looking at it that it was schlock that wouldn’t last more than a year or two of my typically hard use. I refused.

Instead, I did something I never thought I would do, something I had eschewed as slightly pretentious. I went to a vintage clothing shop — specifically, the one at Lafayette and Bleecker, below the “Peace Pentagon” — and after some hunting there managed to find a Levi’s denim jacket from a generation ago. It had barely been used, so I’m confident it will last me a decade — and it actually cost me slightly less than a schlocky new one would have. But it leaves me with foreboding feeling: What am I going to do when I need to replace it again 10 years hence? Will any of the good old ones still be available? At a vaguely affordable price?

And finally, last year I realized it was time to replace my long-serving but now thin-worn bathrobe. Again,  something I thought would take five minutes turned into a time-wasting, despair-inducing, weeks-long odyssey. From Kmart to Macy’s, no dice. It seems in New York City, you can either get an overpriced designer bathrobe, or a cheap synthetic one — but not a good old ordinary cotton bathrobe. I eventually had to order a bathrobe online.

Now, this is what I don’t get. New York City is supposed to be the world capital of consumerism. And I’m reduced to ordering a bathrobe online as if I were in goddam Oshkosh. How does that work?

I mean, I could see if this were Moscow in 1938 and I was told, “I am sorry, comrade, but our stock of bathrobes is completely exhausted. We failed to meet our production quota because of the famine in the Ukraine. We must all sacrifice for the revolution.” But New York goddam City in 2013, the heart of the consumer-society, instant-gratification Spectacle, and… you can’t even get a GODDAM BATHROBE?!

This is what exposes capitalism as totally bogus. Even in New York City, you can’t even buy anything decent anymore because globalization is turning everything into shoddy, overpriced crap. They can’t even keep a decent pair of gloves in production, or make a good moderately priced bathrobe readily available. And this downward spiral toward endemic shoddiness and planned obsolescence is justified (or masked) as changing “fashion,” as if there were some intrinsic worth to mere novelty, even at the expense of quality. And as if decisions made in corporate boardrooms about what to produce and market, purely on consideration of profit margin, were actually a response to popular demand. This is the fallacy of consumerism: that the consumers have any real choice, that public opinion is followed rather than created.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I finally found the solution to my glove dilemma. It is a testament to the depth of my desperation that a skinflint like me was actually considering buying overpriced designer gloves from Italy because they were the only pair I could find that had the wool liner extending up the wrist like the pair I lost. The idea of buying gloves online struck me as absurd — how can you tell if they are going to fit? And sure enough…twice, the warehouse in San Francisco sent them out to me; twice I returned them because they were a poor fit.

Finally, I gave up on the mail-order option and, in a sudden epiphany while browsing through Chinatown, came up with a D.I.Y. solution — combining a pair of old leather gloves with a wool liner that I found for all of eight bucks on Mott St.

I felt pretty proud of that. But how many hours did I waste in searching for gloves, denim jacket and bathrobe over the past year?

If I hear one more time how I should be grateful to the capitalist system for meeting all my needs, I’m gonna lose it. Yes, capitalism has remarkable powers of creation, but even greater powers of destruction. Nothing good that it produces sticks around. And globalization is making the whole damn world beschissen — crappy — as my grandfather used to say.

As with food in New York, the middle is being squeezed out of the market. With restaurants, this means we get either fast-food chain outlets or haute-cuisine bistros for the yuppie class, but no unpretentious wholesome fare. With gloves and bathrobes, we get either shoddy “pleather” and polyester knockoffs, or ostentatious designer models. Nothing simply sensible, well made and affordable is available.

I’m of the last generation that will remember when you could actually get a decent pair of jeans. I’m reminded of a song by Malvina Reynolds:

Another generation will forget the taste of meat,

Of tomatoes from the garden and of bread that’s made of wheat,

And they’ll never even notice, when it’s plastic that they eat,

That the food is terrible.

This is the future that capitalism offers us, even if we manage to avoid nuclear war or global ecological collapse — a relentless decline into shoddiness. Even after Occupy Wall Street, I fear there is insufficient appreciation of how this is inherent to the system. Even those who purport to oppose “the system” focus way too much on mere ephemera like the Federal Reserve Bank, or ghosts like the Illuminati.

Even those who are concerned with the mounting signs of ecological apocalypse — the disappearing glaciers, the receding sea ice, the collapsing fisheries, the unprecedented drought in California — seem blind to the more quotidian realities that equally portend imminent dystopia and outright doom.

A public expropriation of the entire industrial apparatus and its conscious reconstitution toward social and ecological ends is the only alternative — not only to the collapse of the biosphere, but also of human culture.

Seize the means of production!

Starting with glove production.