For American Rag Cie, the venerated Los Angeles clothing store that has always been a blend of European and American contemporary styles, it’s back to the beginning.
When the nearly 40-year-old venture opened in 1984, it stocked vintage fashions from its outpost on south La Brea Avenue, known more at the time for its bankrupt used car dealerships, Hasidic Jewish temples and fading businesses rather than hip clothing stores. For a while, it concentrated on vintage. Then, American Rag started carrying the Paul Smith label, which set the course for stocking trendy current fashions popular with a young, hip crowd.
When denim overtook the fashion scene, the store in 2007 opened a section called the World Denim Bar, known for its incredible array of elevated blue jeans styles that included more than 75 different brands.
Well, the World Denim Bar has disappeared, and the 4,000-square-foot space now is dedicated to a vast array of men’s and women’s vintage fashions spanning 75 years of styles that include old painter’s pants, Nudie’s of Hollywood cowboy shirts, decades-old denim from Levi’s, Lee and other brands, and stylish dresses from labels that have long since disappeared off the fashion map.
“The World Denim Bar had its moment, which everything does,” said Mark Werts, the majority co-owner of American Rag. “Then you have this new generation of shoppers who have been taught this word called ‘sustainability.’ And vintage is the most sustainable clothing on the planet Earth.”
Making the transition to sustainability wasn’t too hard for Werts, who started collecting vintage clothing in the ’70s when he was living in Europe, where his chain of Salty Dog clothing stores with new and old clothing had 10 locations in Holland and one in Paris. When he returned to the United States in the early ’80s, he began shipping his vintage goods to the United States from Marseille, France. Over the years, he has acquired 3 million to 4 million pieces that have been tucked away in a 20,000-square-foot warehouse in Commerce, the industrial city next to Los Angeles.
At times, he has made a nice profit off some of his vintage pieces. He sold a pair of 1922 Levi’s single back-pocket jeans for $5,400, and in 1991, he sold a vintage denim jacket to a Norwegian museum for $13,300.
The array of American Rag vintage for sale these days includes retro sportswear, knits, woven tops, sweaters, shorts, jackets, outerwear and accessories for men and women. There is a wide range of prices that can appeal to every economic shopping level. For women, you can find a pair of vintage Lee’s black jeans for $89.95 or plaid, gingham and striped vintage shirts for around $40.
There are more pricey items like a men’s vintage Hawaiian golf shirt for $750 or a Nudie’s of Hollywood embroidered cowboy shirt, also for $750. There are vintage Tommy Hilfiger and Double RL polo shirts and scores of Sherwin-Williams painter pants with lots of paint splotches.
Vintage sales are on the rise. According to a recent annual report by ThredUp, the U.S. resale market will grow to $70 billion by 2027. And the global market for used clothing is expected to more than double to $350 billion in that time. By next year, 10 percent of the global apparel market is expected to encompass secondhand clothing.
While vintage occupies a large section of the American Rag store, it makes up only a minor portion of the 17,000-square-foot area that offers a host of other items inside a space with an eclectic Old World environment. Moroccan-style lanterns hang from exposed wood beams overhead and scores of paintings, posters and old framed mirrors line the walls.
There is now a corner for golf apparel, which Werts started carrying because so many young celebrities and athletes are playing golf. There is a section for the latest men’s and women’s trendy clothing, where denim makes up 15 percent of the offerings, as well as shoes, purses and jewelry.
Another large portion of the 1939 building, which previously housed an Acme Hardware store, holds housewares and furniture. American Rag is known for its stylish bistro chairs and Moroccan tiles as well as delicate glassware and plates. This section once housed the Midi Café, opened in 1988 to offer French bistro food. The eatery has been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic but will be opening this fall as a restaurant called Zozo, under the ownership and management of prolific L.A. restaurateur Bill Chait and renowned chef John Sedlar.
For Werts, it’s all part of keeping up with the times. “We are in the change business,” he explained. “If it’s good today, it ain’t good for tomorrow.”