Vintage clothing gurus on shameless designer copies, mothballs & the Willis kids

The New York vintage shop Cheap Jack's has existed in many incarnations since its opening back in 1975. From the tiny First Avenue storefront it first called home to the gargantuan Union Square space it...


So designers are always stopping by? M: Yes, the designers come three times a year. They get “inspired.”

So, is the influence from what you sold them to what’s on the runways obvious to you? M: I could tell you stories–and I won’t. [Laughs] Sometimes they don’t even change a stitch. Not one stitch. And a dress that they would buy for $175 will end up in the pages of Vogue for $6,000 and it’s the exact same dress but with fabrics and workmanship that isn’t as good, but it has their name on it.

Does that annoy you? M: It does, but there really isn’t anything I can do about it. So it’s best just to be grateful for the business.

We hear that Jack had a hand in creating the technique behind stonewashed and acidwashed jeans? M: In the 70s, Jack literally invented stonewashed jeans. And in the 80s he invented acidwashed jeans. J: Like all good things, it happened accidentally. There was a chemical reaction—I go, wow. Okay. We start to do it for clientele. Then there was a store owner in upstate New York named Tommy Hilfiger: we advertised what we were doing, and he must have read the papers. He started shipping boxes and boxes of damaged jeans [for us to wash them]. This was back in the days when it was only heavy dungarees, everything was so stiff.

But you didn’t patent the process? M: We were very young. J: They’re certain things you can’t patent. It was an accidental chemical reaction that we used for something, and it just did it.

Tell us—what should customers look for in a vintage store, or be wary of? M: When you walk into the store, notice if there’s a smell. If there’s an odor of mothballs or mustiness, turn around and walk out.

So, everything in your store has been cleaned? How do you clean your clothes? M: Jack has a degree in dry-cleaning. We’re a perfectly green industry, and nothing goes out on the floor until it’s absolutely perfect and clean.

Any favorite celebrity sightings? M: Bruce Willis and his daughters are the nicest people. His kids are lovely—really down to earth.

You had a huge space in Union Square until about five years ago. Why did you leave? M: Oh, the Batcave! It was 3 floors, 12,000 square feet. Max Brenner [the chocolate restaurant] is there now. The landlord wanted to raise our rent to a million dollars a year.

Cheap Jack’s is located at 303 Fifth Avenue, near 31st Street.

Previously: Five minutes with collectible clothing guru Shannon Hoey of vintage shop New York Vintage.