In one breath, Larry McKaughanwill tell you that he feels sorry for whoever sits next to him on his regular flights from Seattle to Tokyo because of the earfuls he unloads about the functionality of buckle-back jeans and the modern misappropriation of the watch pocket.
But in the next breath, McKaughan—who runs Heller’s Cafe and collaborates with the Japanese brand Warehouse to reproducehigh-end Americana workwearthat’s so exclusive and quickly snapped-up (lots of it by J. Crew) we can hardly provide you with a hot link to what it looks like—will tell you that he isn’t a vintage expert or historian and doesn’t know all the super geeky ins and outs that serious stuff-amassers and documentarians can go on about.
The truth is somewhere in between. He’s more a merchant than a collector, and he only buys and sells the big price-tag antique and vintage pieces that he loves, so he doesn’t have to worry about the nitpicky details of every era and every style. But, when it comes to that stuff he loves—hoodies from the 1930s, train conductor coats of distressed denim, turn of the century overalls—he’s not just encyclopedic, he’s philosophical.
And, he’s also a pretty good walking advertisement.
Here McKaughan wears khakis in what is called a “worker’s master finish.” (Here he wears denim-on-denim.) After a pair of heritage pants’ construction, lines, pockets, and details were recreated, another step was taken to place them in the realm of new/old Americana. If you look closely you’ll see what might be paint splatters, putty material marks, and decades of wear. The effect is subtle, but without the worker’s master finish, you’re just looking at a pair of chinos.
The material of McKaughan’s jacket and vest is a double-printed canvas created by Warehouse especially for this line; it yields a heavy, stiff look that’s in keeping with workwear standards as your grandfather would have known them.
Oh, and that button tee-shirt that’s layered underneath? Based on a 1920s salvaged one that bore a JCPenny’s label. Everything old is new again.
Every day is casual Friday at Heller’s Cafe, the Capitol Hill showroom and studio where Larry McKaughan houses rare, highly valuable turn-of-the-century denim coveralls and cotton hoodies from the 1930s. The seasoned antique and vintage merchant says it’s actually better if he dresses down—especially when he collaborates with his Japanese design partners on the capsule collection Heller’s Cafe by Warehouse, a favorite of J.Crew prepsters and devotees of the high-end workaday aesthetic. Considering his business staples include a pair of 50-year-old Levi’s worth $1,500, however, “dressing down” might not be the right phrase.
The perfect white T-shirt is my holy grail; this one’s from J. C. Penney. The Levi’s are from the 1960s—I never wash them. The Red Wings are a staple; I’ve had these since the ’80s. We took the best design details from a hundred-year-old denim blouse—that’s what it would have been called back then—when we made this jacket for our Warehouse line.
Working It Out
Shopkeepers, ditchdiggers, train conductors: that’s who wore the stuff I collect and the pieces we reproduce. They’re clothes made to work in. When my neighbors see me, they probably think I’m there to cut the grass. They’re surprised when I unlock the door and walk into my house. Worn on the Sleeve Clothes are an aesthetic expression of values. These convey simplicity and hard work.
Getting the Job Done
I started collecting vintage clothes for myself in the early ’80s because I couldn’t afford to buy new, and I didn’t like polyester suits anyway. When I became aware of the value of used Levi’s both here and abroad, I began selling. That market eventually collapsed, but now I buy and sell what I love. For dealers like me, it’s all about the details—a pocket placed in an obscure spot can mean tens of thousands of dollars.