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Denver Menswear Blog

Spotlight : Union Mercantile

Q&A with Ben Gaffney : Union Mercantile

We were lucky enough to visit Ben Gaffney at his amazing vintage showroom in Denver and ask him a few questions about how he got started in the vintage buying business, why he still loves it and why he and his family call Denver home.

union mercantile vintage denver

How long have you been a Vintage enthusiast? Is there a particular Vintage era/piece that drew you to this world?

I’ve been buying vintage for over 20 years. I started buying vintage clothing in my sophomore year of high school. I grew up in Southern California and spent most of my days skateboarding when not in school. As you may know, skateboarding takes a toll on your wardrobe. I always had a Sony Walkman in my front right pocket and would create these crazy wear patterns and then holes within a few weeks. My folks were not willing to purchase a new pair of pants each month, so I started going to second hand stores and I would always gravitate to the 60’s flat front/pocket trousers. I would usually buy the entire suit in order to get the pants. I started skating in Dickies and Ben Davis, but then gravitated towards the thin material of the classic 60’s sharkskin and other fabrics.  

I ran in a circle of punk/mod subculture that was a huge influence in my style in my younger years. I was also influenced by my Father and Uncle’s genre of music and style.  They were musicians in the early stages of Country/Americana/Tex-Mex scene in LA (Los Lobos, Dwight Yoakam, Dave Alvin, etc). That scene was sparked by the pioneers of the LA punk scene and pulled from classic country, blues and R&B. My Uncle was the first person I knew to own a Nudie suit, the Hollywood tailor for the country and western musicians throughout the world. I would say I cut my teeth on western wear and still love it to this day.  It’s all about flash and detail and I appreciate the showmanship.  

What is your Holy Grail item?

Deadstock 1800s Levis. Contact me if you hear of any ;)

union mercantile vintage denver

Besides owning Union Mercantile, you also own a luxury design and retail consulting agency with your wife called Aileen James. How does your background in Vintage clothing influence AJ?

These two worlds don’t have much crossover on a surface level. Union is focused around providing a source for inspiration through textiles and garment design from the past. AJ’s primary focus is within the furniture and design object categories.  The times where there is crossover is in color and textile exercises. UM follows fashion textiles trends and applies that research to the furniture projects when appropriate.  

What changes have you noticed in the industry? Has social media helped or hindered it?  

The need for timelessness and/or collectability. There are brands we supply that create nostalgic/collectable designs and have built a cult audience like I’ve never seen in the past.  

Social media has only helped this business. I’ve personally managed to reach an even larger global audience, which results in both sales and overall visibility into our industry. 

  union mercantile vintage denver

Thrill of the chase or the find?

That’s tough!  I love the hunt, but the pay off is what keeps me going. In the end, I mostly enjoy gathering the stories of my time on the road searching for these treasures.  It’s allowed me to experience a lot of what this country has to offer. We are a great nation of so many different personalities, backgrounds and hoarders! I feel like a mini library of congress. I celebrate them all!

Besides clothing, is there any other goods that you like to source?

I’ve always been 50/50 clothing and mid-century modern furniture in the past. My first store opened in Santa Cruz, CA in 2000 and offered both clothing and furniture.  I wholesaled a majority of the collectable furniture and displayed about 25% of the inventory in the store. I still can’t pass up a great piece of furniture.  Vintage watches are another passion of mine. 

union mercantile vintage denver

Tell me a little about your showroom here in Denver? 

My showroom is a modest 350 sq feet space that is curated by appointment.  We move inventory weekly based on our clients style or requests.  We mostly cater to our Japanese retailers and ship packages to various brands worldwide. In addition, we have a list of core clients that have wish lists that we supply on a monthly basis.  

What is your favorite thing about this great state of ours?

On a business level, I enjoy the various styles that have passed through the Front Range over the years.  The variety of product you can find here is crazy. Western wear, Native American clothing and jewelry, 60’s & 70’s high end designer (from the oil days), workwear and outdoor gear.  It has a range that most cities in America don’t see.  I can find a pair of horsehide motorcycle boots, Chimayo jacket, WWII Frog Skin jacket and 70’s Louis Vuitton bag in one day out on the road.   

What are your thoughts on vintage influence in contemporary menswear? Do you see it too often or think there is never a better starting point than the classics?

I enjoy a design with a distinct POV and believe vintage influences are important in creating a unique design with the nostalgia needed to influence the purchase. What I don’t love, is when a design goes too far and swings all the way into a product that ends up styling, for example, like a miner from the 1800’s.  There has to be both a balance in the design and how they are marketed in the end. I believe in timelessness and core staples.  A perfect balance to me is a pairing a vintage t-shirt or jacket with modern denim or trouser.   

Overall, I think vintage is best used as starting point. Especially when a designer traces a design history through decades and is not just reproducing a small niche in time. I find that most designers we work with are doing just that: taking a specific detail such as a stitch pattern, denim wear pattern, graphic or textile design and interrupting it to create something unique and new.  

union mercantile vintage denver

union mercantile vintage denver

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