Selling Clothes at the Crossroads of Fashion & Sustainability

FashionGood Fun

Written by: Vincent Caruso

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“Godspeed the well-dressed man,” Noël Coward once scribbled in closing, in correspondence with Dorothy Parker, decades before an independent New York-based boutique would adopt the salutation. Like Oscar Wilde the century prior and Quentin Crisp years later, he hadn’t dared allow the fiscal fragility of his formative years to thwart his pursuance of a career-defining sartorial grace. Though recognized as industry icons now, these inter-generational iconoclasts explored the concepts of self-image and identity early on with a penniless passion and doubted determination as rare in man as it is impressive in spirit. In the 21st Century, however, the hurdles over which many of our budgets must leap to reach our potential for posh have been largely disassembled, credit due in large part to the growth and eventual fragmentation of the industry.

Interior of Market Street SF Store. Photo by Peter Prato.

Though Crisp, the youngest of the trio, took his final bow shortly before the curtain closed on the 1990s, the new Millennium responded almost instinctively with a broad cropping up of brands following the fast fashion retail model and more selectively niche-specific vintage resale shops. One of the most extraordinary examples of this phenomenon is Crossroads Trading Co., who actually long preceded the tenderfoot 21st Century’s resale fertility and have managed to not just withstand, but outgrow most of the blooming florets in this mass stylistic surge. Crossroads Trading Co. launched in 1991, “Back when Boyz II Men were making sure we knew Motownphilly was back again,” Gina Nowicki says, exhibiting no traceable reluctance in revealing the company’s celebrity-level standards and sharp pop-culture reflexes. These are qualities surely to be found throughout all reaches of the company.

Consignment Items Behind Counters. Photo by Peter Prato.

Nowicki is Crossroads’ Senior Marketing and Communications Manager, and having been involved with the company since 2007, has closely witnessed and contributed to the evolution of the brand. Likewise, she has spent ample time representing its singular ethos with studious enthusiasm, explaining that what most definitively separates Crossroad Trading’s resale from the bargain bin variety of cornershop thrifts is that instead of relying on the novelty of post-ironic charm, like most storefront time capsules, they specialize strictly in fashion items presently in vogue. Gina elaborates, “Our niche is contemporary fashion, meaning clothing and accessories that you may find hanging now in boutiques and department stores.” The concept was first hatched by Gerald Block and Chip Gerken. While the two had hitherto tread distinctly different career paths, their collaborative project unfolded organically through discovery of a shared appreciation for fashion and a like commitment to environmental sustainability.

“Their wives get all the credit for introducing the two,” sings Nowicki, pleased to etch a tally to the women side of the scoreboard. Whereas Chip Gerken had already made a name for himself in the retail sphere, having been climbing his way up the rungs of the industry since the beginning of his professional career, Gerald Block’s occupation was in education, founding “A Learning Place,” a Bay Area organization designed to assist children and adults with learning disabilities. Gerken, whose most recent charitable endeavor had been serving as Head of Board for progressive grade schools in Oakland, too, had needed to satisfy a humanitarian itch. Fortunately, the respective better halves, colleagues at San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM), had meanwhile observed a parallel flutter in their spouses’ fates athirst and arranged a professional playdate between the two at an Oakland coffee shop. The caffeinated rendezvous stimulated a marriage of personal interests and moral values, thus honing the initial business framework underpinned by three simple objectives: purchase name-brand designer clothing gently pre-worn, resell at one-third original retail price and reduce negative environmental impact by keeping discarded clothing away from an eternity of landfill inferno and safely in the custody of souls stylistically uncompromising and shrewd to handsome pricing.

Wall Displayed Items. Photo by Peter Prato.

In addition to taking in unwanted gifts from well-meaning relatives and ill-fitting impulse purchases, Crossroads Trading Co. offers a sustainable alternative to the adverse environmental impact precipitated by the so-called “fast fashion” industry. Fast Fashion, much like its distant cousin fast food, is undeniably convenient and enticingly affordable, and therefore immediately attractive to the window-shopping public. Hidden behind the marked-down veil of consumer ease, however, exists a laundry list of unaccounted-for enviro-maladies. In the rushed whirligig of delivering chic accoutrements from the catwalk to its handy outposts, low-quality materials are used to thread our speedy draperies together and keep prices down. But, as logic would instruct, because the clothing is cheaply made the wear-and-tear of the goods arrives uncompromisingly soon. It’s a topic that, when pops up, Gina evidently has quite recognizably observed and assessed. “These pieces are usually very trend-focused and expected to only be worn a few times,” she notes, deducing that this approach “means their usefulness is extremely short-lived, and they end up in the landfill quickly.” Inevitably, our sartorial hot-n’-readies are discarded and replaced with heedless frequency. Our bite-sized attention spans are satisfied, whilst the dirt on Mother Nature’s shoulder mounts.

Fortunately, as Nowicki is quick to encourage, the ever-increasing spread of enviro-consciousness is hustling still to outpace that of the noxious Greenhouse trail. And with the green floodlights shifting over the public, a new species of informed and responsible shopper is bred. It’s a spirit-elevating truth I myself notice at Crossroads’ Wicker Park location in Chicago. Customers know why they’re at Crossroads and they know precisely what they’re looking for. Informed questions are answers to informed questions, traded over both sides of the counter before transmuting into a conversation involving Marc Jacobs, Kendall Jenner, and a Spring runway show. I’m not qualified to participate, but am soon rescued by my own paltry attention span as my eyes trace a row of men’s shoes. “We are seeing, across the board, that our shoppers are looking for high quality pieces that will last them many seasons and years to come,” affirms Gina, an option that is finding greater engagement as awareness of it heightens. Heightening is precisely what it’s doing, reaching the attention of many celebrities, Nowicki divulges before quickly pulling the plug on the topic. “Crossroads doesn’t reveal the names of its celebrity sellers.” I entertain a brief fantasy of the impossible company of Bryan Ferry, Prince, and Jim Jarmusch together dropping a Santa bag sack full of unwanted garb in my name before eventually reminding myself not a single thread would fit. The bus driver has asked me to return to my seat.

Crossroads Executive Team. Photo by Peter Prato.

In tandem with sustainability permeating the public psyche, increasing their presence across the U.S. has been a priority since their sidewalk-vendor beginnings. While their signature model of resale for current trends might at face value seem like a difficult order to maintain, their longevity is testimony to their viability. “Fortunately for us, it hasn’t been difficult,” Nowicki attests. Crossroads is for people aware of what’s presently ‘in’ while simultaneously actively interested in recycled fashion and enjoy the company’s position as a “revolving closet.” And fortunately for the devoted eco-cognoscenti, navigating Crossroads is becoming ever more convenient. A long haul from their beginnings as a San Francisco Bay Area exclusivity, they’re represented now by greater tracts of geography, including locations in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York, extending their open invitation to rescue the planet without sacrificing good taste.

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