'Buttery-soft' T-shirts have cool irony, vintage look

Entrepreneur found success in business -- and love -- on the Web

April 25, 2004|By Susannah Rosenblatt | Susannah Rosenblatt,Los Angeles Times

Step into Camp Cool. That's what John Keddie calls the upstairs room in his airy San Diego house that serves as the literal and philosophical heart of Vintage Vantage. The fledgling online company (vintagevantage.com) sells original T-shirts designed by Keddie and his wife, Heather, that look and feel like the worn-in, offbeat treasures unearthed at the local secondhand shop.

The creative lair is carpeted in a psychedelic print; matching red and blue corduroy chairs flank a balcony stacked with boxes of mailing supplies. There are funky-shaped mirrors all over the walls, a stray Christmas stocking stitched with "John" and giant plastic bins crammed with T-shirts. One wall is painted (unbeknownst to the landlord) with diagonal stripes, beige and lime green color combinations that haven't seen the light of day in decades. The soundtrack is eclectic, from Ben Harper to the Beastie Boys, Cat Stevens to Stevie Wonder.

Here, the Keddies fill a notebook with puns and jokes and nonsense (what John calls "magical business ideas"), searching for new slogans worthy of screen-printing. At Camp Cool, the Keddies' twentysomething friends model their creations for the Web site, striking silly poses for the digital camera after a few beers.

It's also at Camp Cool where the Keddies came up with the briefly controversial shirt that read "Voting Is for Old People." The red baseball T-shirt sold quietly for about nine months until the retail chain Urban Outfitters bought the shirt this year and marketed it nationwide. Critics and the media descended on Urban Outfitters -- and eventually Keddie -- denouncing the shirt as "encouraging apathy" and a "disgusting effort to reap profit from cynicism."

These days Keddie shrugs off the negative publicity he got for the "Old People" T-shirt. "Thousands of people have that shirt who got it from the site and no complaints; everyone understands the humor who'd show up to the site," Keddie says. "It's just when you get it in front of the people it wasn't designed for" that the shirts cause a stir.

The soft-spoken, 25-year-old has built a humming cottage industry from the collective memory of Generation Y, trafficking in America's cultural currency -- the T-shirt. If the baby boomers have a kind of collective nostalgia for the '50s and '60s, for Keddie's Gen-Y crowd it's a reverence for the late '70s and early '80s.

"There's the golden years of T-shirts," Keddie says with some reverence. "I call it 1978 to around 1984. ... The T-shirts they were printing on were just real soft and thin -- just killer -- and the prints were so simple. We're just trying to get back to it."

Armed with his late '70s-early '80s aesthetic and basic Internet skills, Keddie turned his own thrift store rummagings into a livelihood and a lifestyle. The livelihood part consists of dozens of original T-shirts in bright, faded colors, made from a custom-spun "buttery-soft" cotton-poly blend and stamped with the Keddies' warped sensibility.

"Mini-Van ... Mega-Fun!" reads one newly minted $19 green tee. "Some of them are kind of clever plays on words, and some of them are just random -- we have pretty random senses of humor," Keddie says. Vintage Vantage also auctions off vintage clothes from the era on eBay and offers "top shelf" one-of-a-kind tees from $65 to $7,800.

Sometimes the Keddies and friends stay up all night half-working, half-playing. The unorthodox methods seem to be working; the couple has managed to parlay a laid-back, dorm-room ethos into an expanding business enterprise. Vintage Vantage shirts are carried in about 25 stores worldwide, including retail outlets in Japan, New York City, New Orleans, Atlanta, San Diego and Los Angeles. Heather just created the prototype for a new line of peculiar greeting cards.

Keddie, however, is not interested in opening a Vintage Vantage shop any time soon.

"I don't want to have to deal with opening and closing a store," says Keddie, an El Segundo, Calif., native. "I try to keep my schedule as open as possible." He won't divulge exact sales figures, noting only that the company sells "thousands" of shirts from the shelves and boxes filling his garage. The company now has five employees and can afford to commission shirts knit and cut to exact specification. Vintage Vantage is by no means alone in the funky T-shirt universe; Cotton Factory Inc. (thecottonfactory.com) is among those companies with a similar look.

Keddie tried the whole 9-to-5 thing when he graduated from Yale in 2000, working for a Connecticut consulting company (but basically "just sitting around playing fantasy basketball"). Laid off six months later, Keddie, who combed thrift store racks for himself, began selling vintage finds on eBay. He jazzed up his salesmanship with funny pictures and sarcastic descriptions (now hallmarks of Vintage Vantage) and attracted a quirky but loyal following.

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