In conversation with Sean Crowley, owner of Crowley Vintage
Written by Andrew Yamato
I first met Sean Crowley over a dozen years ago when I saw an eBay listing he’d posted for a vintage cream linen suit. It was beautifully staged with a well-assembled outfit, shot with natural light in what looked like an English country house parlour, and featured a detailed description written by someone who knew and loved every little feature. Noting that the seller lived not far from me in Brooklyn, I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I popped over to see the suit in person. When Sean opened the door wearing a pair of hand-embroidered Royal Artillery Albert slippers, I knew I’d made a friend for life.
Raised in Danvers, Massachusetts, Crowley cut his teeth in classic menswear working at the legendary vintage shop Bobby from Boston during college. By the time we met, he was in the midst of an eleven-year stint as a designer at Ralph Lauren. He opened Crowley Vintage in 2017, which quickly established itself as a destination for casual vintage shoppers, hardcore menswear enthusiasts, film and television costumers, and fashion designers.
Having come aboard New & Lingwood last year to run our New York shop, I was eager to collaborate with Sean on a project that would combine his playful vintage sensibility with our historical pedigree as one of Jermyn Street’s premier haberdashers. The result is the New & Lingwood by Crowley Vintage, a collection of six ties, available exclusively at New & Lingwood.
I recently sat down with Sean to discuss his vintage menswear aesthetic and the people and experiences that have shaped it over the years:
Where does your love of vintage clothing come from?
My grandfather was a designer and a massive Anglophile, and my father was a crazy collector. I grew up going to flea markets and antique stores and estate sales and all that kind of thing, and through that stuff I developed love of things -- of surface and texture and craft and how things are made, looking underneath things and turning them inside out. That was just how I grew up. Later, as I became enamored with British culture through movies and television shows, that love dovetailed with the collecting gene and fueled my passion for acquiring beautiful vintage British menswear.
What do you find so appealing about British style?
Just like the French mastered women’s fashion, the English nailed men’s style. The texture, proportions, and construction of their clothing -- they set the bar, and a long time ago, so there’s a time-tested canon. Every time I’m out hunting and I find a German or French vintage suit, it’s awful. The fit, the fabric, the proportions, the patterns. Everything is wrong.
I think a lot of Americans have a pretty cheap idea of Anglophilia that’s just about Harry Potter and Downton Abbey, but for me, my love of the clothing really is bound up in my love of the culture. You can’t separate these things. It’s not just about clothing as dead empty objects -- it’s about the people who made it, the people who wore it, the people who wear it. It’s all of a piece. There’s a lack of preciousness, a sort of a rude, rough and ready quality to English menswear I find very appealing. It’s not effete. We think of the French and Italians as being a little “ooh la la” -- a little dainty about their stuff -- whereas English menswear (I should say British menswear) is hearty.
What did you learn in your time selling vintage clothing with Bobby Garnett?
I’ve been so fortunate in terms of having great teachers; that’s something I cannot underscore enough. Right at the time when I became really interested in menswear, I had the good fortune of meeting Bobby Garnett, who was probably the world’s premier vintage clothing dealer for a long stretch of time. I got exposed to his wisdom and taste, and had access to the stuff. That’s the thing I always harp on about: the fact that you can’t learn about this stuff without getting your hands on it. It was really a golden opportunity to touch things, try them on, turn them inside out and look at the label and see how they’re made, to really get a literal grip on it. Not to get all old-fogey about it, but for a lot of young guys today, the mini-iGents, everything is kind of abstract: everything is a photo on ebay, it’s a blog, it’s a photo on Instagram -- they’re not really getting their hands on the stuff. That’s what Bobby really taught me. That and the business itself: how you find things, how you deal with people, how you make a deal. Those are all things I kind of grew up with at the flea market, but there’s a specific set of skills with clothing. And charm. He was a very charming man, and I like to think that what little charm I have came by way of him.
How did your years working at Ralph Lauren shape your aesthetic?
Working with Bobby, I was still sort of such a magpie. I was looking at everything, and being enticed by a lot of different things, some of which were great, and some of which were not so great. Working at Ralph was more about the taste. Certainly the Ralph Lauren taste. It was about learning that “these are the good plaids; these ones not so much.” And also about how you combine things, about how you put it all together. That’s what Ralph Lauren is all about. He’s the master of curating that look.
Also, one of the big things for me while working at Ralph was learning how to love my own country’s style. Previously I was such an Anglophile, I thought all this Ivy stuff was so...American. I wasn’t interested in madras. None of the Ivy League stuff excited me. I just wanted to be Bertie Wooster and that was all. It wasn’t until I worked at Ralph that I started to see the beauty of it. I started to see that it doesn’t have to be all one thing, that you can have both, you can be this sort of -- I love the term bricoleur, it’s so pompous -- but the idea is that you can be a cowboy one day and Bertie Wooster the next, and those things can all live together.
What was your goal in opening your own vintage shop?
At Ralph Lauren I’d always worked toward a very classic, consistent aesthetic that I truly loved, and when I left, I realized that working anywhere else in the industry, dealing with more arbitrary fashion trends, would pale in comparison. I had the luxury of taking some time off, and I realized that what really turned me on was vintage. The hunting and finding of it. Maybe that was a career. It wasn’t some sort of life goal that I’d been quietly dreaming of for years-- it was really just “I know I can do this, and I enjoy it, so why not?”
It started out very simply on Instagram, with no brick and mortar, but IG gave me an ability to really curate my presentation, my visual signature. As I slowly grew, I realized that IG wasn’t going to be enough -- that I couldn’t just do this online, out of my apartment. After a couple years I needed a brick and mortar to dedicate to it. And I think the experience of a shop is so electrifying. Obviously we live in a time when retail is dying and brick and mortar is dying, but I really love everything about the shop experience, and I can’t imagine doing this online exclusively.
Who are your customers, and what do you think the appeal of vintage clothing is for them?
My audience is pretty diverse, but most of my customers are just regular people. They don’t eat, drink, and sleep vintage and dress head to toe like it’s 1939. They’re just people from a million different backgrounds who really enjoy a great piece that accents their wardrobe.
I think what appeals to most people about vintage is the discovery, the uniqueness of it. Some people might come in asking for a blue button-down oxford, and you say, well, they’re over there. But most people are letting the experience guide them. People enjoy the novelty of having something that no one else has. And while I don’t think this is what gets anyone really excited about it, vintage is obviously pretty green.
How do you source your inventory?
There’s no secret. There’s no warehouse I go to twice a month and restock. It’s really a million individual sources. It’s constantly searching and calling people, people calling you, travelling, digging. But it’s also surgical. It’s minute. It’s one piece at a time. Generally speaking, because the things that I like and want are so specific, my inventory really is hand-picked.
How would you describe your own personal style?
My style has evolved over the years. I’m a little bit less precious now that the work I’m doing is not always so neat and delicate, but it’s still kind of “The World of Ralph Lauren.” It could be military, it could be Ivy League, it could be 1930s tailored clothing. Depends on the day. I guess I hold on to the Ralph kind of outlook that when I’m dressing myself: I’m thinking of it as a story, as a whole thing. It’s a very literal approach -- Ralph Lauren is literal -- but of course that just jives with my whole being. Whether it’s slim 60s madras shorts and a pullover shirt or a three-piece suit and an overcoat, there’s some intent there, there’s some story.
What do you think of men’s style today?
It’s so tough. Once upon a time men dressed a certain way because they had to. Because it was the norm, the done thing. You went on a date, you wore a tie. Of course I’m a little sentimental for that kind of thing, but I’m not one of these “I was born in the wrong decade” people. I think that menswear -- along with all style -- is so splintered today. But I think the multi-fashion thing is really exciting in that it enables people to cultivate their own look and their own style without any fear of being off trend or out of date. As much as the #menswear thing is a bubble -- you and I are so caught up in it that it’s easy to think of it as bigger than it is -- but within that world of menswear, it’s exciting, you know? Men are excited about dress and they love tailored clothing. Is every guy in America wearing a tweed jacket? No. But I do think there’s a modicum of trickle-down from #menswear to the greater population.
You’ve just designed a new tie collection for New & Lingwood. What do you think about the future of the tie?
Men obviously no longer have to wear ties, but like so much of menswear, it’s gone from being a uniform to being a choice. Now that they’re an option, I think men are having more fun with them. Of course, that can go horribly wrong, but it’s really cool to see guys who aren’t menswear nerds come in and see a tie and get really excited about it.
What was your inspiration for the new collection?
I know that everyone always wants a Royal Artillery tie. It’s a tie that I love personally and wear a lot, and anytime I’ve ever had one in my shop, people are beating the door down to get it. They’re hard to find, and usually when you can find them, they’re super skinny or crappy polyester or somehow just not quite right. I decided to do it in a non-crease or non-crush ground weave that was traditionally used primarily for school and regimental ties that got worn over and over again and would tend to get ratty. The idea is that the textured non-crush weave holds up better than say, a silk repp, because it already looks a bit crushed. It’s really an old fashioned yet distinctly British look that ironically has a freshness today because most people are unfamiliar with it.
New & Lingwood by Crowley Vintage Gunners Self Tipped Silk Tie
As for the teapot tie, its based on a vintage design that I found and always thought was so charming. It’s whimsical without being silly. I love tea. The British love tea. It’s sort of a member’s club tie for all the tea drinkers out there.
As a connoisseur of fine menswear brands, what does New & Lingwood signify to you?
New & Lingwood is a special brand to me -- they have their own little place in the world, quintessentially English. Historically, they were a haberdasher in the true sense that they provided all of those delicious bits and pieces that a tailor did not provide: beautiful socks and slippers and dressing gowns, and pyjamas and gloves and scarves -- all the toys in the dressing-up box than men love and that are so easy to buy and to hoard. Obviously now in the twenty-first century, you also do beautiful tailored clothing, so even better. In my own business, I try to sort of emulate the New & Lingwoods of the world by having that kind of assortment, so I’m just thrilled to go back to the original -- to be part of an old venerable brand and to do a little collaboration with them. I’m really excited about that.
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