Vintage clothing is more popular than ever these days. Mixing these treasures with new brands are the silhouettes that are dominating the streets and even fashion magazines. Vintage denim is taking a huge part in this movement, also because it’s so timeless, and also so durable. You can get your hands on one of those in your favorite vintage store of fleamarket, but how does this item landed there? Most of the time these stores are buying their items from clothing sorting companies such as Midtex Trading, a company that is known for their skills and their eye for quality-made garments that will be picked by them to give it a second, third, or fourth life.
Time to sit down with the co-founder of Midtex Trading, Rene Wolters, and speak about his story, how he started this business, and to get exclusive insight into how this business works.
LJ: Can you introduce yourself, who are you and what are you doing?
My name is Rene Wolters, 55 years old and I come from Middenmeer North Holland, together with my partner Johan owner of Midtex Used Clothing and Midtex Trading. We are originally a 2nd hand clothing sorting and trading company since 1994.
LJ: You’re also known as the vintage clothing expert, and vintage professor, but how did you achieved these nicknames? When and how did you rolled into this industry?
I have been working in this trade for 40 years this year, 7 December 1982 I started after school at a real rag farmer and mainly had to sort raw materials and cleaning cloths and press into bales, there was little work in the metal industry at that time where I had done my study. I was expelled from school in mid-1983 and was able to start at the rag company where I worked after school. My partner Johan also came to work there in 1983 so we have been dealing with this trade for a while now.
After a number of years we were asked by a new start-up company who already realized that there was little to be earned in rags and textile raw materials recycling, we stepped in at the right time when the iron curtain fell in Eastern Europe and we were able to massively export clothing of high western quality for higher prices, especially winter clothing, which was traditionally only sold for very low prices to Pakistan and India. Summer clothing had been exported to Africa for years, but the highest quality now also found its way to the east. In 1994 we found out that we were actually smarter than the people we worked for and we had already built such a large network that we decided to take matters into our own hands. We came into contact with large international organizations such as the Rode Kruis (Red Cross) and the Salvation Army that collect clothing for charity but did not have the know-how to process it and we’re looking for a collaboration with experienced people. Because the Dutch sorting companies mainly sorted Dutch and German collection clothing, we started cooperation with Scandinavian textile collectors. For us, the fact that there was a lot of winter clothing in it was not a problem but an opportunity on the Eastern European second-hand clothing market.
In 2014 we decided that we more or less decided to move away from mass production, partly because companies in Eastern European countries got the know-how themselves and started to sort themselves and cheaper. We were faced with the choice of upscaling or seeing whether we could expand on a larger scale with the expertise of vintage sorting. Of course, I didn’t come up with the name Vintage Professor myself but was once called by someone during a tour where I try to transfer as many facts/history as possible and interesting things about the origin and history of certain items of clothing. I have always acted like a sponge soaking up knowledge and history of all things clothing. My first real encounter with denim wasn’t just because of course I wore it myself, especially as a Metalhead in the late 70’s early 80’s I of course wore Levi’s ‘Big E’ denim vest with patches from all my favorite metal bands from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden etc. My real revelation with the love of denim actually came through a mock English exam in high school when I was 15, the history of Levi’s was the subject of the assignment where you had to make the assignments from the history story. At that point, I’m probably already triggered and infected with the denim virus…
LJ: With your company Midtex Clothing you’re collecting clothing from several places. Can you share where the clothing is coming from and the next destination of these clothes?
We have our own collection company with which we collect clothing for charity in the Netherlands in collaboration with large and small foundations. The proceeds are spent mainly on local charities. In addition, we still import unsorted collection clothing from, for example, Germany, France, and the Scandinavian countries. After sorting, the clothing is traded incorrect fractions, which means that the part is traded as such that it can be re-used. One part is rags and part raw material for recycling, in the end only a very small percentage remains what can be labeled as waste. In that respect, sorting is really in our DNA.
In addition to the vintage percentage from our own sorting, we buy their vintage table grade mixes from other sorting companies, table grade actually means that the mix consists of “old-fault and ugly” in all qualities, we have the specific knowledge in-house to sort articles that are suitable for vintage stores, currently about 400 different articles sorted by style, period, material, color, etc. The final destination of the clothing is actually all over the world, from Tropical mix clothing to Africa to raw materials to India and vintage clothing to mainly Western European cities. The volumes only differ.
LJ: I can imagine that you’re sorting out all kind of clothing each day, are you also come across a lot of denim? Where are these denim pieces coming from? Also from the USA?
Most of the used denim we sort now comes from Western European collection clothing, several Western European denim brands are of course strongly represented, but the traditional brands such as Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler still predominate. We also import used jeans from the USA, but it is becoming more and more difficult to find the real old ones. At the moment there are so many pickers on the market at, for example, Thrift stores in the US that relatively little remains. It is a search for blue gold, but we still find special things.
LJ: What are you doing with the sorted denim pieces? Are you reselling them to vintage stores or resellers?
The ‘unbranded’ wearable jeans are mainly sold to Africa and the brand jeans and/or vintage pieces go to shops and/or resellers. Ultimately, the broken jeans go to recycling, which in turn is used to make insulation material, among other things. A kind of revolution is currently taking place by trying to recover raw materials from the residual flows of textiles using new techniques. Although this is a very good idea, in my view this is still so-called “greenwashing” by making it seem that stretch denim with elastane can be recycled, just like cotton. Unfortunately, this can only be done through a chemical process which more or less means that the solution is worse than the disease, I sincerely hope that a good method will be found to solve this. Other and my favorite but not realistic solution as that hard denim fan, stop with elastane! The large textile producers and retail companies such as H&M etc. are fully investing and collecting themselves to have part of their new clothing to be produced consist of recycled material in the future, sounds very positive, but what speaks against them is that good collected clothing should be reused as re-wearable clothing, which is ultimately the highest attainable in terms of recycling and sustainability.
LJ: Do you stumble on special denim items too, and what are you doing with these specials? Do you sell them, or do you keep them in your archive?
Although I have a small archive of special denim pieces, we always carry the slogan “We are not a museum!” I think that I should also allow customers to be able to obtain special things that we can use from the large quantities that we get through our hands select. Don’t get high on your own supply!
LJ: You were part of the Dutch television program Vintage Department Store themed Gold Rush. There was one specific item that you highlighted, a Levi’s denim jacket with orange tab from 1977 with a super special story. Can you share this story?
In the video below I’m sharing the unique story of this jacket when I got interviewed for the Dutch tv-show Vintage Department Store.
LJ: Is the Levi’s jacket story the most special one from your vintage career, or is there another one that is fun or special to share?
So many strange things have happened in the 40 years that I have been working in this industry and I am still amazed almost every day at the things I find. For me, one of my favorite things I’ve found is a World War I uniform that belonged to US General Robert E Wood. There is a photo online where he is wearing the jacket, after the First World War he became CEO of Sears the chain store. The uniform came to Middenmeer from the USA in a batch with military vintage and eventually returned via a customer in Canada. My ultimate denim experience last year was selling a patched-up 60’s Levi’s hippie jeans to the Levi’s archive in San Francisco. Kind of a bucket list moment. In addition, many other historical finds, the oldest is a crochet work from 1638.
LJ: Are you also re-using vintage clothes to give them a second life as it comes to upcycling them, something which is very popular these days.
LJ: Do you sometimes come across special items during the sorting process that you pick out for yourself to wear?
Not often, I’m a big fan of the old American workwear and denim myself. It can’t be stiff enough for me, 13oz denim feels like stretch to me, I only start to like it from 17oz. So I hardly get a chance to wear it off, otherwise I’ll have it repaired somewhere. Because it’s possible.
LJ: Did you teached your employees how to recognize vintage denim pieces or how do they know when they sort out something special?
It’s a slow process, most of the people in our company have been working here for a long time and know what I’m looking for. In addition, I am constantly looking for new vintage periods, at the moment Y2K is hot, when I say everything from 2000 to 2010 they have no idea. When I start mentioning brands that were popular in that period, everyone has an aha feeling. It has to be in your blood and your line of interest otherwise it will be difficult to introduce and identify the new-old trends.
LJ: Some people prefer wearing vintage clothing over new, a very sustainable and eco-friendly approach, do you expect this will grow in the future? And how you react on this with your company?
The hype is real at the moment, nowadays I work a lot with people who do not traditionally come from the second-hand clothing store, but people from the new textiles who see opportunities in our industry and who seek expertise from me in this field, I have given myself hard in recent years to get vintage mainstream and to get it out of the corner of hippies and for poor people. I am proud when I see that young people first buy new pants from eg Levi’s and then go to a vintage store to buy a 90s crazy shirt or a pair of Dr. Martens worn underneath. Mission accomplished!