The Owners of Passport Vintage Have the Secret to Good Jeans

🏁  Selva Beat will be joining Passport Vintage at Laissez Fair on November 5th. Come see us #IRL!  🏁

Passport Vintage stands alone — from the beautifully curated selection of vintage denim, to the shop’s immaculate online presence, owners Maria Oliveira and Ryan Lerma have had a huge year. Not only was Passport featured in W Magazine, they also started the thrice yearly Laissez Fair Vintage Market which brings together an array of some of Austin, Texas’ best vintage vendors. Meanwhile, they’ve continued to gracefully balance everything from marketing to political activism, all while helping Austin become more stylish. They graciously sat down with us to discuss recycled clothing, Levi’s, and the perennial question, “Are low-rise jeans coming back?”  

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How do you get dressed everyday? Is it just denim all day every day all day? Do you get sick of jeans?

Ryan: I think that it was that way a lot of the first year we were open, and then we were like, we can take a break. Also it's summer. We still wear a lot of denim — but we need other stuff to blend in. 
Photography by  Mika Locklear

Photography by Mika Locklear

Maria: Sometimes. I go in waves — I need a break from it, but obviously I come back to this.

How many jeans do you have, both individually and together?

Ryan: She has about a dozen [pairs] — every time I organize our room I count how many jeans she has. On my side it’s like 6 or 7.
Maria: You’re more particular about the ones you own.  

Do you exclusively wear Levi’s? Or have you mixed it up at this point?

Ryan: I have a few pairs that aren’t and a few overalls that aren’t, but it’s mostly Levi’s.

What drew you to denim? Have you always loved jeans?

Maria: We used to work at American Apparel, and in 2012 they launched the Mom Jean. Within the company, I was one of the pioneers of it — it was all I wore.  I would get asked questions about it, so I think that’s where I really started to understand 100% cotton jeans. After I left American Apparel and was doing Etsy, I realized that this was the gap in the Etsy market and what I really liked anyways. So I just started to fill that need, but it didn’t really take off until Ryan started to buy the volume that I needed.

So is most of your product sold through your brick and mortar, or is it through your Etsy? You have a really big Instagram following, there are 20,000 people who want to buy your jeans!

Ryan: It’s like 50/50, but some weeks it’s more brick and mortar, some weeks it’s more Etsy. If we get a feature on something, we get a lot of traffic.

Where do you source your jeans? Are you going to Goodwill Blue Hangar or buying deadstock jeans? Is that even a thing?

Ryan: The world of vintage buying…Obviously there are thrift stores, but the more you get into it and the more you grow, it’s like there’s a whole secret world of buying, and it’s all who you know and making connections. It’s like you meet someone at a flea market, and you can always spot a buyer —

How do you spot a buyer?

Ryan: By the stuff that’s in their cart, their attitude, it’s a whole composure thing. When I’m somewhere, I can pick out people who are buying — like you can spot people who flip books. Sometimes I’ll just ask, “Hey what do you sell on,” and I’ll approach them and talk to them and then go do my own thing. But you gotta be friendly and a lot of people just won’t talk to you, but sometimes you can make a connection that way. There’s guys out there who you’ll run into who are like, “I actually sell vintage. I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I do wholesale. Do you want to come check out my stuff?” And we’ll go drive to their house and go see everything they have.
Maria: It’s an underworld!
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Ryan: When you meet those guys, you don’t know where they’re getting it and they won’t tell you, no matter how often you’ve bought from them. There are also vintage wholesalers all over the world, but that’s a whole other thing. You don’t get to choose as much what you’re getting. You just pay them and tell them an idea of what you’re looking for and how many pieces and they just send you stuff. Then of course there’s online. There’s a whole secret world of buying — and I know so many people who buy from Thailand because it’s really big over there, or people get stuff from Japan and the Japanese get a lot of stuff from here. There are guys who I buy stuff from but they’re like, “Oh my Japanese customers get first dibs, so after he’s done you can come through.” It’s a lot of work, but I’m lucky that Maria lets me do this, because it’s probably the best part of what we do and the most fun.

What do you look for in an individual pair of jeans?

Ryan: Mainly Levi’s. We stick to a few styles, mainly the 501s. People are coming in and asking for light wash jeans, most [of our customers] are sizes 24-28 so that’s really what I look for — but I don’t know, I’m always looking for other stuff that’s interesting that catches my eye that’s maybe not our normal customer, but I feel like we need in the store. They sometimes like the non-Levi’s jeans I buy, like wide leg 70s jeans, so just different styles that are little more unique but aren’t as in demand.

Something I read about jeans is that way back in the day, jeans were seen a symbol of resistance (like in Rebel Without A Cause). This is kind of a silly question, but do you have people who come in wanting jeans that make them look a certain way? Do they want jeans that make them look tougher?

Ryan: You can tell when someone wants a certain look, more distressed or patchwork due to the age or distressing of them. Sometimes I’ll find denim jackets that are so beat up and they’re amazing, and I know that they will just fly. People love them. The back can be torn out and elbows, it’s just barely hanging on — they’re just thrashed. I have a couple myself, and sometimes I’ll get them repaired and it adds to it.
I think there are certain people who really appreciate the way denim tells a story [with] the wear and tear and sometimes repair. You can tell when they gravitate towards that. You can tell they’re not just here to get their 501 light-washed denim — they’re trying to say something, they want a look.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how clothes can work as a symbol of resistance. For instance, the Quinceañera protest that you participated in with Jolt Texas, Maria, and how the clothes essentially were the protest. It was so powerful. The pictures were so moving.

Maria: It was incredible. It was awesome.

Were you involved? I know about Jolt because of your Instagram presence. I think it’s simply amazing that as a business owner, and as a relatively recent Austin transplant, you’re doing that and creating a voice for the community within your own business model. It’s very brave.  

Maria: It feels like a fine line sometimes, but it’s who I am, so it’s hard not to. I discovered Jolt after the election. There was a protest at City Hall I went to and met Christina. She was one of the founders of the Workers Independence Project and she started Jolt. I found out about it and I was like, oh my god I have to join this. The person who’s doing their social worked for Hillary Clinton. The women of Jolt are really competent, almost intimidatingly so. I’ve been helping them author their guidebooks to help them start chapters all over the place.

You talk about 'the fine line' on your social presence. Have you had people respond negatively to your political views online?  

Maria: Never.
Ryan: Never, surprisingly.
Maria: Never about the political stuff. We’ve had people respond negatively about the pricing of our clothes.  
Ryan: Usually it’s misinformed people. I think someone said, “You know you guys are taking these jeans that hardworking lower class people need.” Actually, those men who are construction workers are typically sizes 32 to 38, we sell 24 to 28 in women’s sizes, so I don’t think those guys are missing out — you can go to any thrift store and still find those jeans for those folks. We aren’t taking those.
Maria: We were at the outlet mall and they still sell tough jeans like Wranglers for like $15, so you can still buy workwear. We sometimes cut jeans or alter the hem — we’ve had people say that we’re ruining the integrity of the jeans.
Ryan: But we wouldn’t do that to a pair of jeans that’s like 50 years old or something, which isn’t really what we’re selling either. We’re selling jeans mostly from the late 70s to early 90s. They were being mass manufactured, and they’re great jeans — they’re still around obviously, but there’s not a lot of history. It’s not like we’re taking a pair of 1920 Levi’s and cutting them.

Is this in person or all online?

Ryan: All online.
Maria: There’s a big confusion about us because we understand the history of the jeans, but our business isn’t about 1800s Levi’s. It’s about 70s to 90s jeans and recycling them and bringing them back and giving them another life. We aren’t preservationists; we’re about recycling the past three decades.

Any thoughts on the gentrification of the East side of Austin?

Ryan: We could be seen as gentrifiers and in a lot of ways we are, but what we’re trying to do is show that we’re actually giving back to the community through activism, instead of just being seen as taking stuff. You can’t assume people are going to be cool with you moving in — I wouldn’t be surprised if we moved into somewhere else and got a little backlash, but we have to show those things that we’re doing. We realize who we are and what we’re doing.

What are your goals for Laissez Fair?   

Ryan: We’re going to do it three times a year: a spring, a summer, and one in November.

So cool to see so many people buying old clothes.

Maria: Right! And that’s something we wanted to focus on. I think until recently, being a vintage curator wasn’t as respected as being a maker, and I was like that’s not cool!
Ryan: We’ve had vendors reach out to us who we’d never even heard of before, because we don’t really do a lot of pop-ups.
Maria: It’s cool to meet other vendors because everything is different. You’re not competing with anyone because each piece is so unique — if I have a piece I’m selling, no one else is going to have it.

Early in the year you had a line of custom shoes made for the shop, tell me more about those — they were beautiful. Do you hope to do more stuff like that? I thought it was such a creative way to grow your business.  

Ryan: Maria came to me about that idea — she loves shoes — and I was like cool, I totally trust you on this one. But because we’re working with a third party it’s been really hard because we can’t control anything we’re just like, please send [the shoes] to us! And then they just never come. It’s just one guy making the shoes. He was like, “I’m on it,” a month ago. As much as we want to keep that going, it’s out of our control.  
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Maria: But maybe we’ll make jeans in the future because right now the new American Apparel is Los Angeles Apparel and the person making the jeans is a close friend of mine. So she sends me stuff she’s been working on and I’ve been helping her. I don’t know — maybe sometime in the future we’ll work on stuff together. It’s cool because she tells me all these things about how she’s designing it and how it’s a pain the ass. So it’s kind of opening my ideas to the reality of it, specifically jeans. She even has her samples, but even going 100% off the samples, it comes out a freak. We have our holy grail pieces that we would like to remake, but even if we make them, they might shrink in all the wrong places!

Do jeans actually shrink?

Ryan: They’re the smallest after you wash them. One-hundred percent cotton jeans will always stretch out. Jeans that have elastic in them — once you wash and dry and they shrink, they don’t stretch out as much. I always tell customers if they really want the pair of jeans and they’re a little tight, after you wash them, let them air dry. Then you can take the waist and pull it and it might shrink a little bit from air drying but it will retain that extra space you made. Sometimes they shrink in length and then I pull them and air dry them.
Maria: They’re made of cotton fibers so they expand and shrink, but if there’s spandex they might just shrink back.

If you wanted to give advice to someone who was looking to be an entrepreneur, what would you say? Any words of wisdom or advice?

Maria: I have a lot to say about that. Okay, so first of all, I think to be an entrepreneur you have to really want to. You can’t kind of want to. It has to be 1000% what you want to do. I read business books constantly, and you have to know what’s actually happening in the marketplace. We were both district managers for seven years at American Apparel. People think we just woke up one day and were like, jeans! [But] we knew what we were getting into.
Ryan: She was the store district manager, and I was the store inventory manager so we have different strengths, and there’s crossover constantly in our jobs as well. I’ve done retail since I was 19 years old, so that’s all I really know, but this is my main strength.  
Maria: And if you have any kind of business, you have to really understand marketing. I feel 90% of what I read is marketing and business leaders in the marketing world. You have to really understand everything you’re doing. You can be experts in jeans, and no one will know that you exist or care. Everyone asks about the Instagram — but that’s not my denim skill, that’s my marketing. So you really have to read a lot. The marketing genius of this time is Seth Godin. He’s where I got all of my ideas from. I got my ideas about jeans specifically from this book called The Purple Cow. He says if you’re driving in the middle of nowhere and there are cows everywhere, you won't notice them. But if there’s a purple cow, you’re going to look. So your business needs to have a purple cow — it needs to be different in some way. Obviously, people have copied us since.
Ryan: There’s definitely a few shops that have popped up…Everyone is taking ideas from somewhere…that’s the way it goes.  
Maria: But it’s funny, you have to keep the ball rolling on your craft. A lot of the people we see copying us are selling jeans from 2006 and they’re fooling people. I’m happy the jeans are being recycled, but you’re not buying a jean from 1996, you’re buying a jean from 2006.
Ryan: And there are people who are taking ideas that have already been done, so you have to keep evolving your idea. That’s how Laissez Fair came about. That’s how the shoes came about. We keep improving and evolving to stay ahead.

Any goals for the end of the year?

Maria: I feel like the year is done after the feature in W Magazine!
Ryan: We’re going to be expanding and looking for a new space. For wholesale, my goal is to triple the number of jeans we have in store. So my focus has been on increasing the amount we have, and the last Laissez Fair of the year.
Maria: It’s going to be the biggest, baddest one yet.

Last question: Are low-rise jeans going to come back?

Maria: I think so. I’m not saying I’m opening to it myself, but I love change so I’m excited for that. I feel like there’s always the classic person who will always want the 501s, but the trends will come around. I don’t want to wear it, but I want to see it.
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