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Vintage Voyager

By Serena Renner

Apr 10, 2012

From the May/June 2012 issue

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Portrait by Jake Stangel

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NAME: Jay Carroll
AGE: 32
BORN IN: Portland, Maine
HOME: San Francisco, California
JOB DESCRIPTION: Travels the world for Levi’s collecting inspiration for seasonal collections
TIME SPENT ON THE ROAD: Two weeks every month
PLACES VISITED IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS: England, Ireland, Scotland, France, India, Japan, Korea, Turkey, and 15 U.S. states

How did you become interested in vintage clothes and artisan crafts?

I was brought up in New England in a 200-year-old house that had crystal doorknobs. My mom did interior design, so we constantly stopped at antique stores. Many of my interests can be traced to my upbringing and the appreciation I inherited for the old and well made.

For Levi’s, you travel in search of brand concepts. How did you get that job?

In 2008, I left Rogues Gallery [an independent menswear brand based in Portland, Maine] and headed to California. Instead of looking for a new job, I took an assignment from GQ, in collaboration with a friend, to find the best vintage stores in the United States. We made a cross-country road trip, exploring hidden pockets of Americana in places like Wonder Valley, California; Fort Davis, Texas; and Las Cruces, New Mexico. After the trip, we staged a pop-up shop, One Trip Pass, in New York City, and Rene Holguin, who used to work at Levi’s, hired me to do another road trip around the theme “Stars and Stripes.” We put up an installation of vintage items and found objects at Levi’s flagship store in San Francisco.

Having then just fallen in love with California, I agreed to stay on as a special projects guy for Levi’s, which led to the concept job.

Can you give an example of how something you discovered on the road ended up in a clothing collection?

Our Spring 2012 collection was inspired by places where the land meets the sea. We went first to Occidental, California, and saw how locals live off the grid, and then to Sea Ranch, a community on the coast of Northern California where modern architecture is perched on a rugged landscape. That inspired new ways to mix up the aesthetics of the collection. We experimented with sun bleaching and saltwater washes, and then a sun-bleached dress ended up in the line. But in the bigger picture, we don’t just find a color that we like; we bring in principles from these various communities with regard to craft, sustainability, and innovation.

You also helped found Levi’s Made Here line, which spotlights artisans who reinterpret traditional crafts. Why is this important?

For me, it completes the circle of brand storytelling. If you go into a Levi’s store and our seasonal concept is, say, “of the Earth,” you’ll see Native American jewelry from our trip to the Navajo nation. It enhances the store experience, and it’s also an effort to inspire a new generation of craftspeople.

What can objects tell you about a place?

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The things you find in the California desert, for instance, represent the people who have moved there from all over the country. At an antique store, you might see New England maritime antiques, Pacific Northwest tribal art, weird Las Vegas Rat Pack stuff, and outerwear that no one needs anymore. In Japan, there’s such an elevated appreciation for aesthetic and craft, even vintage stores are heavily curated. In India, crafts are inherently sustainable—their ancient methods still work, even if there’s no electricity and people use fire instead of gas.

Is there a recent trip that sticks out in your memory?

I did a short road trip from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye in northwest Scotland last fall. It was only 250 miles, but every 20 minutes the landscape dramatically changed, from thatched-roofed villages to rolling hills to mountains shaped like witches’ hats. Getting to Skye felt like arriving at the end of the rainbow. Folks were selling antiques out of their homes, and people in little knitting villages were working with Harris tweed

What are some of the best vintage stores in the U.S.?

Mister Freedom Los Angeles, California (shown above)
“Mister Freedom is the epicenter of vintage apparel. It’s one of the best-curated vintage stores in the U.S., offering a range of Japanese textiles, French linen nightshirts, Aran sweaters, work boots and, of course, old Levi’s jeans.” 7161 Beverly Blvd., (323) 653-2014, misterfreedom.com

Wonder Valley Thrift Store Wonder Valley, California
“The two-room cinderblock house near Twentynine Palms, California, is open only six hours a week, and the mix of items is really fun. The bathroom is filled floor to ceiling with covers from junk paperbacks and rare pulp novels. I found some interesting military throwaways and a bunch of letters from old signs that I thought were really cool.” Open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. 6266 Godwin Rd.

New Brohemia Austin, Texas
“In the spirit of Austin, this vintage store feels like it’s run by kids who have a high-desert, Gram Parsons, living-in-a-teepee sensibility. It’s in an adobe-looking house and has a great selection of Western boots, bolo ties, button-downs, and killer suits from Continental European to corduroy. They wash their goods before putting them out, which is an important vintage store requirement, in my opinion.” 2209 South First St. # D, (512) 804-0988

Salvation Army Portland, Maine
“This warehouse in my hometown gets something like 3,000 new items a day. Maine is the isolated frontier of the East, so there’s not the demand for vintage wear like there is in larger cities. It’s a gold mine for vintage L.L. Bean—bags, boots, coats, sweaters—and outerwear: ski jackets, Norfolk jackets, and tweed blazers.” 30 Warren Ave., (207) 878-8591

Some of your favorite places?

Big Sur Richard’s Sugar Creek Canyon, Big Sur, California
“A guy named Richard has a canyon in Big Sur that’s totally off the grid. I call the place ‘Big Sur Richard’s Sugar Creek Canyon.’ You sleep in decked-out trailers, and Richard brings you fresh eggs from his chickens. He built a bathhouse with an outdoor shower. It’s an epic place where you feel like you have your own private Big Sur canyon.” 54915 Hwy. 1, Big Sur,  (831) 601-7974, big-sur-cabin-rental.com

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Clos du Léthé, Montaren et Saint Médiers, France
“A designer and a banker moved from London to the French countryside and bought an old priory near Uzès. They redid it in a very artistic way—one room is in the style of a Moroccan cave. There’s an infinity pool where you can watch people work the vineyards and olive trees. It was the best place to check out for two days, turn off the phone, and forget about my existence.” Hameau de Saint Médiers 30700, Montaren-et-Saint-Médiers,  33/(0) 4-6674-5837, closdulethe.com

Specs Twelve Adler Museum Cafe, San Francisco, California
“Specs is a locals’ bar in North Beach, the neighborhood that was a major hub for the Beatnik subculture. Any of those folks who are still around can be found at Specs. The bar has a wild collection of artifacts from around the world, including postcards that people send from the road. I’ve sent postcards from my own travels, which I planned to read later over a beer.” 12 William Saroyan Pl., San Francisco, (415) 421-4112

Highways 518, 75, and 76, New Mexico (shown above)
“This hour-and-a-half drive between Taos and Chimayo, New Mexico, hugs the Santa Fe National Forest. I found that spiritual feeling there that people search for in New Mexico. In Truchas, a town along the route, there’s a history of weaving minimalist New Mexico–style rugs that stretches back several generations.”

What are some of your favorite souviners?

When Jay Carroll travels, he picks up keepsakes to remind him of his journeys. Here are some of his favorite souvenirs, which decorate his San Francisco home.

Butch Anthony pan, Seale, Alabama

“The Southern clothing designer Billy Reid threw a party in Florence, Alabama, where I met this Seale folk artist named Butch Anthony. He wears overalls, old cotton Henleys, and a beaver felt hat and makes really beautiful pieces of new American folk art. I bought a couple items from him, my favorite being a big round tin pan that he made into a face. It’s one of the most unique things I own.” museumofwonder.com

Indigo-dyed water pot, Pondicherry, India (shown at top)

“In a small village near Pondicherry, I watched how the color indigo is made in the old method where four guys stand in a bath, kicking backwards in rhythmic unison to oxidize the indigo in the water. The sound and movement were just hypnotic. I found this tin pot that was used there for so long it was banged up and indigo-dyed in various shades of blue.” 

Netted beach stone, Stonington, Maine

“Tim Whitten, a maritime artisan that I worked with for Made Here, uses traditional fishing knots to braid rope around rocks and stones. He trained as an engineer, but something about handmade rope work clicked with him later in life. I think this stone is such a beautiful, simple object.” marlinespike.com

Kapital scarf, Japan

“The brand Kapital makes some of the most interesting garments I’ve ever seen. They have wool scarves that they call mufflers. When they were testing ways to process fabric, they messed up, resulting in a feltlike material that blends colors in a really special way. It’s proof that sometimes the most beautiful things come from mistakes.” kapital.jp

Custom moccasins, Cave Junction, Oregon

“My friend Carol Lindhorse traced my foot and had me pick out the shape, the leather, and the colors of the beads for these moccasins. She sent them to me after a couple months, and they fit like a glove. I almost don’t want to wear them out of fear that I’ll mess them up.”

>>Next: 8 Photos That Showcase How Travel and Style Go Hand-in-Hand

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