Vintage Expert Sean Crowley Shares His Tips for Scoring the Perfect Find

The birth of eBay signaled an entirely new way of sleuthing out vintage gear. Now, if you know the right keywords, are particular and single-minded about what you’re after, and willing to take delivery of the occasional turkey or two, you can dig up unique and special things on the other side of the globe without even rising from your chair. This has, ostensibly, made sifting through piles of old clothes at rummage sales and thrift stores for that one gem in an uncurated mountain of dross a thing of the past.

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Sean Crowley inside his store, Crowley Vintage & Antiques.

Nick Sullivan

But one thing even The Algorithm doesn’t possess (at this point, at least) is The Eye. Imagine taking all the keywords with which you regularly scour eBay or Etsy, and then realizing them instead in a brick-and-mortar vintage store. Mine, and I don't think I’m giving anything away here, would probably include the following: British, Scottish, Irish, military, officer, Savile Row, Barbour, Belstaff, bespoke, Jermyn Street, and Northampton. And I imagine my go-to list isn’t far from the one used by Sean Crowley.

Crowley, you see, has The Eye. After design stints in the better end of the men’s fashion business, has just opened up a vintage store that is already becoming a destination for people looking for interesting pieces from the past. There's no shortage of options in his ever-growing collection of Anglo-centric tailoring, collegiate sweaters, military uniforms, and what my Scottish great aunt would call “knicky knacky knoos”–coronation mugs, cufflinks, ashtrays, hip-flasks from long-vanished Hussar regiments, opera glasses, and top hats. You don't actually need any of it, but places like Crowley Vintage & Antiques will very quickly convince you that you that a life without a Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders cookie jar is not worth living.

We cornered Crowley at his new store and gave him a grilling for his tips and secrets. Here’s what he had to say.

You can’t do it all online.

I'd recommend getting out there and actually handling the stuff. The internet is obviously an incredible tool for both learning and for tracking things down, but it's only part of the puzzle. I can't tell you how many guys I meet who have all this array of arcane facts, but never get their hands on the stuff. Without the haptic element the knowledge is kind of meaningless. Even if it's just at your local thrift shop, it's so important to get out there and touch stuff—you can even learn from the bad stuff. Otherwise my best advice is dig! Whether online or in a shop, you really just have to keep looking and not give up.

Nick Sullivan

But when you are online, be sure to be diligent.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions of dealers and make sure you check those measurements. Everyone makes mistakes with eBay purchases, but you'll find gold if you keep your eyes open.

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It’s a slippery slope to hoarding.

I have two collections, I guess: my personal collection and my selling inventory. Both have taken time, but with my inventory it's been a few years of aggressive digging and buying. At first, years and years ago, when I was only buying for myself, I would see great pieces out there. But if they didn't fit me, I'd leave them on the rack—perhaps stupidly. Then one day it occurred to me to buy and sell, or even just pass them on to friends. It was just too painful to leave a great piece in the purgatory of a thrift store or flea market. It's a slippery slope from there to hoarding, so here I am now.

Nick Sullivan

You have to love it.

I grew up going to flea markets from age 5 and my father and grandfather were both brilliant collectors. I could have rejected all of it, but I totally fell in love with it. I love the hunt. Love the markets and the characters you meet.

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Everything I sell is something I love. For better or worse, I don't think I could sell things I didn't love. That being said, my personal taste is the thread running through all of it. There's also a certain aspect of aspiration and fantasy. Even if I don't dress like Bertie Wooster or a Grenadier Guard or a 1930s Princeton guy, it's nice to know that it's there.

It’s all about details.

With vintage, as with all things old, I think the thing that appeals first and foremost is the history and the story, and the discovery of each piece. Getting a new piece and poring over it—looking at construction details and cloth and labels and dates and cross-referencing with other pieces is a joy. Clearly menswear is more detail-oriented than women's, where silhouette and bold statements are the MO, but I love the nuance of men's and somehow always finding something "new" with vintage pieces.

Nick Sullivan

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That price tag might not be as extravagant as you think.

It's not really that fabulously expensive, especially in a world of $80,000 vintage jeans, but I always loved the look of the British Guards Regiment's frock coats, with all the braid hanging down the front. I was at my friend Graham's shop in London and I saw one that fit like it was made for me and I had to have it at any price. Thankfully I think it was only about $600. I have the whole kit now and it's a great outfit for Whole Foods.

Be ready to be surprised.

I remember years ago in Bushwick, in this junk shop where literally everything was grimy and/or broken, I pulled out this immaculate bespoke men's nightshirt from the Burlington Arcade. Gorgeous shirting stripe with red piping and mother of pearl buttons. How did it even get there? I am always fascinated to know the path of the things I bought. How did they end up at this little auction house or flea market in the middle of nowhere?

Crowley Vintage & Antiques is located at 546 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Open Saturday and Sunday, 12-6pm; weekdays by appointment.

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