Usually when you shop, you choose whatever quantity you want of a particular item. Not so with Foothills CA–the new Californian brand where there is only one of each thing.
That’s because Foothills, run by former skater Jonnie Henderson with J.P. Plunier, specializes in vintage. Particularly Native American, military and Western jewelry and gear–stuff which looks best mixed into modern outfits.
We spoke with Henderson and Plunier about their twisting paths in the vintage game, the unique cultural feedback loops connecting North American folk art with streetwear/style in Japan and Great Britain, and rejecting notions of vintage as old-timey dress-up.
We join this conversation midway through a scorched-Earth rant from J.P. Plunier about a so-called “independent” radio station which shall remain nameless:
“…just absolutely not worth listening to. There was one deejay, so condescending, playing garbage–like bad versions of P.J. Harvey covers by his three friends in a cottage. Stuff that shouldn’t have been on anyone’s cassette demos–not for lack of production values but lack of soul and conviction. Anyway. That relates to what we do because we try and do everything with soul and conviction!”
Nordstrom blogs: Indeed. So where do your Foothills CA pieces come from? California? I realize I’m up against probably a healthy unwillingness to reveal sources and trade secrets.
J.P. Plunier: Some of the stuff comes from California. But it’s from all over the world, and connected to our histories. Jonnie and I go way back. The first time I met him was at the skate park around 40 years ago. There was a big skate park here called the Upland Pipeline, and Jonnie was like, I would say he was the most stylish young skater who skated that park at that time. In fact Jonnie was given the nickname “Stylish” by the legendary Steve Alba. I’m French and I moved here partly because of that park. So that was certainly cred in my eyes. We bonded over skating first, and as it turns out, skaters have a creative thing they bring to the world. When I was born, my dad was living in the Congo. By the time I came to college here in the town where Foothills is based, I’d been living in Japan for nine years. Along the way I went to Sri Lanka, France, Thailand, Vietnam. Point being I have friends all over the world, so I get into the vintage markets and have people calling me, “Hey, I have these amazing necklaces.” And it ends up being me thinking, “Do we have people to sell this to? Or are we collecting for ourselves?”
Jonnie Henderson: I started in 1992 as a vintage denim dealer with a focus on Japan, so that’s another thing J.P. and I have in common. During the height of the denim business I was traveling all over the U.S., and by the end of the 1990s Japan had an economic downturn. At that point, I started to focus on selling here in the States. Prior to that, I had been doing all my business in Japan, which led me to start wholesaling there. Around 2001 I began selling vintage exclusively to the largest fashion company in the U.S. My close collaborator Chris Cogswell had been encouraging me to do something independently, and I liked that idea, and on a ski trip that spring I brought it up to J.P. while we were on the lift. He and I started discussing Foothills in earnest about a year and a half ago. Right now the company focuses on a few aspects of the business including consulting, store buildouts, marketing, branding and design.
How did you make those initial contacts in Japan to start selling denim there?
I had been introduced to the denim business by a good friend of mine, Dale Matson, in my hometown of Claremont, who was one of the pioneers of the used jeans business. He had landed a contract with a big chain that had stores in malls all over the U.S.–Hot Topic. He brought me in as a partner and after six months or a year, we parted and went our separate ways. That’s when I started setting up at different shows and flea markets. This is when I met my first Japanese customers.
J.P. Plunier: At the Fairfax Flea market. Are you familiar with L.A.?
Yes. And I know that flea market from rap lyrics.
J.P. Plunier: Oh yeah, all those kids, now, the Supreme-wearing mall kids. The whole Odd Future crew and so on. That’s their zone.
Jonnie Henderson: The Fairfax Flea Market went through two main eras. The first one was around the early ‘90s. A lot of future vintage dealers and store owners got their start there. Including myself. By luck, I met two customers then who ultimately turned into long relationships. Once I started wholesaling to them that led to me traveling in Japan, expanding my business. One account was a small vintage store in Chiba, whose buyers would travel here every month. The other client was actually a couple who wholesaled to stores all throughout Japan. Those two accounts got me off the ground. From that point, I hammered that around the clock. Traveling, collecting, selling. That took me to into mid-’90s when, by chance, I met some Japanese buyers at a vintage denim auction. Little did I know, they represented a huge chain of stores in Japan. Fifty stores under the name Octopus Army, with two specialty stores located in Harajuku called Buffalo Bob’s. For three years I supplied a huge amount of what they sold. That account changed my life. I was single at that time and traveling nonstop. I worked with them up until the late ‘90s. Then the economic downturn happened and the whole vintage business changed after that.
So what did you do?
I had to completely reinvent my business. At that point I was ten years deep in the business, and had spent the last three years solely with this company. Unfortunately they closed 48 stores, going from 50 down to two. Everything hit rock bottom: American dealers were dropping like flies as well as Japanese retailers. I started looking into different avenues. One of them being Western antique shows and the other Native American antique shows. I already had a big affinity for Native American jewelry and antiques. I had been shopping those shows for years for denim related items. That led to me selling in those shows, too. During these few years, the Japanese market slowly started to recover. Which led me to start wholesaling again to Japan. The time spent in the Western and Native American shows had broadened my knowledge from not only denim but other antiques.
How different do you think the markets are in the U.S. and Japan for the kinds of antiques you sell?
J.P. Plunier: Japan’s an island with a long history and a lot that they owe to Korea and China, culturally. But they also have a more ancient history which is almost aboriginal, and I think they reflect that in the modern world in their relationship to Native Americans. It’s an aesthetic on one hand, but it’s more than that. It’s about admiring an authentic and deep connection to the land. I feel there’s a definite thing, not a trendy thing but a permanent thing with Japan having a connection especially with southwest Indians. I’ve never talked to anyone about it before, really, but I find it fascinating. Witnessing it time and time again triggered me to think about it. My Japanese friends would come to California and head straight to New Mexico or Arizona, grow out their hair and start wearing moccasins. You see it in brands like visvim, a Kanye West staple. That’s the Japanese spin on the moccasin/sneaker combo, which affected the market in a big way over time. One thing on an atavistic level, a super roots level: what is known by anthropologists and ethnographers about the migration of people via the Bering Strait into the Americas seems to speak at least in part to Asian origins. So even though these are pretty separate things, they’re not, they’re related, there’s a connection that’s real. I think it’s a really significant thing that hasn’t been studied, really. I think it’s part of the subliminal psyche of Japan as a country.
I’ve always thought Japan and Great Britain have had a connection as island countries, colonial countries and countries that have a knack for taking American folklore and folk art giving it back to us Americans in a way we like, whether it’s Adele selling Motown back to us, or visvim selling Native American sneakers. I don’t know if there’s a connection there or not.
J.P. Plunier: There is and it goes so far beyond that. The basics are that they are islands. They do have stuff that comes from the continent which they refuse to acknowledge. They both drive on the left. They are totally inspiring in a very parallel way to street culture. Before Commes des Garcon and stuff like that, all the Japanese designers of note were London-based. The swinging ‘60s spoke to them in a different way than the classic designers like Hanae Mori who were inspired by Paris. So it created a thing. In the days of the late ‘70s or the early ‘80s–Factory Records and all that–the contingent of Japanese guys in London was huge. And with David Bowie, R.I.P., and his deep connection with Kansai Yamamoto–there’s a direct link between the countries. And as far as the street thing. Japanese and English kids, for the most part, had to wear uniforms. There’s a rebellious undercurrent to break out of that. The street culture of both of those places is similar. I spent a lot of time in Gaultier’s head offices in the ‘80s, and he’d be in London every weekend. And so all that stuff you’ll see Gaultier do that was a parallel to what Vivienne Westwood was doing, tartan plaid and bomber jackets, was inspired by British street culture. Which was already being filtered by Japanese stuff. So there you have it.
What do you think about our specific Heartbreakers II shop? You’re the only vintage brand. How does Foothills fit into this menswear/post-streetwear vibe?
J.P. Plunier: When we saw the list of brands we were certainly flattered, being sold next to brands like Nepenthes and Leica is great company. But there’s a thing which I’m going to call, right now, future vintage. Which is when you see things right now that you know are going to be dope 30, 40 years from now. I think some of what Olivia Kim has curated for this shop is just that. Credit to her and her team for having a good eye. On top of that, recently, everyone’s a lumberjack. And that’s fine, I love the boots. But at some point you have to realize you’re a lumberjack on a computer. That said there’s a deep need for people to connect to their past. And this particular stuff, the batch we sent you, we really tried to select things that would not be totally parallel but instead value added to anyone who rocks that stuff. If you’ve got that Leica camera around your neck with that necklace, or that bracelet–or if you’re putting your camera down on a nightstand next to that clock, which we got out of a bomber plane by the way, there’s a link there that I think is aesthetically correct. We didn’t wait for Donald Trump to make America great again–It’s already dope, so here it is. In the meantime, there’s a desire for people to connect to that. This particular vintage is timeless. Jonnie and I both have 14-year-old sons, and they’re finding their own way in style, buying and trading Supreme, among other brands, this, that and the other. But they’re minutes away from realizing this stuff we’re messing with totally fits in with their Supreme. This batch we sent over is, I think, incredibly well-suited to accessorize with the rest of the shop. Which again, I’m calling future vintage.
Jonnie Henderson: We’re not reinventing the wheel with vintage per se, but we’re blending it in with the right brands. Vintage hasn’t been given its due justice. It’s been shown in specific, old-fashioned categories and themes. But it has the ability to be seen in a modern way. It’s the selection, and how you show it or how you style it. You see that in architectural design and interior design. Vintage can be blended in to create an overall very modern look. It’ll be very interesting to see how the modern day Nordstrom customer responds to this.
J.P. Plunier: You’re a little ahead of the curve with this, which we’re stoked about. Being at the Seattle flagship store feels really good, and like a great and interesting challenge. By and large a lot of people are going head-to-toe with vintage. It’s like a costume. We don’t view it that way. We’re not trying to do total looks. That’s not the approach. For us, it’s about the blend. For those who are stuck dressing like an ironworker, newspaper boy or a cowboy, that’s great. That’s not our deal. And what Olivia Kim’s doing with Heartbreakers II, she gets it.