After working in the vintage business for more than 20 years, native Irishman Oliver Harkness has become one of the go-to vintage clothing legends of New York City. Located at Lower Manhattan’s 15 Prince Street, Oliver runs The Quality Mending Co., which both houses his vintage shop and the headquarters of his brand of the same name. Since its opening in 2002, The Quality Mending Co. has gained a reputation as one of the city’s most venerable vintage purveyors. A few years back Oliver started making canvas bags under the The Quality Mending Co. name, and most recently he has introduced a small selection of high quality made in the New York jeans. We had opportunity to ask Oliver a few questions about The Quality Mending Co., his relationship to denim, and how he found himself producing his own jeans based on his beloved single stitch vintage Levi’s 505.
Oliver grew up in Ireland, lived in London in his teens, and toured Europe and the US in numerous bands before he moved to New York City in the late 80s. Here Oliver ran a vintage shop on Ludlow Street, but in 2002 he moved the location to Prince Street. Originally the shop was called Eleven but four years ago he re-branded it into what is now The Quality Mending Co. Even though the name has changed the emphasis of shop has always remained the same; high quality vintage wear from the 1920s through the 1990s from all over the world. After eleven years, an awning fire, a few flooded basements, and a new name for the neighbourhood (Nolita, what used to be just Little Italy) Oliver and The Quality Mending Co. has become a destination for film and TV stars, serious denimheads, collectors of Americana, tourists wondering what the hell the store is and anyone who cares about good, quality clothing.
You clearly have a passion for clothing with history, how did it all begin?
“In my teens while living in London I would source clothing in upper England and sell it in Camden market at the weekends. Then when I arrived in New York I somehow wound up sourcing clothing throughout the states to sell in the city. It was the same deal as London but a bigger scale. People would ask me to find pieces for them. I would go to flea markets and thrift stores because back then there was a much better chance that you would find some great, rare pair of jeans. Eventually I realized that I had a created a business for myself and it went from there.”
“The Quality Mending came about from a sign I found at antique fair a few years back. The name fit perfectly with the idea that I had to use design and materials from my archives to bring back for sale on a bigger scale.”
What is your background?
“I used to play a lot of music and thought my future would be doing that. Back then, I bought clothing for personal use both in England and the States while touring. Eventually the clothing business just ended up overtaking the music.”
What was your motivation to open the shop?
“I opened the shop because in the mid 90′s, in New York, there was a high demand for vintage but not a lot of people were going into the business. At the time, I was focusing on the wholesale end. But after a few years it took a turn for the worse and retail seemed the smarter thing to do. Buying is the fun part of the business, selling is usually the tough part unless you’re selling the right thing. That’s why I’m constantly traveling all over the place to find for the next great, unique piece for the store.”
What inspired you for the merchandising of the shop?
“I owe all my inspiration for merchandising to my dearest friend Bobby from Boston who I’ve known for over twenty years. He taught me so much about the business and his love for each item inspired me. That along with the team of staff that we have constantly maintaining and improving the image of the store makes it constantly evolve.”
How did you get into the denim business?
“I have only ever worn an old pair of Levi’s 505 single stitch jeans. You used to be able to find them easily and in abundance. At one point I wasn’t finding them as easily so I gave up wearing jeans until a friend of mine offered me the opportunity to make my own denim. At that point I pulled the only pair of deadstock Levi’s 505 single stitch I had out of my archive and had a pattern made from those with a few minor alterations. That how I got going.”
Do you remember your first pair of jeans?
“The first pair of jeans I remember dearly were a pair of Levi’s 606. I bought them at Domsey’s Used Clothing Warehouse in Brooklyn in 1988. They had an orange tab which I didn’t like at the time so I cut most of it off and painted whatever was left of the tag red. Shortly after purchasing them I was DJ’ing at a local sushi bar in the East Village and a Japanese tourist came in and offered me $250 for the jeans. Needless to say, I quickly went home to change my pants.”
Why do you think denim has become so popular recently (over the past decade)?
“Denim has always been denim, but to me it’s become more popular over the last decade because of the global recession. People tend to go more for that homemade better-structured item when they have to think about spending money. People don’t mind spending more money for a well-crafted item with a long life. Denim generally is that kind of an item.”
What do you love the most about denim?
“I love how it wears, how each persons jeans have their own identity worn into it.”
How do you wear and treat in your dry denim jeans – any special routines?
“I personally wear in my jeans simply by putting them on and wearing them constantly until my wife snags them off of me while I’m sleeping, which is usually every 6 to 8 months then she dry cleans them inside out.”
What do you recommend your customers to do regarding breaking in their jeans?
“That’s a complicated question. There are so many ways to treat denim and everyone has their own style. Even in the shop, the employees differ on how to wear their jeans. One of the guy’s methods of hot wash is superb. He turns the jeans inside out and soaks them in hot water for a few hours then hangs them to air dry. He has washed his pair five or six times in the last few months and they are distressing nicely. The other hasn’t even considered putting his pair near water yet and won’t wash them for at least 6 months or so. Denim care is such a personal decision. There are a lot of great recommendations out there but you just have to find what works best for you.”
Do you collect anything (other than denim)?
“As well as denim I collect post punk band shirts including psychobilly/ rockabilly and rocker leather jackets.”
How many pairs of jeans do you have in your private collection?
“I probably have around 40 pairs of jeans in my private collection. I tend to go for the worn in and gone repaired details in my own collection even though I prefer to wear dark denim.”
Which pair are you most proud of?
“Most proud of the deadstock 505 single stitch jeans that I’ve taken the Highrider shape from.”
What’s your favourite brand/fit?
“The only jean I wear is the Highrider.”
Are there any up-coming or unknown brands that you think are worth looking into?
“There are so many brands that are really bringing all kinds of innovative stuff to the table. One brand in Los Angeles called Them is doing really interesting stuff. Rising Sun make their stuff with so much attention to detail and authenticity. There are so many others on the east coast, Europe and Scandinavia that are experimenting with traditional methods while introducing their take and alterations.”
Where will The Quality Mending Co. be five years from now?
“In five years we plan to have developed a brand that is based on denim staples. We would like to open stores in other cities and perhaps other countries that sell our products and select vintage items.”
Co.MISSION, a digital branded content agency and production company based in Brooklyn has just released this insightful video presentation of the Quality Mending Co. Oliver has trusted one of his employees, David Kirby, to handle the presentation.
Contact information of the shop:
15 Prince Street, New York City, NY 10012