For L.A.’s Godfather of Upcycled Vintage, Business Is Booming

·6 min read

In an industrial section of downtown, where lines of tractor-trailers rumble down the potholed streets and the aroma of the Farmer John meatpacking plant hits your nostrils, L.A.’s godfather of upcycled vintage sits among his 15,000-piece collection of secondhand clothing.

Italian designer Maurizio Donadi and his Transnomadica upcycled and curated vintage clothing company, founded in 2012, have been the source for some of America’s biggest brands in search of sustainable options. And thanks to increased consumer awareness around how the fashion industry contributes to climate change, business is booming.

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Inside his 8,000 square feet space rambling across two stories of a building, Donadi has a massive amount of vintage and secondhand clothing waiting to be sold as unique wearable pieces.

There are Japanese blue jeans, U.S. military uniforms from the Korean and Vietnam wars, T-shirts and leftover pieces of Japanese fabric that might have otherwise been discarded. They are neatly stacked on shelves, organized in plastic bins and hanging on recycled hangers. (Just about everything at the Transnomadica office is recycled, including the furniture.)

Donadi has been collecting these pieces for some four decades, often giving them a new stylish lease on life with added pockets, patches of artistic fabric and touches of trim to mask rips and stains. In 2015, he founded his own upcycled and vintage denim brand Atelier & Repairs, which had a store on Melrose Avenue. He sold that business to sustainable denim manufacturer Saitex in 2020.

“Citizens in general, I don’t like to call them consumers, are becoming aware of the value of vintage and certain secondhand pieces,” Donadi said. “Also, a lot of companies are interested in their past, but a lot of companies don’t have an updated archive.”

For the last two years, Transnomadica has been supplying Dockers’ online vintage section with vintage gender-neutral Dockers clothing from the 1980s and 1990s. Every quarter there are about 300 pieces that drop. Products range from shirts and sweaters to pants and jackets with prices running at around $100. Customized Dockers chinos will be online for the summer.

Nicolas Rendic, Dockers’ global head of design, said the Dockers vintage collection was created after partnering with Donadi in 2018 on a collaboration focused on Dockers’ signature khakis. “We saw an opportunity to create a special [vintage] collection highlighting the quality and timelessness of our brand,” he said.

Recently, Donati worked with Nike to supply the athletic wear company with vintage Nike sweatshirts that debuted in late May and dropped exclusively at the company’s store at The Grove shopping center in L.A.. The vintage sweatshirts are a one-time collaboration, Donadi said.

Part of Nike’s Re-creation program, the sweatshirts featured three iconic fleece hoodie and crew silhouettes inspired by L.A.’s sports culture. Each unique piece features added patches and decorative stitching to enhance durability.

John Hoke, Nike’s chief design officer, said the program creates new value by reusing its own materials and products. “Nike Re-creation highlights an exciting moment of experimentation and progression.”

Transnomadica is putting together vintage Hawaiian shirts for a capsule summer collection at Ron Herman, the upscale West Hollywood retailer, which will host a Ron Herman x Transnomadica shop-in-shop.

Donadi also has a capsule collaboration in the works with Mr. Porter, which will be released later this year.

Next month, the Italian designer is extending his partnership with the upcoming Project trade show. At its July 18-19 event in New York, Project will sell to the public one-of-a-kind vintage Japanese denim from Transnomadica’s archives. There will also be eight to 10 brands selling artisanal and upcycled apparel, accessories and footwear.

For Project’s August edition in Las Vegas, Donadi is curating a space for companies to show sustainable and upcycled clothing to sell to wholesalers.

Inside the Transnomadica Laboratorio, a collection of military looks.
Inside the Transnomadica Laboratorio, a collection of military looks.

Upcycling isn’t anything new. Urban Outfitters has been stocking upcycled, repurposed and vintage clothing on its website for some time. L.A. contemporary brand Reformation was founded on the concept, and high-end designers, such as Gabriela Hearst, Marine Serre and Maison Margiela, have reconstructed recycled clothing and upcycled fabrics for runway collections.

But upcycling has grown in popularity as more consumers are demanding brands be more responsible about their  environmental impact.

According to ThredUp, an online resale apparel and accessories platform that conducts an annual study, the secondhand market is expected to double to $77 billion a year by 2028.

This is good news for Donadi, who lives what he preaches. He is often seen in vintage clothing. On a recent afternoon, he was wearing a pair of old khaki military pants from the Korean War.

He is in love with vintage Japanese denim, which he calls the Rolls Royce of denim. He considers military clothing the best fashion in the world because uniforms often employ innovative fabrics and are designed for utility. “They usually have pockets that are durable and have technically superior zippers and buttons,” he said. “When Gore-Tex developed its fabric, they went to the military to sell it and later to consumers.”

Finding vintage clothing is like being a fashion sleuth who can follow the trail to the right person at the right time. Donadi never frequents flea markets but has pickers around the world who contact him with their special discoveries. “They know what I am looking for,” he said. “They will ask me if I have a brand in mind. Do I want Japanese fashion or European fashion?”

The bulk of his collection is menswear, but smaller sizes are gender neutral. He has a lot of womenswear that is still unorganized, but now there is a growing demand for it.

Many of the things he finds are from small companies no longer in business or brands whose look has drastically changed over the years.

Gap is one example of a changing brand. The Italian designer has a few racks of Gap windbreakers from the 1980s made of 100 percent cotton instead of today’s nylon or polyester. “They have a special look because they have been washed and are faded,” he explained of the preppy pieces.

But upcycling and vintage clothing is only 25 percent of Transnomadica’s business. The bulk of Donadi’s revenue comes from consulting for clothing ventures around the world.

This taps into his years of working as the chief brand officer at A/X Armani Exchange, the global senior vice president at Levi Strauss & Co. and the senior vice president at Double RL and Rugby.

Still, upcycled and vintage clothing is his passion. “My goal,” he said, “is that people buy less new and recycle more.”


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