Why Every Fashion Kid Is Suddenly Collecting Old Books
In June 2020, Taylor Kan was a recent college grad, working remote for a consumer packaged goods company, and—like many of us in the throes of the pandemic—found himself stuck at home with little to do in his spare time. “I was on the internet too much,” Kan says. “I wanted more tangible things.” He’s speaking to me over video chat from his childhood bedroom in the suburbs of Toronto, surrounded by a giant Mapplethorpe print, a pair of white Tabi boots, and a stack of rare fashion tomes.
Kan is part of a new generation of vintage book dealers furnishing the coffee tables of industry insiders and fanatical enthusiasts with printed ephemera: rare tomes on designers like Raf Simons and Comme des Garçons; deep dives into style subcultures; and grail-worthy magazines, like the inaugural issue of the Berlin culture biannual 032c—which Kan’s online shop, Offbrand Library, is currently hawking for over $700.
The shop was borne out of the Instagram account @offbrand.library, where Kan—a bona fide fashion obsessive—began sharing scanned images of editorials from early issues of seminal style titles i-D and FRUiTS. “You see tons of editorials online, but it doesn’t translate the same on paper,” says Kan, who sourced most of his collection from eBay, Grailed, and Buyee, a Japanese proxy service. “So having the actual physical book was something that was really important.” At first, Kan had no intention of selling off his collection—“The idea was for it to be a resource and more of a library,” he says—but eager buyers came calling, and in June 2021, he formalized the business and quickly amassed a global cult of loyal collectors. To date, Offbrand has hit nearly $20,000 in total sales—not too shabby for a literal bedroom operation. But what exactly is behind the vintage print boom?
Part of it is collectors flexing their niche knowledge of fashion history. “It’s become like a signifier,” says Chris Black, the How Long Gone podcaster and noted magazine collector, who owns a framed copy of The Face’s November 1995 issue with Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher on the cover (which is currently on eBay for $50). “Like, if you have the full set of the Comme des Garçons’ magazine Six, it means you take this really seriously, and it looks great on your shelf and it’s endless Instagram fodder.”
For the creative class, fashion and art books serve as valuable resources that sharpen their perspectives and inform their work. Andy Jackson, a 27-year-old photographer in New York who has shot for GQ and Vanity Fair, often refers to his 100+ issue archive of Popeye, the legendary Japanese men’s fashion magazine, and photography books from Walter Pfeiffer and Seydou Keita “to connect the dots, to see how things may have indirectly influenced the culture that I find interesting that I didn’t know [about].”
Geoff Snack, the dealer and collector behind the online bookshop Wrong Answer, says he has sourced fashion books for a number of high-profile European designers. “For people in those positions,” Snack says, “those [visual] reference points can fuel a lookbook or a runway collection.” Snack also says the market for secondhand clothes has inspired “an increased literacy about visual material and education about archival fashion,” prompting further interest in vintage print materials.
The other big reason for the boom? Nostalgia. Cool, young people everywhere yearn to recapture a pre-Instagram era—especially the ‘90s and early ‘00s—defined by active subcultures and a seemingly more authentic expression of personal style. This probably explains our obsession with accounts like @90sartschool or @simplicitycity: They’re an invitation to dive down a rabbit hole that, if you’re curious enough, leads to the magazines, books, and lookbooks that defined the style of the time.
Bill Hall, who has been running the appointment-only bookstore High Valley Books out of his Greenpoint home for nearly 25 years, estimates that two-thirds of his encyclopedic collection—which includes rare gems like Vreeland Memos, a collection of 150 of Diana Vreeland’s notes to her staff as the editor of Vogue—is dedicated to fashion. Supply is driven less by personal interest and more by demand from his young, fanatical clientele of in-the-know musicians, designers, and innumerable stylists.
“I think a lot of young people are kind of obsessed with things, and they like the books, they like the magazines,” says Hall, who, in clear-frame glasses and a tattered navy Lacoste polo, looks every bit the cool Brooklyn dad. He also thinks the recent bookstore revival has reignited a sense of discovery and in-person connection that’s been lost in the digital age. “When you go into a bookstore or a place like mine,” he says, “you might not be looking for 1983 Vogue, but you might stumble across it and then something else.”
Instagram has been a boon for niche booksellers like Offbrand and High Valley, allowing them to build likeminded customer bases and reach a wider audience. The platform, however, has also contributed to a sense of cultural and visual homogeneity, where the same archival images are circulated ad nauseam.
“You almost get desensitized to people's work because you're like, ‘Oh, God, that same reference image again, I've seen it 1,000 times,’” says Isabella Burley, who launched Climax Books, a library of countercultural fashion, photography, and art in 2020. Seeing that image in its original context—a book edited by an art director or a photographer— “creates a different dialogue around it.” Burley, a former Dazed editor and the CMO of Acne Studios, finds the growing demand for her books “quite terrifying, but also really exciting,” because it forces her to constantly hunt for never-before-seen material that vibes with Climax’s trademark “feeling of playfulness or erotica or cheekiness.”
For Angela Hill—co-founder of IDEA Books, a prominent vintage dealer with physical locations in four Dover Street Market shops globally—the appeal of printed material is enduring. “Even with every image being available on the net, today’s fashion books will have an educational value,” she says via email. “It is so different researching from printed paper than it is from a computer screen. There is nothing compared to having a proper, well-curated library. I think images from a book stay with one for a lot longer than a screenshot.”
By making archival fashion imagery and information accessible, Instagram turned outsiders and enthusiasts into experts and historians. The algorithm has ensured that most everyone knows where to shop, what to wear, and how to look cool. This has only intensified the allure of actually owning a niche cultural object that reflects your individual taste and requires IYKYK recognition. Building a fashion book collection of old images and ideas can spark new ways to think about art and style, and help orient yourself in a cultural history that’s been flattened by the internet. No wonder this screen fatigue has inspired a renewed appreciation for the curation and quality that exist only in print. And why a 1997 issue of Dazed or an obscure book of fashion photography isn’t just a way to signal belonging (or apply for membership) to the cultural cognoscenti, but a tool to discover what you think is cool—offline. You can’t shop an old i-D editorial or a Juergen Teller photo, you can only absorb and enjoy. That’s the point.
Originally Appeared on GQ