Talking with Frank Carson for the first time, I instantly knew that he was someone filled with knowledge and a truly passionate individual for the vintage market and goods. He was oozing with anecdotes and gems that made me glad I recorded our conversation together, not only for this piece, but for future reference when we look back at the vintage boom in a decade or so and analyze its evolution.
Frank is the owner of Leisure Centre in NYC’s constantly evolving LES neighborhood. The nearly year-and-a-half-old brick-and-mortar is the culmination of Frank’s work ethic, passion for vintage and the community that supports him. He shares his thoughts on why vintage has center stage, how it’ll stay and why it really does take a village.
Let’s rewind before we fast forward
To understand the way Frank curates his storefront and his business approach, we first need to learn more about the man. Carson started buying vintage when he was a teenager. Growing up in the United Kingdom, he kicked off our interview by telling me about his bus trips after school to London’s posh areas, like Chelsea, and going vintage hunting there. In the mid-2000s, his parents moved to the States and he would travel back and forth across the pond.
“I guess at the time, thrifting wasn’t quite the phenomenon it is today. So I was going around, kind of alone, in these huge thrift stores, picking vintage and bringing it back to London to sell on the weekends when I was in college,” he says. He ended up moving to NYC a little later on and actually had to take a break from buying and start selling because he had too many clothes (I think a few of us can relate).
It was around 2017 that he started his Instagram page while simultaneously doing markets and pop-ups. Then the pandemic struck and he took the time to link with a friend and resell vintage clothing before opening Leisure Centre.
“The interesting thing for me about the differences from place to place is, as fashion and trends become more homogenized, vintage is still local. Because your source of product, it the place where it originated, or was born, or worn. It’s not easy to move that product from place to place en masse.”
It was easy for me to understand Frank’s version of curation because of his British background and his travels. Prior to owning Leisure Centre, he mentioned he’d ran a spot in London with a friend. Digging deeper into the psyche of vintage from the point of view of geography, Frank gave us great insight and gems into how trends in different areas manifest and how social media has become a factor.
“Amongst young people, whether it be here, or there, obviously style is a little different. But, you can definitely say that in the last few years, the trends have become more universal as ideas have spread more easily through social media. Availability, that’s the main difference,” he continues to explain.
Adding that “While something might be popular here, there’s always an enthusiasm in London for U.S. brands. That’s because there’s a higher alpha of clothing, people buy more here, in the home of capitalism. There’s also a lot of impactful music and cultural movements the world sees, like everywhere else, England included, has a taste for those kind of references.”
“The mindset is like ‘Let’s f*cking go’ and everyone is supportive of each other. It’s creating a destination [LES] of interest where people can go and shop really, really, good vintage. And it’s not a conflict of interest because if you’re a vintage shopper, you want as much as possible. There’s just no way everyone can have the same stuff.”
Generating a global vintage market requires cultural moments that people latch onto because of an emotion and attachment. “Brands like Nike, or Polo, it spans so many different subcultures that people will always be after those, but they’re not as easy to find in England. There’s just a lot more of it out here. Same goes for more classic vintage items like denim. Levi’s for example, leathers, and stuff like that.”
On the flip side, for the U.S. market, recent trends have really been ingrained with the uptick in football’s (soccer’s) popularity. “Very recently, there’s an appetite in the states for something like soccer jerseys. Or brands like Stone Island, C.P. Company, British rock or punk rock. I’ve always enjoyed bringing stuff where it’s needed. So I go to London with a suitcase full of Polo and bring back Stone Island, Prada and soccer jerseys,” he says.
He adds that although vintage takes place around the world, it is very much local in a sense too. “The interesting thing for me about the differences from place to place is, as fashion and trends become more homogenized, vintage is still local. Because your source of product, it the place where it originated, or was born, or worn. It’s not easy to move that product from place to place en masse.”
Social media for social change
What has contributed to vintage being both hyper-local but also a global trend is the clear grip that technology, especially social media, has over us. While social media has been attributed to ruining people’s lives and causing L’s, it’s done something amazing for vintage.
“What social media does is it empowers people to communicate and holds people accountable. I do think that sustainability is a factor of it too. I don’t think sustainability is most people’s point of entry into vintage fashion. I think it’s a happy byproduct of it. While thrifting vintage fashion is exploding, so are things like Shein or Zara. They’re doing incredible numbers that’re quick, irresponsible and cheap fashion. I think young people are becoming aware of the impact of clothing on the environment and the world’s economy from that sense.”
Advice for young people
Speaking of young people, especially members of Gen Z, all of whom are looking to achieve the dream of becoming their own boss, Frank has some words of advice.
“Find out what you are truly interested in. If it’s vintage fashion, be patient and sell things cheaply at first to learn and that will help you grow an audience. Don’t be too precious about it and try to squeeze top dollar out of everything — it’s difficult for you and it’ll alienate people. Also, when you make a mistake and sell something for less than what it’s worth, don’t worry about it. Think of it as paying for a little lesson and some knowledge. The most important thing is authenticity and constant knowledge. In order to have longevity, like anything else, you have to build it organically.”
Authenticity comes from curating what you like and what makes you happy — all of which will survive trends. For Frank, that includes a plethora of things that span from technical sportswear to niche UK-centric pieces.
“As things get re-appropriated back into the mainstream fashion system, it gets cool in the vintage community first and then companies see that demand and they’ll reproduce that and it becomes washed. The cycle moves pretty quickly in those terms. Something that’s always been consistently interesting to me is technical sportswear.”
I love technical sportswear personally so this part made me extremely happy. “It might be from traditional sportswear brands, or outdoorswear brands, or even designers — high fashion and couture designers that have incorporated that into their practice and vocabulary. Brands like Georgio Armani, Issey Miyake, or Yohji Yamamoto with adidas. When there’s function involved, I think it definitely encourages innovation. Stone Island is another one. They’ve always been extremely inventive and rigorous in their fabric and construction process.”
On the British-centric pieces and things that are more unique and one-offs, he had this to say.
“Every now and again I’ll go through what I have stashed away in my house and whether or not I wear them, those are the things I guess I don’t really want to part with. UK-centric things like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or UK techno shirts or British art exhibition T-shirts or Notting Hill Carnival memorabilia — stuff that ties me back to home and I know that will be very difficult for me to find again.”
“There’s also a custom Jeff Hamilton leather jacket from 2004 that’s different from anything he’s normally produced that I’m looking at now. It’s a Maybach jacket that was made for a couple of Mercedes dealerships in Florida and it’s super simple with a little cut out of Maybach, stitched on the front and back, signed by Jeff Hamilton. Some things are super unique and different to what might’ve been produced, those are keepers.”
It’s hard to let go sometimes, that’s why it’s dope to be your own boss and curate your own store.
Because Frank focuses on the customers, his curation echoes that. He believes that you should always give the customer something fresh, unique and different from what they’re used to, that’s what sets Leisure Centre apart. And that’s why he’s always hosting pop-ups.
“Pop-ups have always been a crucial part of the shop,” he says. “Part of the motivation behind that is to give regulars something different every time they come into the shop. Because you know how boring and depressing it is when you go to a vintage shop one week and it’s the same shit the next week. Doing the pop-ups really help make sure there’s always something new and interesting to see week-to-week.”
And since the storefront is relatively young, we asked Frank about that too.
“Having the shop has been a crazy galvanizing experience as a seller and collector. Having a brick-and-mortar and showcasing in a way that people can respect the situation and prices; it’s really interesting to see different people’s points of views and what they collect and what they’re after. Building a community atmosphere around it, it’s been so good to meet so many cool people. It’s a lot of hard work but definitely worth it.”
Ultimate LES hang
Speaking of people and community, the Lower East Side of NYC has historically been a creative hub for those ahead of their time and also those looking for the utmost echelon of individual expression. RIP to places like Reed Space and Max Fish, but if you know, you know, as the saying goes.
For Frank, who worked at Kiki’s, the Greek spot on Division Street, for a minute too, he’s seen the coolness of the neighborhood and he dives deeper into the LES and why it’s the best.
“I feel like LES is gradually changing, but there’s always been cool stuff going on. The Hester Street Fair brought out a lot of creative people and put them together and cultivated a community. Then the pre- and post-pandemic time frame is very interesting to look at. Case in point, Clandestino. It used to be the place where we would go after work and it was always chill and empty, and you go and have a couple of drinks in peace. Now, it’s like the most jumping place, every night. It’s a crazy scene with a doorman and sh*t. Since the “end” of the pandemic, the population has all trickled over here.”
He continues on to the Dimes Square neighborhood.
“And you got the arrangement down here of Canal and Division, Dimes Square or whatever. The open streets and plaza thing is quite unique I think. Not a lot of places have that kind of town square thing going on. As long as I’ve been here, it’s always been real energy — everyone kind of stops and talks to each other and pops in to the little businesses. That really incubates ideas and gives people a supportive environment to try stuff out. I think that’s one of the things that led to some quite bougie sh*t moving down here, like the hotels and everything. I’m not here to complain about that either because that’s putting food on all our tables. The small, curated and interesting retail explosion has been cool to see. It’s a nice cooperative environment too.”
Rarely will you hear in any industry that people who are trying to make a dollar are friendly with their neighbors who have a similar customer base. But that’s different in the LES and that’s what makes it such a vibe.
“It’s become a place where there’s a new vintage store popping up every month and they’re all people that we’ve seen. We’ve all seen each other throughout the last 5-10 years. The mindset is like ‘Let’s f*cking go’ and everyone is supportive of each other. It’s creating a destination of interest where people can go and shop really, really, good vintage. And it’s not a conflict of interest because if you’re a vintage shopper, you want as much as possible. There’s just no way everyone can have the same stuff. Everyone is offering a slightly different price point or point of view. It’s helping everyone progress.”
“I think vintage is actually the fastest form of fashion. If you know where to look, you can source something immediately. I think it’ll certainly continue to grow. The other part of it is that it’s not only sustainable in terms of the environment, but economically too. If you’re buying vintage clothes, and you’re doing it in the right way, you can hold onto it, wear it, and resell it for what you paid, if not more.”
Looking into the future
Speaking of progress, we chopped it up with Frank about the future of fashion for both vintage and sneakers, another market that has exploded (and quite possibly died).
“I think vintage is actually the fastest form of fashion. If you know where to look, you can source something immediately. I think it’ll certainly continue to grow. The other part of it is that it’s not only sustainable in terms of the environment, but economically too. If you’re buying vintage clothes, and you’re doing it in the right way, you can hold onto it, wear it, and resell it for what you paid, if not more. That’s one of the other things that is so attractive about it — it allows people to be cash independent and you can turn it into a business if you want. We’re a super accessible and simple small business for people to start.”
But what about volume?
“There is certainly some intent to do it on a much larger scale with VC investment and tradition e-commerce strategies, marketing presentations, and all that. But combining them hasn’t proven yet to be so easy. Once that happens, there will be new players in the game and it’ll help vintage become further embedded into mainstream conversation and the way people buy clothes in general. All directions point to it [vintage] growing exponentially. And there’s certainly enough product for it to be possible.”
So how does vintage compare to the sneaker resell market?
“The crucial difference is no one will ever have every sneaker right? There is a finite amount of sneakers so that’s why you can create a commodities market out of it. It’s easier to grade sneakers too and there’s a very small amount of people who are looking for beat sneakers. But looking at the palette of clothing over the last 100-150 years, it’s infinite. There are also people who’s favorite piece is a certain level of wear, or distress. There’s so many more permutations in vintage and there’s so much more product and opportunity to curate in that way. You also aren’t responding to drops or big companies dictating the availability of stuff. It’s got a lot more potential for growth and longevity.”
Somehow this felt like the perfect place to end our conversation. I asked Frank to give a plug for himself and he summed it up best. “Leisure Centre is always here. It’s free conversations, free espressos, and you’ll discover some weird old sh*t you can’t find otherwise.”
You can keep up with Frank Carson and Leisure Centre’s products and pop-ups on Instagram. To learn more about Gen Z, check out our piece on Bowery Showroom and founder Matt Choon, who’s a genius when it comes to getting Gen Z’s attention (and cash). Also, read about how Chad Senzel went from one vintage clothing rack on the streets to his own personal showroom.
48 Hester St.
New York, NY 10002
Photos via Frank Carson/Leisure Centre