In Jonah Hill’s nostalgia-driven coming of age film, Mid90s, the stars look less like interpretations of the past than iterations of the present. One of the film’s main characters, superbly played by the professional skater Na-Kel Smith, at one point wears baggy Levis and a classic Polo T-shirt that could well be spotted on any street in Brooklyn in 2018. It’d be easy to travel through any group of young people today and imagine that you’ve been surreptitiously cast in a movie from 1995. From rare hip-hop T-shirts to Pyer Moss’ invocation of the early aughts streetwear label FUBU in their most recent NYFW presentation, one of the defining sartorial movements of the past few years has in fact been vintage gear. The trend has made for an expansion in thrifting, with online retailers and hobbyists finding new audiences for their finds. There are more online platforms than ever for this digitally-driven recycling; from Depop to Grailed to Instagram. Among the many resellers out there, Vintage Sponsor, an Instagram-based shop which currently boasts nearly 40,000 followers, stands tall.
The page was started in 2015 by 31-year-old Matt Roberge, who was at the time working as a snowboard videographer on the West Coast. After realizing snowboard videos wouldn’t pay the bills, Roberge moved back to Pennsylvania with his parents, where he kept up his hobby of scouring thrift stores and the local Salvation Army for goods to flip on eBay. He says he got the idea to call himself Vintage Sponsor when he sent one of his friends, who was sponsored by Volcom as a snowboarder, a vintage shirt from his online shop, the idea being he could still rep his sponsor without blending in with everyone else. He turned to Instagram as a platform to sell and advertise his products at precisely the right moment in the app’s history, tapping into a growing commercial element of the platform. “Instagram is, like, everything for us,” Roberge says of the platform’s significance. Now, what started as a modest hustle has taken off into a proper business. Roberge moved to Brooklyn and now sells goods at the newly opened Canal St. Market in addition to his Instagram shop.
At Martinez Playground in Bushwick — known to local skaters as “blue park" — Roberge is as humble as he is affable. A skate contest hosted by the New York company Bronze is taking place and everyone lights up when they see him. Roberge has the air of a low-key businessman, one who resists the cutthroat nature of seeking profits instinctively. He says that he definitely feels like the vintage business has exploded in recent years, but he seems decidedly uninterested in just trying to cash in. A theme in our conversation is how much joy he gets from people being excited about his products, which might explain why everyone was so excited to see him.
So how did you start Vintage Sponsor?
My parents never let me buy new clothes and if they were new they would have to be on sale. So I always just went to thrift stores, yard sales, and shit. When I got older I started collecting Polo and going to the thrift stores for that. In the process of looking for Ralph Lauren, I'd be like, Oh, there's all these crazy Tommy jackets in here that are obviously expensive. So I would buy those. After a while I started selling the stuff I’d find on eBay, doing it as a side thing.
You moved things from eBay to Instagram, what inspired that?
My eBay got messed up. I got bad feedback because I didn't really understand that people on eBay can just make up a story and say like, This has a hole in it and then you have to refund them. Even if [the item listing] says “No refunds” and the hole is [the size of] a pinhole — people would start making shit up [about the items]. So, I got bad feedback and my shit got fucked up. I had started the Vintage Sponsor Instagram probably months before, but I wasn't taking it seriously.
When you started, were you imagining turning it into a full-fledged business?
To start an Instagram to sell clothes, [it] takes a while to build up a following. So once eBay fell through, I basically went to my snowboard friends that have a lot of followers. I didn't even really go to them — I just sent them boxes of shit I'd been collecting that I thought they’d be hyped on. They would shout me out and then I'd get a bunch of followers and then maybe after about a month I had a thousand followers. I was able to make 100 bucks a day and that was like, Oh my God, I don't have a job and I'm making 100 bucks a day, like straight to my PayPal. My mind was blown. So then after like two months, I had 3,000 followers, and then 4,000 followers. It just kept going up, and it started getting easier to sell shit. I started charging a little bit more because at first, I was giving this shit away. Later, I got a website to keep up with it all.
Compared to vintage shops that deal in a lot of luxury and extremely rare items, your page seems approachable. Do you intentionally try to offer more low-key items?
I've heard a few times people say: “I like your curation. I love your curation.” I'm like, I think you like the fact that it's not really curated at all. I'll put up anything that catches my eye, or it’ll be what I think young people would want or like, and I'll just put it up because I like it. I'm all over the place.
What’s it like to sell vintage clothes online now compared to when you started?
So I’m from the Poconos and I go and visit my parents all the time. So I’ll thrift on my way. In the Poconos and in New Jersey, [thrifting] used to be really good because New Jersey has lots of rich people, or whatever. But lately, the stores have really been bad. I don't know if it's the people running the stores who are letting them go to shit, or if there are so many people looking for vintage now that it's just disappearing. I’ve only been in this for five or so years, I can’t imagine what it feels like for the dudes who’ve been in this for decades, you know?
The page seems to be growing at a crazy speed. Have you gotten any attention from celebrities?
Virgil [Abloh] followed me. He bought something and had it shipped to Queens. That's was probably the most interesting customer. This other guy, jjjjound follows me. And there are some pro skaters who follow me too. Andrew Reynolds followed me one day and I was like holy shit. Like whenever that would happen I would just screenshot it on my phone like, Wow.
Something I think is interesting is how the trend towards vintage is actually better for the environment than buying new clothes. Is that something you’ve considered?
I have a friend who works I think at The Earth Institute at Columbia [University], and he was like, “Yeah, everyone in the office loves what you do because it's like you're recycling, really”. Before that, I had never even thought about this. And I don’t think a lot of the kids that buy from me think about that. But it's actually really good for the environment to recycle clothes. And most of the time the shit is made way better, back then they weren't making stuff as disposable.
Do you have any bigger plans for Vintage Sponsor?
Right now I'm kind stressed because I feel like if I was smarter or knew more [about] business I would have to do even less work and make more money. Right now it's basically just me, I take all the photos, I post all the shit and no one else is helping me really. I have two employees at the Canal Street Market that helped me a lot down there. But other than that, on the Internet, it's only me. I'm the only one that ships shit. I'm Kinda scared to trust people to make sure everything gets sent out or done right. I'm sure I could get this shit huge if I hired people. Maybe [I’ll do that] soon because I know I'm trying to figure it out. People have been telling me to make clothes, like shirts and shit, and I kind of want to get into that, too.