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Aura of an Era

The owner of an Irvine sportswear company who loves to go 'vintage cruising' at swap meets has parlayed his affinity for old things into a small clothing and accessories empire.

December 26, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For John Bernard, co-designer and president of 26 Red, a sportswear company in Irvine, the best place to be early on a Saturday morning is a swap meet.

That's where Bernard goes to add to his collection of old gas cans and station signs, blown-glass bottles and, especially, used clothing. He wanders among the rows of vendors on the lookout for '70s-era sweaters with horizontal stripes, velour pullovers and polyester knit pants. He calls his favorite hobby "vintage cruising."

Bernard is not alone in his search for swap-meet style. The popularity of retro fashions, especially among the twentysomething surf-skate-street crowd, has made trolling swap meets and thrift stores for clothing a popular weekend pastime.

"I've been thrifting for six years," says Bernard, a 34-year-old Laguna Beach resident. "I'll pick up an old sweater, an old sign, or a pair of old wingback chairs."

Bernard's favorite swap meets are held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the Long Beach Veterans Memorial Stadium. In Orange County, many locals like to hit the weekend swap meet at Golden West College in Huntington Beach in search of vintage clothes. Saturday morning is prime vintage cruising time at Golden West. That's when most of the vendors sell used merchandise.

"Ours is not as commercial as other swap meets," says Joan Germany, swap meet supervisor for Golden West. "There are a lot of people who bring in stuff they have had stored in their garage a long time. You might find something here that your grandmother wore. Right now clothes from the '50s and '60s are very popular--all that polyester and shiny stuff that looks like it's been shrunk it's so tight, and now the kids are all trying to wear it."

Bernard also trolls the antique and thrift stores in Old Towne Orange, where he picked up a Bob's Big Boy statue that stands in the lobby of 26 Red. His office is filled with his trophies, including a huge Gulf sign hanging over a blue couch, assorted blown-glass vases, old gas cans and bowling pins ("I just like them").

Unlike those who buy used clothes and knickknacks simply to cultivate an alternative style for their wardrobe or homes, Bernard has parlayed his love of old things into a small clothing and accessories empire. He uses his swap meet finds as inspiration for 26 Red's line of club-inspired sportswear.

"I look at what other people are wearing, and I buy clothes that we convert into our line," he says.

Many of the styles in 26 Red's spring collection look like direct descendants of the '50s, '60s and '70s, but with a '90s twist. Bernard pulls out a V-neck sweater in royal blue with horizontal stripes in olive, lime, cream, yellow and other earth tones.

"This is straight out of the '70s. We just changed the colors," he says.

For fall, 26 Red created a group of retro-looking, "Downhill Racer" ski sweaters, with racing stripes across the middle. They sold out so quickly that the company brought in short-sleeved striped knit tops with a ski sweater look for summer.

Other styles, such as the polyester shirts in shiny geometric prints, bowling shirts, yarn-dyed velour, striped pullovers, and boucle knit shirts with horizontal stripes, all owe their kitschy style to swap meet originals.

Bernard has also drawn upon used things to develop a line of footwear (26 Redtred), a juniors line (26 Redsugar) and a line of watches (26 Redtic). All 26 Red lines are licensees that fall under Bernard's umbrella company, Spot International, which projects sales of $32 million for '96.

While shopping in a thrift store, Bernard found a pair of old tennis shoes, the kind with double stripes popular in the '70s, and reproduced the look in assorted hot hues of the '90s like egg-yolk yellow with black stripes or a light blue and rust combo for Redtred.

"Everything is about taking yesterday's looks into today," Bernard says.

It's not just the old clothing that inspires designs.

"You can get great ideas for graphics from old emblems, patches, even a gasoline can," Bernard says. The oval-shaped 26 Red logo resembles an old gas station sign. The name 26 Red came from a racehorse.

"I was driving down the street and the results from a horse race [at Santa Anita] came in on the radio. I heard 26 Red, and I liked it. It stuck in my mind."

Bernard expects the retro looks inspired by his vintage cruising to drive the 26 Red line for years to come.

"Retro will always be there. It might have to be interpreted differently. We might do retro stylings and do them in super shiny fabrics," he says. He shows off 26 Red wallets with holographic prints as one example of futuristic fashion.

"We're three years from the year 2,000, and we have to start thinking space age," he says. Even while visiting swap meets to hold on to the past.

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