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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | August 17, 2022

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Interview: Lil J's Vintage

Interview: Lil J’s Vintage
Sadie Burton

A streetwear revival is upon us and Lil J’s Vintage is ensuring Brisbane is packing a decent scene for it. It’s a trend that Jacqueline Cowan, owner of Lil J’s, insists isn’t going anywhere. With a philosophy of ‘less is more’, the business aims to indulge customers with affordable, quality, and unique vintage garments.

Jacqueline also runs ‘Brisbane’s Biggest Clothing Garage Sale’ events, often with live music, an abundance of culture, the odd masseuse, and of course vintage clothing.

The Creative Issue had a chat to her about clothes, style, and life!

The Creative Issue (TCI): So how did it all start, did you create the brand yourself? Did the online store or the garage sale come first?

Jacqueline Cowan: Lil J’s vintage began in early 2013 when I started a blog and took photos of my friends or myself dressed head to toe in Ralph Lauren. At the time I was getting chemotherapy so I didn’t have a lot to do. I was just going through the motions and so that filled my time. I just uploaded photos to a blog on the internet and Instagram. Then I had a break for a while, worked a fair bit, went overseas. Deleted everything off the Instagram because at the time it wasn’t going too well, people were saying quite mean things about the whole situation. Just because of the niche group I guess. Ralph Lauren and streetwear culture appeals to a lot of people within the graffiti culture and I guess people with a somewhat harder exterior so seeing a lady – numerous different ladies – taking away from their steeze, I guess you could say, they didn’t really like it. So I wasn’t getting the best reviews and quite a lot of mean comments and some bullying and what not so I just deleted it, left it for two years. Then in November 2015 I was fired from a job and I went home and I was like cool. Classic story, every story starts like that. Haha nah, I went home, had a beer and created the Instagram and created an Etsy account for lil J’s vintage. Yeah it started on Etsy but that’s a whole other story.

Yeah I got so much hate, still do. It’s not a lot of hate these days, it’s actually barely nothing but if anything, it’s made me have a stronger exterior, you can say anything you want about the business itself but I guess its when someone says something about you, that hurts more. But yeah, it was on Etsy for a little while. Etsy didn’t go too well, I was in Bali, I was on holiday with my girlfriends, I had just started up. I was doing somewhat ok and then got an email from Etsy that my clothes weren’t 20 years old. They didn’t give me an opportunity to justify myself or say anything. So basically I was just like what is going on, I was so angry but because I was in Bali, I had no internet or anything, and I was just like this is ridiculous, they didn’t really let me see any reviews that my customers had sent or anything, it was just a matter of it’s done.

So then I started Big Cartel. But I personally think, not naming names or saying that anyone did do this but in comparison to all the other stores that are on there that do not have vintage clothes, I think someone went out of their way to report me because I could go on there and there are endless pages of clothes that aren’t technically twenty years old. And I was nineteen, how was I meant to know what was older than me or not. Clothes don’t necessarily provide the production date. When I got home I copied everything onto Big Cartel and I’ve kept using big cartel since then and in April 2016 is when I did my first garage sale, and that was at my parents house in my parents garage and I just went crazy on Facebook, annoyed all my friends to invite all their friends. Mum and Dad sat out the front counting people (or attempting to), I don’t know I think there was anywhere between 500 to 700 people there that day. Yeah there were people at my door at 6am.

TCI: So have you always been passionate about vintage clothing?

JC: I have always been passionate about vintage clothing, when I was a younger girl in about grade 7 or 8, I first went op shopping with my aunty who loves to save a few dollars here and there. And being very lucky and going to a private school, you tend to be surrounded by girls that get everything and have everything and get handouts and that kind of stuff and mum and dad have always just been very firm with myself and my work ethic, never got any handouts, never got anything and if I did, it was money that I made by myself. So I kinda jumped on board, when I was old enough and making money to going on those trips with my aunty, finding different authentic things that other people don’t have. My style though over the years has definitely changed a lot. I used to be into rockabilly old school 70s, 60s, like disco and boho but I was much younger then. Then when I was about sixteen, like I’ve always listened to RnB and soul, and looked up to people like Missy Elliot and Lauren Hill, fashion icons, Leo and whatnot. Especially the guys, like mens clothes in hip hop are sick. So yeah I kind of changed over style wise to streetwear and hip hop culture but I’ve always been into vintage clothes and being different and saving money. And recycling, it’s great for the environment! Someone else’s trash, is your treasure.

So where do you find all the vintage clothes and the people to sell the clothes at your garage sales?

JC: So, a lot of the vintage clothes I started finding online initially on Etsy and Ebay and that kind of stuff. And just finding a bargain, especially the ladies stuff because it wasn’t that trendy at the time, and generally just op shopping, thrifting. In recent years, I’ve been pretty flat out, I’ve been working two jobs and at TAFE and stuff so I don’t have the weekdays to go op shopping whatsoever, but I have a buyer in Arizona and Atlanta in America. So it goes between the two and they buy stuff for me, they go thrifting overseas, and it’s ridiculous. Some of the tags that they get, I’m not sure if they accidentally leave it on the garments or it’s on purpose but they’ll get items like brand new Ralph Lauren Polo sport bags from years ago, deadstock with a 7 US dollar tag on it, it’s crazy. I found them on Instagram, and placing an order and then establishing that relationship from there but in saying that, I don’t know if I ever will meet them but yeah it’s just online, put a lot of trust in each other I guess, like they both rely on me to keep buying stuff off them and I rely on them to keep finding stuff and also ensure that they’re not taking me for a joke and actually get the product to Australia because you never know. But if I do go overseas or on family trips interstate, I do take that opportunity to buy as much stuff as I can and just trust my instinct that people will buy it. So Brisbane as well, just Lifelines, Vinnies, you have to look though, like a lot of kids, especially on Instagram, they ask me where and how do you find stuff? I’m like you have to look, you can’t just walk in and expect. Sometimes it’s just so random and sporadic, and you have to persist – persistence is key.

TCI: Do you live by the ‘less is more’ principle shown on your business website?

JC: Yep, I do, how do you take that?

TCI: I think I live by that, I thrift a lot as well, like this is thrifted and these are thrifted and I don’t wear a lot of patterns or anything.  

JC: Yeah it just depends, I like a lot of colour blocking, you can take that as a matter of life – less is more – which is totally inaccurate if we are putting that in regards to the way I live my life haha the more the better, live life, as corny as that sounds. But in regards to styling, I believe less is more. You sometimes can’t really see it on my Instagram or Big Cartel, the way in which I like to style things. Like golf hats, really timeless, not necessarily expensive pieces but rare and dapper. Ralph Lauren invented the ladies power suit, and I look to that a lot, I don’t necessarily rock suits all the time but I do have some outfits that I define as very timeless. If I look at my wardrobe, I don’t even necessarily like the colour red, however there is so much red it’s not even funny. Just a lot of red but I think that’s because a lot of it is Ralph Lauren and there’s the American flag and whatnot but it’s just a lot of red and a lot of one-offs. I have particular attachments to those items and everything else I try to recycle or sell on to somebody else for a better home.

TCI: Do you buy anything new or not really?

JC: I have been actually lately. This year I don’t know why. Sorry I don’t buy anything new but I did buy one new thing this year. Well apart from socks and undies and whatnot haha and my mate bought be a pair of sneakers the other day because I’m celebrating five years since I was diagnosed with cancer and she rocked up with the freshest pair of sneakers and I was like thank you so much! But yeah Ralph Lauren, I don’t even know when he started doing this but he releases a different polo bear jumper/sweater every year. This year was the martini bear and I went into David Jones at the start of the year and it was a ridiculous ridiculous ridiculous price of like eight hundred dollars, and I was just like wow. I didn’t buy it, I waited it out and then went back a few months later and it was reduced to like three hundred dollars and I had a two hundred goods and service gift card that I just got from doing a job for a mate so I was like sweet $125 don’t mind if I do, so I got a bargain really. I know I shouldn’t be talking about money like that but, I mean, in terms of expensive brand new collectors items…

TCI: Much of your photography and videography is done in collaboration with local artists, showcasing local talent, is that important to you?

JC: It is very important to me. Over the last five or so years after finishing high school, I’ve been exposed to and have met many amazing talented people who have since then become my friends, and you can’t be selfish. I would rather display my friends talent in any way possible, whether it’s using the Instagram page I’ve developed or Facebook to share them, share their work, their art, share who they are. I think it’s very important, we’re all young, we’re all trying to get somewhere or make a name for ourselves and it’s a bit of a struggle, and I kind of appreciate growing up in such a small city, going out somewhere you’re guaranteed to run into somebody or someone’s mum, I think it’s important to share it around, get people’s work our there, whether that’s people doing sketches for me, like graphics, and then you’ve got graphic designers, you’ve got musos, you’ve got videographers. But also on the Facebook page being like ‘check this person out’ – I think you’d be silly not to. Everyone has their time to shine and I guess it’s just about helping your mates, getting them to that point and then yours will come with it at some point in time.

TCI: Do you organise and style the shoots for the business’s social media yourself?

JC: Yep so I probably shouldn’t be telling you this haha kidding, but I do not like to sell any of the items that I use for the Instagram shoots. The items that are on there with the descriptions and size and price underneath, they’re obviously for sale but if I’m doing a photo shoot, I guess it’s kind of just to show the best garments that I do have in my personal collection. If I am ready to let go of them then I’ll put them up on the website but I don’t know. So I just think I might as well utilise that in an attempt for marketing, promotion, and advertising, and that kind of thing.

TCI: Who are your vintage style icons?

JC: Lauren Hill, Missy Elliot, Erykah Badu – they come from Haitian background so it’s quite different, a lot of big headpieces, big hoops. I am English and Irish so I don’t have such culture but it’s nice to admire and respect from afar. Also in being style icons in themselves, they’re so looked up to, they’re incredibly intelligent women. Rhianna has mad style, she’s on point. A lot of Instagram too, a lot of just seeing what’s going on in the UK or following sneakerheads and vintage collectors and whatnot, you kind of just get bits and bobs. If you see something and you’re like, I can rock that, or confidently pull it off, then you can become someone else’s icon in that regard. You just have to be confident and put yourself out there. I half the time think I look like a dickhead when I go out and then I’m like nah you’ll be right. Just rock it or attempt to, depends if you’re feelings sexy that day or not.

TCI: Do you think there’s a good market for vintage clothing and streetwear in Brisbane as oppose to Melbourne or Sydney?

JC: I think its different, I think in the last two years or so, especially the last year, its increased, its blown up entirely. This is just an example, I remember I bought my first pair of TNs, like lad shoes, when I was in grade 12 and then five years later, everyone is rocking the lad getup, my girlfriend even sent me photos of it on runways in vogue and whatnot. So I feel like streetwear is coming in hard and fast and overtaking everything. I think its always been in the background but a lot of kids that I meet want that image I guess you could say so I think its blown up a lot. I think the difference between Brisbane, and Melbourne and Sydney, is that people have already jumped on that bandwagon in Melbourne and Sydney and are accommodating to demand. Whereas I think in Brisbane, that’s maybe why the garage sales do ok, is because there isn’t specific stores, so like in Melbourne, you’ve got Vintage Marketplace, you’ve got About That store, you’ve got Storeroom Vintage in Sydney, and they’re just big beautiful, cool stores. I would love to run something like that myself, maybe in the near future, maybe one day. They’ve just got it down pat, kids can just walk in and grab whatever they want, it’s like vintage heaven, whereas in Brisbane, we don’t have a store like that. Places like Swop, they’re still accommodating to the indie look but I think I’m just waiting for someone to open a store specifically for streetwear and when they do do it, hats off to them, it’ll be sick. I don’t think [it’s] one of those trends that’s going anywhere, I think it’s kind of been reactivated, I guess you could say from the late 90s, early 2000s, it’s very timeless. So yeah anyone who does do the streetwear store will kill it.

TCI: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced running your own business, especially being so young?

JC: One big factor would be money, I’m not ready to get a loan or pursue anything like that, I’m still having fun and I do want to prioritise that, just because of what’s happened in my life. The illness that I had, it ate up a big chink of my life and I guess right now I just want to have fun. I want to see as much of the world as I possibly can so I’m not ready to settle down and commit to something and I know that’s a massive first world issue kind of thing but when asked the question, I don’t know. I just want to spend time with my family and friends. In regards to the events, some of the biggest challenges would be weather for instance, those hurdles, there’s just some things that you never think of! Like the rain, and then you’ve got the sellers who are all amazing and super easy-going and lovely to deal with but I’ve just got them being like “Jacqui, is it going to rain tomorrow?” and I’m like, “you know what dude?” and you go on the event and there are just so many people being like “hey, so what happens if it rains?” and I’m like “positive attitude my friends” but yeah just hurdles that you would never expect.

TCI: Who are the sellers?

JC: So theres about ten to fifteen regular sellers that come most months and they’re a mix of cool groovy earrings and girly stuff, and then you’ve got the streetwear people who have been doing a similar thing from the get-go and have been to every event. Then just the other fifteen or eighteen because I generally do thirty-three tables. I encourage people who just want to do a spring clean or a wardrobe clean or whatever, also young entrepreneurs. I guess the more diverse, the better. I have a friend who’s a barber and he’s going to pop up soon. I just think that’s a nice touch, I’m not necessarily ready to go down the food side of things, just because of licensing. I already have insurance for the events just in case anything goes wrong but food is just a whole other level. And you’re spoilt for choice in Paddington so it’s not my main priority to have food. We had a masseuse there one time, it was sick. Just anything, pot plants, paintings. A lot of people hesitate and say like “oh I don’t know if I should do it”, And I say do it, let me prove you wrong. I had a mate who owned a paint store with paint markers and all that sort of thing. He didn’t think he’d do it so I gave him a table for free and voila, I’m not going to insert how much money he made but it was enough for him to be like “ok” and he’s done every single one since. I think it comes down to a matter of put yourself out there.

TCI: In the face of fast fashion, vintage clothing is probably more sought after now than ever, do you think that’s partly what draws people to vintage, the uniqueness?

JC: I think it depends. I think there are a lot of people, in this day and age, a lot of kids especially, that need something to believe in. So I guess seeing everyone else wearing vintage and thinking ‘oh I want to have that same tommy shirt’, that also helps in regard to vintage being big at the moment. As human beings, we tend to want what other people have, so if everyone’s rocking vintage, then everyone else that wants to rock what everyone else is rocking wants to start rocking vintage. Yeah it is very sought after. And also in that regard, recycling. Sorry I can’t wrap my head around why anyone would go out and buy a brand new piece, week after week after week, buying similar stuff where you look like everyone else kind of thing, it just blows my mind and at the same time, we’re destroying this planet. We’re doing a bloody good job of making such a huge mess of it, why not do your part? Why are we producing more things that we don’t need? It’s greedy.

TCI: Do you have any favourite brands that you like to collect from? You started as a Ralphy Baby?

JC: Ralph Lauren, always, it’s my favourite. I really like Ralph Lauren, he’s a good bloke. His real name is Ralph Lifshitz. I like his story, he’s from the Bronx, he worked very hard. He used to go op shopping and buy old army suits, like he’d go to the army disposals and just cut them up. Then he started making ties and he put the polo horse on it and sent it to Harolds, I think, and they were like nup we don’t want it, we don’t like the horse, we don’t like anything, take it away, make the tie fatter and then come back. He was just like nope uh-uh, and then six months later, his ties were everywhere, he just blew up. As far as I’m concerned what he does, and the amount that he gives back is good. He’s done a lot for women as well, I think people don’t necessarily know that, he empowered women in the sixties… put us out there, not in a generic way in which women would be in bikinis and whatnot but [rather] ‘here’s a suit, feel sexy’. I think that’s admirable in itself, and I’m sure other men did it at the time but this is just how I personally feel.

TCI: So where do you want to take Lil J’s?

JC: I’m not sure at the moment, I would like to see how the events go [this] year. Eventually I would like a storefront, however I’m not ready for that just yet. I’ve spoken to many people about partnerships, however I don’t think I’d really work well, I could do it, but I feel like I just work better by myself. I’m kind of looking at starting my own charity in the next few years, which would take away from Lil j’s but I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I really want to do something that focuses on young females with cancer. I will always run events, I’d love to run events, events that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. Everyone is just crazy, that’s why I like running clothing events, everyone is so happy, it’s in the morning and everyone just wants to talk and get to know each other. It’s like a meet and greet without alcohol. The amount of people that have actually said to me “oh I met this person there” or “I’m taking this chick out on a date” and I’m like ok!

Plus clothes are, to some extent, just a materialistic item, I’m very passionate about my clothes and providing people with affordable, good quality items and meeting people along the way but they’re just items really. I feel like there could be more to come if I did sell Lil J’s or if I did use that platform that I’ve established, to speak, to preach something else.

What: Brisbane’s Biggest Clothing Garage Sale
Where: Bizzell’s Garage, 93 Latrobe Terrace, Paddington
When: March 10th, 2018 @ 10am – 3pm
How Much: Free entry.
More Info: All ages. Live DJ. Vintage clothing.

Images Ingrid Cole Photograhy.