Photographs by Drew Reynolds

Brit Eaton wants your great-great-granddaddy’s jeans. and he’s not alone.
  • Image about Drew Reynolds Brit Eaton

The Rose Bowl Flea Market is a monthly event that takes place in the famed Pasadena stadium’s parking lot. Idiosyncratic vendors sell everything from record albums to potted plants to entire bedroom sets. Brit Eaton fits in just fine. He’s a big, handsome, athletically built 40-year-old, fronted by a table weighed down with old blue jeans, battered work shirts, buckskin vests and other dusty apparel. At first glance, his goods might seem run-of-the-mill. But there is nothing ordinary about Eaton’s most desirable merchandise.

Those who view him as someone special tend to be design-world insiders. They work for companies like Levi Strauss and Ralph Lauren. Others who keep Eaton on their speed dial are high-end boutique owners and collectors of denim. The latter shell out big bucks for century-old jeans that might even be too frayed to wear. Sometimes, the pants end up as wall hangings, occupying places of pride as if they were ancient Oriental rugs, defined by craftsmanship and attrition.

Earlier this year, while manning his table at the Rose Bowl, Eaton wore a pair of blue Navy deck overalls. Dating back to World War II, they look cool, they feel comfortable, and they are perfectly suited for a long day in the outdoors. A female client, who’s fairly high up at the Gap, saw the pants and quickly reached for her checkbook. “They are awesome-looking,” acknowledges Eaton, clearly understanding what got her going. “I ended up selling her the pants that I had been wearing. I got $250 for them.”

Folks like the lady from the Gap seek out Eaton because the goods that he sells provide links to the past that can often serve as bridges to the future. Designers like to take old duds, deconstruct them and look for details that can be retooled for the modern age.

In other words, that fancy bit of stitching down the side of your $200 jeans may be rooted in a garment that had been far more utilitarian. “Maybe a designer today is looking for something about the way people once interpreted the back pocket, which is an important thing,” Eaton says. “Maybe the designer is looking for something as specific as the relationship between a pocket’s rivet and its insignia. They search for different washes and cuts. They find inspiration and take it to the next level.”

Eaton specializes in discovering and selling very old denim, though he’s not averse to vintage belt buckles, leather jackets, military garb and Western apparel. He once sold a pair of 19th-century Army chinos for $12,000. One recent find was a cache of battered cowboy hats in the back of a pickup truck. A more unique uncovering came in the form of a single vest festooned with unique ornamentation. “It’s a 1950s hunting vest, worn by an American who belonged to a hunting club in Japan,” explains Eaton. “It was covered with killer patches, and every one of them was custom-made. I bought it from another dealer and sold it for $500 to the representative of a major design company.” If, next season, you happen to see coolly detailed hunting vests, adorned with oddball patches, for sale in the designer racks at your local shopping mall, you’ll know where the idea originated.

Most prized among Eaton’s scavenged items is a pair of overalls from the 1890s. A company called Stronghold made these pants, and the fabric is splattered with 19th-century colors. Eaton figures that the denim once belonged to a sign- or house-painter. Market value, he estimates, is around $2,000. But he views the overalls as a work of abstract art. “I’d sell my Stronghold for no less than $10,000,” he vows. “For me, it’s a trophy of the hunt.” Eaton’s quests for jeans, his so-called “denim safaris,” have taken him to every corner of the United States and beyond. The modus operandi is fairly straightforward: He finds rural places he hasn’t been to before where change happens slowly, tough times linger and families tend to stay put. Eaton aims for the kind of locale where he might encounter a 70-year-old man living in the family homestead, where his great-granddaddy taught him to milk cows and ride horses. Hopefully the domicile has gone without renovation for decades, complete with peeling paint and junk strewn across the front lawn. Those conditions signal the likelihood of old stuff remaining in the house.