The rise of replica clothing

Nick Clements, expert on vintage clothing and founding editor of Men's File magazine, on the best sources of retro style

Back in 1977 I was very into the punk scene. I came to see it as a bridge between the revivals of 1950s Americana – think of George Lucas's 1973 film American Graffiti – and a Teddy boy revival scene. And if you actually look at what the punk and new wave bands were wearing, most adopted a 1960s-style image, and I was very attracted to this. So I came to London and got into vintage. I was most interested in Italian style, and started off buying old Italian suits and that interest has never left me.

I set up Men's File magazine in 2008 but in the intervening years, when working as a photographer, I never stopped collecting old clothing. In my mind, it was often connected with vintage cars and motorbikes: I rode a bike as my principle mode of transport for 15 years, always in the same old 1990s Belstaff jacket, itself a replica of a 1970s style. I'd often mix vintage clothes with modern ones. My love of the style led me to organise vintage events, often a type of re-enactment where I and other enthusiasts would meet and create amazing tableaux. I'd document these by photographing them.

Suddenly, in the early part of the new century, hipster culture emerged and the vintage/revival scene went mainstream. It seemed everyone was interested in it. I realised I had 25 years of these images and clothing collections. So I decided to use my archive and my experience for a postgraduate research degree on the influence of revival and re-enactment subcultures on men's fashion. It was my thesis that led me to create the first edition of Men's File, which was published in 2008.

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Men's File is now nearly ten years old and has a healthy and loyal following all over the world, especially in the UK and Japan. Of course, the interest in vintage has grown and it's become a big trend. There are vintage dealers now and there's a vibrant collector's market where rare pieces fetch thousands of pounds. But low-level vintage – the good stuff from the 1930s to the 1960s – is much harder to come by.

One result of this is that there's interesting activity in the replica market. There are many fascinating small companies that are making great replicas of old designs. Eastman Leathers in England, for example, makes very high quality, authentic reproductions of World War II flying jackets and aviation accessories. The Real McCoy's, also English – but based in Kobe, Japan – specialises in replicas of iconic military garments.

Even more established luxury brands such as Belstaff, from whom my trusty old nylon motorcycle jacket in the 1990s came, still make versions of pieces that they created years ago: the waxed cotton Belstaff Trialmaster, for example, is still in the collection, but was designed in 1948. Lewis Leather's Lightning model, which entered the range in 1958, is also still available. In the 1970s, it was the firm's bestseller after being taken up by the Clash and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols.

A lot of skill goes into making mid-century replicas and I look on them as being totally culturally relevant. The good ones are an art form.

Here are my top 10 recommendations for replica shopping:

1. In continuous production from 1892, Lewis Leathers supplied pre-war TT racers with the Universal Racer Mk1, Spitfire test pilots with the Prestige Suit (white overalls) and the nascent British rocker scene with the Bronx motorcycle jacket. Today's vast range is based on the exact replication of a 100-year-old back catalogue.

2. The Real McCoy's have been supplying the Japanese vintage-style "otaku" market since the early 1990s. Mainly replicating US military wear, they set new standards in the reproduction of historic garments.

3. Eastman Leather is a UK company also making US replica items such as flight jackets and motorcycle-wear. The items they produce in their own workshops are of the very highest quality in terms of make, materials and accuracy.

4. Based in Japan, Black Sign often replicates old designs but uses new fabrics and techniques. Choosing very rare and hard-to-get clothing from the 1920s to 1940s, the company provides a wearable version of pieces normally only seen in museum collections.

5. Founded in Holt in Norfolk more than 30 years ago, Old Town is not a brand that sells pure replicas but constructs a meta-world that somehow speaks from an imagined English past. Everything is bespoke and made on the premises.

6. The current trend in replica clothing from the mid-20th century was spearheaded by the jeans industry and a group of Japanese brands known as the Osaka Five (Denime, Evisu, Full Count, Studio D'Artisan and Warehouse) in particular. Once they had established a demand for "almost" replica mid-century five-pocket jeans in Japan (and for the ultra-hip in the UK) in the early 1990s, Levi's Japan followed suit with a 501 replica in selvedge denim.

7. Levi's Vintage (LVC) was a later, but far more extensive, response to the "vintage and replica" explosion that happened in Japan and further afield in the early 2000s. In short, the "replica" became a new medium in men's streetwear and LVC had the back catalogue to push it to the limit.

8. Run by notable vintage collector and dealer Neil Starr, North Sea Clothing mixes modern styles (inspired by mid-century classics) with replicas of British military knitwear.

9. Perhaps the ultimate producer of historical replicas, garments inspired by history and new "heritage" styles is Ralph Lauren's RRL. Its attention to detail, small-run exclusive textiles and slick presentation has made them both elite and accessible.

10. Operating since 1981 Aero Leathers is a brand dedicated to recreating the golden era of 20th-century leathers and CC41 (wartime pattern) clothing. It was one of the first in the world to enter this now highly fashionable market and still one of the best.

Nick Clements is the founder and editor of Men's File magazine; Instagram: @mensfilemagazine and @nick.clements

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