Cambridge, Mass., November 11, 2008 — If notice by the international press is any indication, the French fashion establishment is only just coming to realize the vital importance of fripe to youth fashion. The word may not mean much to the average kid in Cambridge, but the ethos of the fripe—any independent clothing store mixing high-quality vintage with trendy downmarket clothes—is an essential part of contemporary cool.
And the closest approximation Boston has to this is Proletariat. One regular customer, Sandra, raves that “this place is like a lonely lightbulb attracting every hipster or trendsetter from all walks of life. Everyone I know has something from this shop, even though they are all such very different people.”
In the race for space in Harvard Square, independent retailers are increasingly being squeezed out by national chain stores with the financial clout to keep up with rising rents: in the past six months, mall stores American Apparel and Caché have opened on Brattle Street. Proletariat is a noteworthy exception to this trend, thriving in its original spot—the basement on JFK Street now home to indie Raven Used Books—then moving to the popular Garage shopping center. The Boston Phoenix and the Weekly Dig have both solicited Proletariat to run advertisements in their pages; thanks to the new location and word-of-mouth, the store doesn’t need to.
Over the past four years, this unisex clothing store has become home-base for incorporating cutting-edge fashion, past and present, into hipster wardrobes at a fraction of the price that faux-vintage pieces cost at Jasmine Sola or Saks Fifth Avenue. Back when this ever-evolving store stocked vintage leather jackets and dusters, not a single one was priced over $100. During the initial craze for vintage t-shirts, when grungy old rock-concert mementos were selling for hundreds—even thousands—of dollars on eBay, Proletariat was selling original Michael Jackson and Pat Benatar concert tees for under $20.
In its original storefront, Proletariat primarily catered to scenester girls with gorgeous vintage leather goods and wry refabricated skirts and handbags, and to hipster boys with studded belts, cowboy boots, and thousands of vintage t-shirts. The homey, welcoming space felt like the walk-in closet of the coolest person you know. That cool kid is the hip young owner, Kerry Simon, who can always be found behind the counter, ready to share stories from his latest vintage-clothes hunting trip to New York City or rave about an amazing band he just saw play.
Despite studying Speech in college and having no art background, Proletariat’s owner designs the store’s original t-shirt line, which is rapidly expanding both its offerings and the amount of real-estate that it consumes in the shop. He notes glibly that many of his customers believe a t-shirt mashing up the flag-raising at Iwo Jima (where a McDonald’s signpost has been substituted for the US flag) either refers to the first moon-landing, or shows an angry anti-imperialist mob tearing down the sign.
Kerry explains that the teen skateboarders and hip-hoppers who now compose the majority of his customers prefer to buy brand-new over vintage—“they like things crispy.” A display case that just last summer housed vintage metalware—old belt buckles and cigarette cases—now contains paint-markers and cans of spray paint. Proletariat is one of the only stores in the area that sells graffiti supplies. Skateboards with graffiti-style images of Bill Clinton, Hillary, and George Bush, among others, are displayed on one wall, and the shop has recently begun stocking brightly-colored “fashion” sneakers.
Proletariat’s initial JFK Street mix of vintage clothing and styles by local designers—as well as clever accessories and a selection of trend magazines (People, Rolling Stone) from the 1960s-80s—built a core base of loyal customers. The new location (across from Newbury Comics, between the Chameleon tattoo parlor and punk/rockabilly fashion mecca Hootenanny) keeps foot traffic high and has brought in a brand-new demographic. There have been huge changes as a result of the move. The most immediate is that Proletariat’s customers have skewed resolutely younger. The vintage t-shirts, sweaters, and uniforms that once made up Proletariat’s entire inventory are reduced to half the store. Gone are the cleverly reconstructed dresses and accessories. More hip-hop than hipster, in its current incarnation there is a boy’s club feeling to the new Proletariat. Yet the shop’s original—primarily college-age and post-collegiate—clientele have not stopped shopping there, although they are no longer catered to exclusively.
The revolving parade of fashion on the racks at Proletariat parallels that on the streets. Only time will tell what Kerry will be selling next year—or even next week. Yet the store’s diversity of clientele, and continued patronage despite evolving styles and merchandise, means that Proletariat will certainly be here for many years. And its current fans don’t plan on shopping elsewhere anytime soon. Although Proletariat has only been in the Garage for a few years, and has only catered to them within the past year, its young male base is incredibly loyal. A boy named Shawn declares “this place is a Harvard Square landmark. Everyone who is anyone comes through here and knows the owner Kerry. He is mad fresh and always has something ill to teach you.”
Proletariat is located in the Garage, at 36 JFK Street in Cambridge, MA. Kerry Simon’s original t-shirt designs can be purchased online from the store’s website, www.arevolt.com.