Interview conducted by Thomas Sebastian Galasso
As part of UNION’s effort to expand and educate we are proud to be in partnership with the incredible Foothills CA. Our man Thomas Galasso makes the trek out to the actual
Foothills of California to meet with brand founder and vintage expert Jonnie Henderson. Jonnie is born and raised in the picturesque beauty of Claremont, CA and has worked in the
field of vintage, for over 20 years, starting out in 1993 as a wholesaler to the Japanese markets and has supplied Ralph Lauren with much of their exquisite vintage pieces for the last
15 years. An enlightening conversation that spans not only fashions, skating, and all things California.
Jonnie: Hey man, pleased to be hanging out. Thank you for making the journey out to Foothills territory.
Thomas: Thank you. There seems to be a strong connection between Foothills the brand, and your personal history out here in Claremont.
Jonnie: Yeah for sure. When I’m buying pieces, and because of my background and being so involved in sports and the outdoors, growing up and living in the mountains, all those things have influenced my take on clothing and it’s intended purpose. Knowing the history of these pieces, and what they were intended for and how they were used helps to understand the history of garments and what they were originally made for. You start to appreciate the materials, understand the design details and why they were designed in those ways.
Thomas: Tell us a bit about the process of selecting and finding items, not just for business but for your personal collection.
Jonnie: Through the years I am constantly redefining my taste and eye. At this point I’m really looking for the “One-Off’s”. Super rare pieces or something I haven’t seen before. A small detail like perhaps a pocket configuration, or maybe something in a particular color, or a unique fade. We have some military jackets right now that have hand drawn art on them, it’s incredible to think about the work and the story attached to these pieces. I have a special piece in mind from World War II, it was originally owned by a guy that saw heavy action throughout the South Pacific. I think to myself “God, even through war, this man found time to be artistic and hand drew beautiful designs on this jacket”. It’s crazy.
Thomas: Surrounded by chaos and destruction, the creative mind works at overtime. A lot of brands I see do faux versions of hand drawn art and patchwork that’s made to look like stuff from World War II or the Korean War or Vietnam, and at times it makes me numb. I see so much of the faux shit. But then an original comes along it gives you chills. The ghosts of time live in those pieces, with amazing stories and circumstance. One can’t help but be in awe.
Jonnie: A recent quote from a close friend: “Even war can be fashionable.” It’s crazy, if you read the history of Camo, it wasn’t the military who designed the clothing. It was fashion designers and artists hired by the military to design for them. Denim work wear companies were drawn into the war effort as well as sports companies, ‘cause everybody was contributing to the war effort. So, the story can be crazy when you really start researching these pieces and understanding their history. Camouflage was being designed after WWI born out of the Bauhaus Art School , and every military has their own Camo patterns and colors. There’s a direct link to the geography of the countries based on their Camo. The Camo’s purpose is to reflect the natural landscapes of where they are fighting.
Thomas: Whats the interaction like between yourself and the original owners of some of these pieces?
Jonnie: At a point in time I got very involved in the Native American and Western antique business and I was traveling around the States and going to a lot of shows, in that circumstance I did actually buy pieces from old cowboys which of course they had great stories, along with some history and that definitely made those pieces feel even more special. It made me want to respect the pieces more, so I was much more thoughtful about what I was going to do with that piece or how I was going to use it. I have specific rules I try to follow. Military gear for example: Love it, I love the art, but I won’t wear an actual squadron specific piece, because I believe I wasn’t there so I don’t have the right to wear it.
Thomas: I hear that, not many people these days abide. (Laughs) It is truly a respect thing.
Jonnie: I respect the pieces and the history of them- so yeah, it does make it more special when you can get the story and the background of the person. I’m working on getting a piece right now that’s coming out of a private estate and it’s an Indian Motorcycles sweater from the 1930’s. There’s a photo of the man who owned the sweater wearing it and so that’s already been documented. We’re trying to get the photo along with the piece, because it’s definitely more collectable and valuable as a set.
Thomas: Tell me a bit more about Claremont. I’ve heard some really interesting things over the years about it. And from interesting people nonetheless. You were born here, raised here, Foothills is based here. Its like a hidden pocket of beauty thats far enough removed from L.A. to not be anything at all like it. Yet close enough to where there is some influence.
Jonnie: Well to start, we have seven colleges combined here with the graduate schools. There’s a rich history in Claremont that dates back to the 1950’s with some very famous artists, painters, ceramicists, woodworkers, and musicians. So that was always present growing up. But it was my Dad who left the biggest impression by introducing me to the outdoors. I was about 10 years old when my Dad joined a ski club, and started taking me on ski trips and backpacking both in the local mountains, Mount Baldy in San Gabriel Mountains and up to the Eastern Sierras. I think about that a lot, my Dad getting me involved in sports and the outdoors, was the biggest influence on me. With all of the sports I’ve been involved in, it turned me into a gear head. I just love gear!! Ski gear, backpacking gear, I’m also a fly fisher, so fishing gear as well.
I was into all kinds of things in the late 1970’s: BMX, skiing, surfed a little bit, but mainly a hard core skater through the whole Badlands era. We had the Upland Pipeline skate park, Pomona skate park and the Mt. Baldy pipe, all that had a huge influence on me and I was a student of all of the gear. So when I got into the vintage business and trends started happening in Japan, I was aware of the styles and brands even in regards to sports I wasn’t involved with. I could quickly pick out the cool gear which made the learning curve come very quickly to me. I often think, like, if anyone could say “I am meant to be doing what I am doing” I certainly feel like this is the God given business for me. everything about the vintage business speaks to who I am, the hustling entrepreneur, the dealing and collecting aspect of it. I was buying and selling shit when I was a kid, I was always trying to “come up”.
Rare Native American pieces (L), a peak into the Foothills Studio space located in Claremont, CA (R)
Thomas: Thats how the collecting bug started for you. Going all-in.
Jonnie: Yeah, I was always collecting from a young age. As I got older, bicycles, skateboards, going to drag races (collecting posters etc). Then I became a skater, in the very early days of skating, before things really blew up with skateparks. We were looking at a lot of surf magazines, a lot of the moves the guys were doing such as banks, drainage washes, reservoirs, and ravines. All of that was based on surf moves. Thats whats so unique about California. A guy can live an hour or two inland from the beach, be involved with motorcycles, skiing, and still be influenced by the beach.
When Skateboarder Magazine came out, I had the very first issue, every issue up until I quit skating, and man that’s one of the biggest things I regret. I gave my whole collection away to this kid that lived down the street and those magazines are priceless now. I had had every issue! There was a bookstore that was close to my house; my friend from next door and I, would skate over there every day while anticipating the arrival of the next issue.
I would look at every photo of my fellow Badlanders, as well as the Dogtown guys like Jay Adams. I would dissect everything, from their shoelaces, shoes, what socks were they wearing, what stickers were on their boards, what stickers were on their helmets, the helmets they were wearing, everything! I was crazed about it! So, that’s definitely been a plus in my business. I have a trained eye because of my attention to detail.
Thomas: Foothills is an extension of your experiences, interests, relationship to the outdoors, and the functionality of things. The history of the gear much of which has been mined for many of today’s popular brands and design trends.
The beautiful Foothills of California (L), 1950’s Andean Poncho (R)
Jonnie: I mentioned it to you earlier about the collaboration with Foothills, CA and UNION. Chris Gibbs has done such an amazing job of bringing these great brands from Japan and Europe into UNION and into the consciousness of not just Americans, but people all over. To know who those designers are and the history of those brands you’d have to know vintage. That’s why I believe there’s a direct connection to what we’re doing with UNION. So, when my business manager Chris Cogswell and I started this venture with UNION, we both agreed that we need to help educate the consumer. Bringing unique pieces to the table, not just your common vintage, but historical items. Items from all over the world, North Africa, Northwest Africa, Asia, various parts of the Americas, and so on. I think it’s our job to respect those pieces and tell the story of the people, the history behind them and the artists that made them.
Thomas: Thank you for time Jonnie.
Jonnie: It was a pleasure.