On a recent afternoon in SoHo, Seth Weisser and Gerard Maione were visiting their shop, What Goes Around Comes Around, an upscale vintage boutique on West Broadway that has long been a downtown destination for designers and celebrities.
They passed by Jean Paul Gaultier shirts from the late 1980s and Harley-Davidson biker jackets from the 1960s before entering the area containing their extensive Levi’s collection. Mr. Weisser, wearing a vintage Hermès jacket, gingerly reached for a pair of 1950s jeans. The price was $3,000.
“They may look like regular Levi’s, but the denim connoisseur who sees someone wearing them will know exactly what they are,” he said. “This is the beginning of quiet luxury.”
One of their regulars, Stefon Diggs, a receiver for the Buffalo Bills, was browsing near a mannequin holding a quilted Chanel bag made in the 1990s.
“You beat my Jets yesterday,” Mr. Maione shouted.
“Yeah, but you guys beat us last time,” Mr. Diggs responded.
Mr. Diggs ended up buying two Chanel bags. Outside the store, a friend photographed him wearing his purchases in front of an SUV
“I’ve been shopping at What Goes Around Comes Around for a long time,” Mr. Diggs said, mid-pose. “I like vintage because it’s timeless, so I like to hoard it here.”
Mr. Weisser, 56, and Mr. Maione, 55, grew up in nearby towns on Long Island. Mr. Weisser’s mother was a gym teacher and his father was a lawyer; Mr. Maione’s family ran an Italian delicatessen.
The two men became friends at Syracuse University in the late 1980s. They began scouring street fairs and flea markets in the 1990s, when they learned that their best chance of getting into Manhattan nightclubs like the Spy Bar was to check them out.
The hunt for vintage has become their obsession. In a rag-tag house in the Bronx, they filled trash bags with rock concert T-shirts and a pair of Levi’s made during the Eisenhower administration; in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, they bought rare jeans from the back of vans.
They opened What Goes Around Comes Around in 1993. Back then, second-hand was synonymous with second-rate to much of the fashion world, and the two saw themselves as downtown entrepreneurs whose mission was to preach the gospel of vintage.
“The stigma was that people felt it was beneath them to buy something used,” Weisser said, “but we saw that wearing vintage clothing gave someone individuality.”
Their first regulars included Jean Paul Gaultier and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. “Sex and the City” stylists found clothes there for the show’s star, Sarah Jessica Parker, who became a client herself.
“New York has a long history of vintage, but it’s the way they’ve pursued pieces with a legacy that has always made them stand out,” Ms. Parker said. “There will only be one of something there, not multiples of it. And that’s when vintage becomes really special.”
“They are not the RealReals,” he added. “What they do seems a little more rarefied. Sometimes you have to be a bit of a fashion historian to understand what they have, but it’s worth it.”
After three decades in business, What Goes Around Comes Around has an outpost in Beverly Hills and a second boutique recently opened in SoHo. Its client base includes Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Lenny Kravitz and Kate Moss. Items now on sale include an Hermès “clutch” bag ($34,500), a Chrome Hearts alligator zipper case ($3,500), and a Christian Dior leather beanie ($775).
In recent years, as high-end vintage clothing has become a booming business, Weisser and Maione have found themselves competing with venture capital-backed consignment platform RealReal, online marketplace Vestiaire Collective and other similar businesses .
To bolster their e-commerce division, they recently launched an online store, in partnership with Amazon, and began producing a livestream shopping series hosted by bag historian Mason Howell. Episodes include “Gossip Girl Style” and “Inspired by Priscilla Presley.”
“In terms of all of our online competition, we were a little late in pursuing that idea, so we had to decide how to differentiate ourselves,” Weisser said.
Mr Maione expressed the opinion that their rivals buy more indiscriminately. “A lot of it is fluff,” he said. “We deal at a very high level and the only cabinets we go into are the ones we know contain top pieces.”
“That’s why we get stylists and celebrities,” he continued. “Because they know they’ll be the only ones out there wearing something if they got it from us.”
They also reflected on a less obvious advantage they may have over the competition: their decades-long friendship.
“We’ve been through a lot together, from recessions to 9/11,” Maione said. “But we always have each other.”
Their bond, they said, helped them endure a painful downsizing during the pandemic that forced them to close locations in Miami, East Hampton and the Upper East Side. Since 2018 they have also been in litigation with Chanel, which is suing What Goes Around Comes for trademark infringement, a charge they deny. (Chanel, which has a rocky relationship with the luxury resale industry, sued RealReal that same year.)
When asked how they hunt for vintage clothes these days, Mr. Weisser and Mr. Maione said the details of the acquisition are trade secrets, but admitted that they visit the closets of an eccentric and elegant on Central Park South and who make regular trips to the Paris flea market in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine.
“We still struggle to get into the best closets,” Weisser said. “Hunting is what keeps us going.”
As evening approached, the two headed through the Holland Tunnel to their 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Jersey City. They entered via freight elevator and toured cavernous warehouses filled with boxes of Rolex watches, packs of T-shirts from 1970s rock concerts and towering stacks of Louis Vuitton monogrammed bags.
They visited their e-commerce team and greeted a member of the authentication division, who was examining a Gucci bag with a magnifying glass for signs of sophisticated counterfeiting. Then they entered a room filled with piles of Levi’s.
Mr. Maione ran his hand over a pair of jeans with some tears in the fabric.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find the old Levi’s stuff,” he said. “There’s not much left out there now. The source of all this is drying up. But denim never goes bad. It just gets better.”