Meet the mayor of Vintage Town, USA

Rin Tanaka thinks of himself as a hunter-gatherer. But his hunger isn’t the regular human kind; it’s that of a self-proclaimed vintage freak.

Tanaka’s scavenging for vintage began in Yokohama, a Japanese port city and U.S. naval base. when Tanaka was growing up in the 1970s, he often saw off-duty sailors wearing jeans and motorcycle jackets. as they listened to blues on the radio, vintage Levi’s jeans hugged a 10-year-old Tanaka’s hips and connected him to the American culture he idolized.

Now, at 39, the San Clemente resident has become more than a hunter-gatherer – he seems to be the mayor of Vintage Town. he has written dozens of oversize books about vintage clothing that have been likened to vintage bibles by the industry insiders he has met during his cross-country travels. On top of that, he’s popular in Japan, where his books sell out just weeks after hitting the shelves.

Tanaka calls the 1920s to 1970s the golden era of American culture and feels as if lately the nation he fell in love with has “lost its hard-working feeling.” That’s why he’s not interested in most modern products. His studio is filled with 1950s guitars, 1920s furniture and 1970s posters.

After studying economics at a Japanese university, Tanaka wanted to learn blues music. he gathered up his paychecks from freelance magazine gigs, got a short-term U.S. tourist visa and flew to Dallas with an acoustic guitar. For him, studying meant playing on city streets and going to concerts. he traveled through Texas and Mississippi and watched people line dance to Johnny Cash. For quick money, he sent photos back to Japanese magazines that wanted images of American culture.

During that time, he met owners of small music magazines and fellow vintage freaks (his term for vintage lovers). At the time, a strong vintage craving was creeping up in the United States.

Japan’s love for Americana began after World War II and continued to spread after the 1964 Olympics there, industry experts say. when Tanaka went back to Japan, he took vintage guitars, which he sold at hefty profits. he used those profits to fund future trips to America.

After finishing college, Tanaka found a job working for an ad agency. In his free time, he would travel to the United States and sell photos and stories to the same Japanese magazines he sold to when he was fresh out of college.

After five years, he began freelancing full time. he got what he calls a journalist’s visa and traveled around taking photos of vintage clothes and performing rock stars for magazines. he finally settled in San Clemente because his favorite strip of U.S soil lies between Trestles Beach and San Diego. Though he owns a home here, he’s not a citizen. he says he renews his work visa every five years.

In 1998, he started publishing his own books. the first ones were written in Japanese and focused on motorcycle jackets. Then he started a series written in English and Japanese called “My Freedamn,” with each book featuring a different chapter of vintage history. the books, which mostly contain photos of clothes, bought him a ticket into the inner workings of the vintage industry.

When it came time for a title for his series, Tanaka thought, “What’s more American than freedom?” Freedom is good, he thought, but it also can lead down the “damned path,” so he came up with the term “freedamn.”

The vintage business was hot until Japan’s economy slipped in 1997 and things started to cool. That’s why vendors let an unknown guy photograph their goods – any exposure was good exposure. the first few “My Freedamn” books were pretty rough, said Bob Chatt, owner of Huntington Beach’s Vintage Productions, which has had products featured in the books. But by book No. 4, industry insiders began to realize Tanaka was onto something.

“Once people got the idea of it, everyone wanted to be in Rin’s books,” Chatt said. “To be in the books means you’re who’s who in the business.”

“My Freedamn, Vol. 1″ focused on beach T-shirts, Vol. 4 on motorcycle apparel and Vol. 8 on 1960s pop fashion. Tanaka prints only 10,000 copies of each book. Each is priced at $60, and quick sellouts make him a comfortable living.

He researches three segments of vintage history at a time and organizes his gatherings by subject using black metal crates. when one fills up, it’s time to make a book. he sits at a 1920s desk and uses pencil and paper to sketch out the book. a designer in Japan creates the digital layout.

Harley-Davidson liked Tanaka’s style so much that the company asked him to create a book to coincide with its Milwaukee museum opening in 2008. Harley gave him access to its archives and clothing collections.

“For ‘Freedamn,’ I hunt and cook, but in this case they had so much nice stuff already, all I did was cook and make a nice dish,” Tanaka said.

Now an Italian fashion company is courting him to do the same thing.

Many books have been written about vintage clothing, but series are rare, said Larry McKaughan, owner of Heller’s Cafe, a Seattle vintage store focusing on collectibles. Designers, often known to scour vintage racks for inspiration, are fans of “My Freedamn,” McKaughan said.

“He’s like a ringleader for the business,” said Jason Schott, co-owner of Schott NYC, which has been making motorcycle jackets since 1913. “He has such an interest and passion for the industry and knows all the players.”

Tanaka thinks that in 10 years there will be a vintage road show much like the antique one featured on PBS.

“To me, vintage means value,” he said. “Many people put antiques in bank safety deposits. one day they’ll do that with vintage.”

Look for Tanaka’s books at Amazon.com.

Contact the writer: blevine@ocregister.com or 949-492-5135

Meet the mayor of Vintage Town, USA