Yorkshire company Headlock Vintage specialises in the sort of retro second-hand clothes that students love. Stephanie Smith talks to founder Tom Walker. Pictures by Rosie Woods, shot in Leeds and York.
Selling coals to Newcastle is a phrase that comes to mind when discovering exactly what it is that Headlock Vintage does. In this case, it’s importing vintage clothing from countries such as Sweden, Holland, Germany and the US, washing it, and then selling it back to them for a profit. Genius.
Founded in Tockwith in 2009, Headlock Vintage is the bright idea of young entrepreneur Tom Walker. He buys second-hand – “pre-loved”, as we now prefer to say – leisurewear from suppliers in a variety of countries in Europe and the States, much of it branded leisurewear from the 1990s – T-shirts, hoodies, sweats and printed shirts that 2018 students love to pick up for a song.
Tom says: “A lot of stuff that comes in is really good quality from Holland and Germany. The stuff from America, they have thrift shops, that kind of supply.”
Much of the clothing arrives at Headlock’s Tockwith HQ tightly packed in bales, so it has to be washed and steamed. “That’s the ugly side, and the sorting through stock.”
The unit has storage and offices (there are three staff members), and a studio, where the clothes are photographed on models, shooting perhaps 200 individual items a week, after which the images are uploaded onto Headlock’s online shop hosted by Asos Marketplace. There is a collection from Tockwith leaving every day to meet next day delivery orders. Around 30-40 per cent of stock sells outside the UK.
“At the moment, we sell a lot to France, Germany and Sweden,” says Tom. “The exchange rate has made a difference, especially with Scandinavia. If you wanted to buy a Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt, but you lived in some fairly remote part of Sweden, to buy it online from a company like ours is probably easier and cheaper.
“We sell quite a lot to Australia as well. We are able to sell different clothes to different parts of the world. If we list a fleece-lined denim jacket, it still sells somewhere around the world.”
Now 27, Tom is Tockwith-born and bred. Mum, Angie, is a florist (she owns Beautiful Flowers in Tockwith) and dad, Jon, works at plant nursery Johnsons of Whixley. When he was in the sixth form at King James’s School in Knaresborough, an enterprising young Tom began buying clothes and accessories from the town’s many charity shops and going to car boots at weekends, then selling his finds on eBay.
“I knew I didn’t want to go to uni, so I thought I’ll do this for a few years, and it just gradually grew from there,” he says.
Also while at school, he was helping with merchandising for bands including the Kaiser Chiefs, and doing promotional work for touring musicians including singer-songwriter Esser, whose 2009 song Headlock inspired the name.
He started selling at vintage fairs, travelling up to Scotland with a van full of pre-loved clothing. When he began doing music festivals, he realised he was selling mainly to students. “I thought, if I could promote it better and do it in a university, it would be a win-win,” he says.
Events at universities are now major points of sale for Headlock Vintage, which appears at 15 student unions, including Glasgow and Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge, the University of Leeds, Durham and Sheffield Hallam. The busiest period is Freshers’ Week in October.
Tom says: “Because a lot of the stock comes from Holland and Germany, you get, like, obscure Dutch football team logos on the back, and it’s quite cool here because no one knows who it is.
“We sell a lot of ‘90s stuff at the moment. It’s the big trend with the students but when I started 10 years ago, people wanted more classic English vintage stuff, like waxed jackets and duffle coats. Now it’s tracksuit tops and sweatshirts.”
Tom likes to keep pricing simple. At the student events, pieces cost for £10 each or three for £25, or £15 each and two for £25. They are a little more expensive on the website because of admin, shoot and model costs. Any waste stock is donated to refugee charities.
“I never wanted to open a shop on the street,” he says. “I always thought, on a Monday, when it’s raining, who’s going to come in and buy a woolly jumper with a mad pattern on it?
Headlock is certainly becoming known as a treasure trove of vintage leisure wear, it supplied tracksuit tops to Zayn Malik a couple of years ago. Tom says: “They chose 15 items, which I sent to them and they used them in a video. He bought them all in the end.”
The run-up to those freshers’ weeks is set to be a hectic time for Tom, especially so this year because he and his wife, Lucy, are expecting a baby any day now.
As far as Headlock is concerned, he plans to stage more events in more cities, grow the online side and do more festivals.
Tom says: “In the first few years of doing this, I’d get people, like my mum’s friends, saying, ‘so what do you mean, you sell second-hand clothes? Who’s going to buy them?’ A few years after, they say, ‘oh, my son bought something from one of your events’.”
Headlock Vintage is at www.headlockvintage.co.uk.