Recently, in the basement of my mom’s house upstate, I discovered two boxes full of clothes that somehow got diverted from me back in 1997. They were full of gems — old merch from “Twin Peaks” and “In Living Color,” peak-era Gap and so on. But I was most warmed to re-encounter the ones so specific that they’d be essentially meaningless to almost anyone else.
The best is a fire truck red shirt that reads, “Goodbye Old Stuy.” I was part of the first class that graduated from the new Stuyvesant High School building in 1993. These shirts were given to students when we left the old building on East 15th Street the year before.
My New York is a small and obscure one, full of private corners that I still lurk in when the world turns cruel, and darkened by the shadows of places that have been swallowed by time (and developers).
It’d be nice if I had photos of those places, but mostly I don’t. It’d be nicer, even, to have a memento. I would pay who-knows-how-much for a T-shirt from my beloved El Greco diner in Sheepshead Bay, in outer Brooklyn, where in the mid-to-late-1980s I ate approximately one million French fries and stuffed the Galaga machine with quarters sneaked to me by the women who worked the cash register. It was knocked down a few years ago and is now a condo tower with units that can sell for over $ 1 million.
I never had much hope of finding such a totem until last year, when I stumbled upon the Fantasy Explosion Instagram account, which was posting decades-old T-shirts from niche corners of the city — the type of shirts that are given away to people who complete a 5K, or to sanitation workers in the boroughs outside Manhattan, or which you can buy near tourist sites from street vendors.
It was vernacular vintage: a reconstruction of New York memory, one faded garment at a time.
Fantasy Explosion is the work of Kevin Fallon, 30, a musician who moved to New York from West Greenwich, R.I., six years ago. “I wanted to feel more connected when I moved here,” he told me recently.
In between jobs, he began going to thrift stores. “Originally,” he said, “I was finding things that were important to me ’cause I’d been there — ‘I had a sandwich at this place.’ But that feeling for me started turning into, ‘Whoa, what does this mean to other people?’”
Quite a bit, it turns out. After selling online since last year, Fantasy Explosion opened a micro-stall in the Williamsburg Mini Mall in April. (The retail location is in partnership with the pin brand Pintrill, which also sells from the space.) I stop in whenever I’m nearby, though I generally know what’s in stock from its Instagram story.
Mr. Fallon said he sells these items not just to locals, but also to those new to the city: “You move to New York, and you want to be down.”
Mr. Fallon estimates that about half of his stock is regionally specific. Some recent highlights include street-vendor shirts from the 2003 blackout; a teal beauty from the 1998 New York State Gymnastics Championship; a cap from the Chemical Bank fishing club; a bizarre comedy list about Roth Pond, in Stony Brook, N.Y.; an embroidered shirt from the meat seller Pat LaFrieda.
On one recent trip, I spied a shirt from Downstairs Records, a go-to for hip-hop in the 1980s and ’90s, which was too small for me. But I took a picture and posted it on Instagram, where one of my friends, a onetime patron of the store, saw it and immediately snapped it up.
AS I GET OLDER, I find myself more interested in wearing items of clothing that reflect, down to a microscopic level, my history. This sort of vernacular vintage is made up of clothes that convey cachet — a bone-dyed New Yorker — and intimate knowledge.
“They’re code and status symbols,” says Brian Procell, the owner of the vintage emporium Procell on the Lower East Side and a vintage archivist. Wearing certain pieces, he said, is one way to communicate membership in “a New York City elite.” Items like these serve as a reminder that no matter how big and overstuffed the city gets, New York remains a cult brand.
Mr. Procell has sold shirts like these for years, with a special emphasis on city institutions like museums. “Coming across one is like a luxury,” he said. “It’s the ultimate souvenir.”
Over the last few years, more and more stores have begun offering these kinds of shirts. On one recent afternoon at Round Two’s new vintage store on Ludlow Street, there was a rack devoted to New York-specific items, including a tee from the Highbridge Advisory Council Child Care Center in the Bronx ($ 40).
At La Petite Mort, a vintage shop on the Lower East Side that was open from 2014 to 2017, Osvaldo Chance Jimenez, an author and onetime party promoter, was selling deeply specific New York City vintage. I bought an anniversary-edition T-shirt from Moshood Creations, which has been in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn for two and a half decades.
New York clothing, Mr. Jimenez said, was like “certain slang that only some people will know.” He found that young art and fashion people who had recently moved to the city were as attracted to it as the local lifers. “The whole conversation about gentrification was really heavy at that time,” he said, “and this was a way for them to identify themselves, their way of saying, ‘I’m not a gentrifier.’”
Nicolas Heller, a documentarian of New York’s vernacular corners and mom-and-pop businesses, likens New York vintage to Metallica and Iron Maiden shirts. “When I see one, my first question is, ‘Do they have a history with this place?’” he said, while conceding that late adopters are acceptable, too.
THE CURRENT MOMENT of New York-specific vintage comes at the same time that vernacular styles have become part of the aesthetic of many clothing companies.
Last year, the T-shirt for the annual Social Studies gathering, which brings together the progressive edge of haute street wear, was a Virgil Abloh-designed remake of the Stuyvesant Physical Ed. Leader shirt worn by Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys in the video for “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!).” The skate brand Grand Collection recently made a hoodie that’s effectively a business card for Around the World, the defunct West 37th Street fashion magazine haven.
The nü-prep line Rowing Blazers has made shirts in collaboration with the 90-year-old pizzeria John’s of Bleecker Street, Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Chinatown and Harry’s New York Bar, in Paris.
Reception Clothing, a French brand sold at Token, makes high-end merch-style T-shirts celebrating restaurants around the world: Suzy’s Warung in Bali, now closed; Ama Lachei, in Athens; Le Cabaret, in Tokyo; and so on.
Fantasy Explosion has made a few vernacular bootlegs of its own, including a college-style Guggenheim hoodie and shirts based on a D.I.Y. Metropolitan Transportation Authority jacket with embroidered buses and a Ludacris lyric: “When I move you move/ Just like that.”
At the same time, the vernacular style of New York’s tourist shops — the type that clutter Times Square and, decreasingly, Canal Street — has become widely used source material for Vetements and Balenciaga as well as more niche concerns, like the goods made for Dev Hynes’s Blood Orange project.
And Mr. Abloh has made the aesthetic of business merch — the type of freebie shirts that small companies make as a kind of mobile advertising, with address and phone number — a recurring feature in his work for Off-White.
These high-fashion versions of vernacular forms suggest that there is no obstacle to making the vernacular aesthetic a luxury proposition. But in a climate in which, say, vintage music shirts can command several hundred dollars, local vintage generally offers a more reasonable entry point; almost everything at Fantasy Explosion is under $ 50.
These items may be extremely rare, but they also have a very limited market, which is why finding a good one can feel so special, as if you were being reunited with your own past.
IN RECENT YEARS, I’ve filled out my wardrobe with shirts from places I happily patronize. It began to seem ludicrous that I might spend several hundred dollars on an item of clothing I may wear just a couple of times, but not $ 20 on a shirt from a place I go several times a year.
At Joe’s Pizza in the West Village, the cashier rolled his eyes when I asked for one, then disappeared for several minutes tracking one down, holding up a long line. The options at Randy’s Donuts, by the Los Angeles airport, are vivid and colorful. I bought a shrieking-loud tie-dye number from the Varsity in Atlanta. In Little Italy in Manhattan, I bought one from a spot I have been going to since I was in grade school and which I will not name for fear that it may be Forlini’d.
Wearing these garments is unusually revealing, as if you’re wearing a shirt with your own face on it. It starts conversations, and it’s a kind of recommendation engine.
But mostly it is a map to my private life, a hint of some of the stuff I’m made of. It’s why I keep eBay alerts in hopes I may one day find a Crazy Eddie T-shirt that’s not a filmy sausage casing; a 1980s Carvel ice cream shirt; some other Stuyvesant memorabilia.
Or maybe someone will dig an El Greco shirt from the bottom of a storage unit and offer it up for sale, a lock in search of a key. I’ll be there.