In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Having grown up in the '90s in Elizabeth, N.J., Brian Procell's memories are rooted in aesthetics. "Clothing was very much a tool, in my opinion, for survival," he tells me. "It opened up a lot of doors, whether it was political or maybe even social, as far as love interests and friends. Clothing was everything, your identity and a way to communicate without necessarily talking." Some of his earliest recollections surrounding fashion are from window shopping as a child, whether it was scouring the latest finds at a thrift store — in order to create an outfit on a shoestring budget — or passing by the boutiques of Soho during one of his many trips to New York City. (Back when the commute by train was only 18 minutes and $4 round-trip.)
The neighborhood's galleries and artist studios back then also inspired him: Young Procell had aspirations to make a permanent move to the big city and build a career as a painter. Skipping college, he took on an apprenticeship with an artist and landed a job assisting painter Mickalene Thomas.
Procell switched gears in 2006, opening his first shop on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side, which was an entirely different business from the one he operates today. The focus was mostly on menswear and sportswear brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Carhartt; he would reintroduce pieces from the '80s and '90s pieces to the new millennium.
"I had been in New York for a couple years wanting to be an artist and needed to shift my career — and make money," he says. "I knew what my strong suits were, so I wanted to be able to flip some clothing that I was able to find on the street. I think a lot of people didn't understand what I was doing."
By 2012, he had officially opened Procell — a Lower East Side shop that boasts coveted luxury sportswear, nostalgia-heavy designer pieces and vintage garments that capture some of pop culture's biggest moments: MTV's 1997 animated series "Daria" merch sits alongside a Fendi logo visor, for example. Musicians, influencers, designers and New York's coolest residents are often spotted perusing the racks, sometimes alongside tourists who come across Procell after roaming around Soho, Little Italy or Chinatown. "Everything is about 15 to 20 years old," says Procell. "And it was all part of really, really interesting subcultures that we admired growing up or that we were influenced by, whether that was punk rockers, downtown artists or graffiti writers."
Over the years, Procell's offerings — now totaling approximately 30,000 pieces mostly housed in an archive studio in Brooklyn — have served as references for designers, or have been worn by stylish celebrities (like Travis Scott in a vintage Björk shirt, or Frank Ocean repping Aphex Twin). Procell has also collaborated with Alexander Wang, New Museum, Opening Ceremony and more. Most recently, he paired up with online marketplace Depop, setting up shop inside its first brick-and-mortar store in Los Angeles, as well as launching worldwide shipping.
Procell hasn't strayed far away from his artistic roots. In fact, the logo for his shop — a bicycle wheel atop a stool — is an ode to a sculpture by Marcel Duchamp, a key figure in the Dada movement. "What Marcel Duchamp did with that sculpture is he took objects that were mundane and often discarded, and he brought them into his salon and re-contextualized them and elevated their status," says Procell. "That is very much what I do with a lot of the secondhand clothing that might have been thrifted and discarded or overlooked. I'm bringing them into my salon and I'm curating a collection and ultimately elevating the status of these pieces."
We spoke to Procell to learn more about opening his store and how he's expanding his vintage shop into a cultural hub and agency for some fashion's biggest designer names.
Can you tell us about your inspiration behind the store?
Coming from the idea of creating experiential retail, it was really more about the vibe of the shop. That's where I really started to hone in on my past experiences of record shopping in New York City. There were times when I would go into a record store and I wouldn't necessarily understand or know what I was looking at or what I was hearing, but I knew the record store was really seasoned. I knew that the clerks were cool. I loved that vibe and I trusted them. They educated me, and they put me on to labels that they recommended. In turn, I understood that if you trust the label, or if you trust a company enough, whatever they press or whatever they release, you have a safe feeling that you're going like that or that's something that you vibe with.
I wanted the store to be the same. They know that Procell has been in the game. We've been around long enough that you can trust what is going to be in Procell even if you don't know what you're looking at at the moment.
What would you consider to be the largest milestone for Procell, or its big break?
Curating a collection of vintage sportswear for Opening Ceremony [in 2012] was a really big deal. I had vintage Hermès, vintage Moschino, juxtaposed with vintage Adidas and vintage Nike. It was really the perfect hybrid of high and low — an incredible mix of luxury and casual sportswear and ready-to-wear. Before that, there had never been anything offered in any department store like that before. As somebody who really wanted to be part of the art world and admired great artists, part of what makes an artist great is that [they are] the innovator in [their] industry, or an innovator in [their] field. Being first to market and first to do something really shows that you're trying to perfect your craft. That's something that I've always been about.
I also understand that in business, there are cons to being too ahead of the time, and obviously, you're not the one who's going to capitalize on it the most. You're going to be somebody who changes the game, not your legacy. The people that make the real money are the people who are able to really ride that wave for the mass market. Urban Outfitters can really thank me for that.
Whoa. Elaborate, please.
You need somebody to influence the people that have the money to really be able to take it to the world. A good example of that is after the collection for Opening Ceremony, Nasty Gal copied and emulated the collection. The collection that we offered at Opening Ceremony was on Greene Street, so you have to be in Soho, you have to be in New York City, you have to know somebody there to be able to get it. Then Nasty Gal comes and three or six months later, emulates the collection and offers it online to the world. That was definitely a turning point where I started to see a global ripple. Paying attention to online platforms like Etsy and eBay, you really start to chart and see the difference after that happens.
It was very rewarding to see that you can influence the market. You're not going to make the money, but at the same time, I'm very, very grateful that I was able to do something that had such a ripple effect.
How has Procell grown as a company and space?
Procell has grown so much. Before, I was wearing a lot of hats in the company, but about a year ago, my fiancée Jessica became my partner and came along. She was a producer and worked on many, many incredible projects and just has a skill set that I never had. That's been able to really allow us to grow, and at the same time that Jessica came along, we were able to acquire the space next door. We wanted to really control our environment and be able to also have a space that gave us the flexibility that we very much needed. We use the new space when we need storage or privacy for clients that are VIPs that need to be partitioned from the rest of the shop.
It also gives us the opportunity to really become a mini agency [called Ready Made Media], which is something that I always wanted to do. I'm talking about activations and advertorial opportunities — very much like running a real life, interactive magazine — in the sense that there's so much content around what Procell is made of.
So, there's another piece to the business going on behind the scenes, in addition to the vintage storefront? How do the two work together?
I think a lot of the companies that are still in existence or want to have a revival will look at what we have and want to be part of that, and want to have interaction with our audience. That gives us a really, really a great opportunity now having a partner who's an experienced producer. The gallery space next door is really reshaping the way people look at a vintage boutique. We are one of the few vintage boutiques that operates like an agency in the sense that we very much work behind the scenes: We have a warehouse and archive in Brooklyn. We work with all of the top designers who inspire us. We work with many people in the industry. At the same time, we can have a forward-facing boutique that gives us really important feedback and is very much like a focus group with the people that come in and out of the shop.
Procell's ability to tap into youth, nostalgia and subcultures is something that a lot of brands are trying to do. What's your advice for approaching this in an authentic way?
Consulting is going be very important for that. Brands need to bring in someone who has authentic ties to those subcultures. Anytime those are studied through the lens of social media, there's an abstraction and a mutation that's going to happen. You don't necessarily have to create a carbon copy, but you have to have a direct conduit. That's extremely important. There's no cutting corners there.
Where do you see Procell going as a business?
We have the ability to create a cultural hub. I'm having an incredible time doing this with my partner. We have a store that allows us to understand all of the feedback from a lot of youth culture that comes in, and a lot of the foot traffic that we have being in a very great neighborhood. We really enjoy being able to have our archive and warehouse and a lot of the clients that we have, whether it's Moschino, Supreme or Lacoste. It's really, really nice to be able to provide reference and see what makes its debut. Some of these pieces have another life. Being able to see some of your work on the runway, that metamorphosis, has been so amazing to see. I'm very happy that's what the Procell business is at the moment, being able to be part of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.