It’s late on a Saturday night in April when I pull up to the East Wind Casino, the only place in Martin, South Dakota (population 1,071) still serving food at 10 o’clock. I tuck into two slices of pepperoni pizza that have been congealing under a heat lamp for longer than I care to know. A cold beer would help wash it down, but the casino doesn’t allow alcohol—only cigarettes, and a lot of them, apparently. I take a whiff. This place smells like the Marlboro Man’s taint. I can’t really complain, though, considering I smell like cat piss.
I should probably rewind. I’m in the middle of a four-day expedition through the Midwest with Brit Eaton, a fashion archaeologist who goes by the nickname Indiana Jeans. I just call him the Denim Hunter. Since the late 1990s, Eaton has made six figures annually by traveling the country, going into ghost towns and abandoned mine shafts in search of turn-of-the-century denim and other antiquarian apparel. Designers for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch pony up serious cash for these relics, taking inspiration from the fading, the wash and even the rivets. Eaton capitalizes on the fashion industry’s obsession with such buzzwords as Americana and heritage. Among his scores: a Native American beaded vest he once unearthed that now hangs in Ralph Lauren’s personal closet. Eaton may be the best-kept secret in the fashion industry, and now his name is being whispered around Hollywood too. He has outfitted actors on Boardwalk Empire and in films including On the Road. When the costume designer for the upcoming Batman vs. Superman blockbuster needed the perfect World War II–era collared wool coat with a 48-inch chest, guess who got the call.
Vintage denim is big business. In 2008 a pair of Levi’s 201 jeans from 1890 sold to a collector on eBay for $36,000. In 2001 the auction house Butterfield, in partnership with eBay and the History Channel, sold a pair of turn-of-the-century Levi’s (discovered in a mining town in Nevada) to a representative from Levi Strauss & Co. for $46,532. Levi’s employs its own full-time archivist, who, in 2011, purchased what the company believes is the world’s oldest riveted denim jacket—a piece from the 1880s discovered in a southern California ghost town. Eaton’s stash fills a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Durango, Colorado, and his customers are a diverse group. A particularly ardent collector from Japan makes twice-yearly pilgrimages to Durango to wade through Indiana Jeans’s warehoused “archives.” Eaton has sold several pieces to the venerable denim house himself, proud of the absurdity of the situation. “I was selling Levi’s to Levi’s. I’m like the guy who could sell ice cream to an Eskimo,” he says.
Eaton, 45, may be looking for old shit, but he’s a very modern man. Not to get too philosophical, but we live in the Duck Dynasty era, in which any authentic subculture is rebranded for Hollywood producers to plunder. Meanwhile, at any given moment, fanatics of all kinds seek like-minded souls on the internet. As a culture we used to laugh about Japanese teenagers obsessed with Pokémon cards and whatever else Japanese teenagers fetishize. But look at us: Whether it’s craft cocktails, fantasy football or Bronies, we’re all Japanese teenagers about something. At least Eaton has found a way to capitalize on his obsessions.
Eaton claims to average $5,000 a day in “picking,” but he hasn’t come close to that today—and motherfucker is getting antsy. We’re hundreds of miles from Wyoming, our ultimate destination, chasing our tails. Earlier in the trip a bearded 50-something man we’d met by chance led us to a quiet field with zero cell-phone reception, a place so far removed from civilization I suspected he might want to kill us. It was cold as shit when he zipped his Carhartt jacket and pointed into the distance. “There might be something in that barn,” he muttered. Yeah, I thought, dead bodies.
There was no denim inside the barn. There was nothing, really, except two dozen cats perched atop $100,000 in farming equipment. The smell was corporeal. It tasted like ammonia simmered down to a demi-glace, and it seeped into my pores. We rode in silence to the casino, where Eaton, who suffers from a gluten allergy, struggled to find something to eat. “Are the taco shells made of corn?” he asked the woman behind the counter. She blinked twice but didn’t say anything.
The plan was simple, or so it had seemed: Indiana Jeans would pick me up from the airport in Rapid City, South Dakota for a four-day “denim safari.” He’s hoping to find the perfect jacket for Superman, but there’s no shopping list. Nor is there an itinerary, save for a vague appointment in Wyoming with a couple of aging hoarders Eaton met a year ago; he spent $350 at their house in 30 minutes before they had to get back to work. Eaton suspects the real treasure is still buried in their basement. He opens his journal and reads the note he wrote about his visit: “It says, ‘Brit, get your ass back there as soon as you can.’ ”
We’re traveling with his buddy Kyle Bitters, a 55-year-old retired air traffic controller who looks like Keith Carradine and sometimes models for a Japanese denim company. I’ve joined their safari midtour, and though I’m a stranger in a really strange land they treat me like an old friend. An hour after touchdown we’re seated at the Belle Starr Gentlemen’s Club, watching a woman with a tattoo that reads BEAUTIFUL DISASTER undress to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Eaton was reluctant to go to a strip club with a journalist; the last thing he wants is for his wife and parents to read this article and think his monthly expeditions aren’t aboveboard. But Bitters insisted, so Eaton lays out the ground rules for me. “You have to say, ‘Brit was reluctant,’ ” he says. For the record, he was reluctant. He also reluctantly got a lap dance from a Sioux woman (at least Eaton thinks she was Sioux; maybe she was Dakota) named Dawn. “Like everyone’s favorite dish soap,” she says later, smoking a cigarette outside.
We’re on the road by nine the next morning. And Eaton—dressed in beat-up, shapeless jeans, a torn T-shirt and a yellow trucker hat—drives happily along, looking for abandoned farmhouses while telling stories that meander like these very back roads. He was raised in Princeton, New Jersey, he tells me, and he’s been entrepreneurial from the start. As a kid he had a lemonade stand that he forced his brother and sister to run while he went out in search of clients. In a later phone conversation, his father, who worked for Merrill Lynch before starting his own investment firm, recalls his son’s exploits with obvious pride. “When Brit went off to college,” he says, “we found a note he wrote to his brother. It said, ‘Steven, don’t forget to water the marijuana plant.’ ” Brit was growing weed on Princeton University property that butted up against his family’s land. This kid was never going to have an office job.
In the early 1990s Eaton made some cash exporting Harley-Davidson motorcycles to the Netherlands. He drove a cab in Wisconsin. He worked on a commercial fishing boat until he pissed off the captain, who locked him in his cabin until they reached port. He got involved in a pyramid scheme in Florida, selling water filters and environmental products through a company called Equinox, which left him $50,000 in debt. Life wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. “I’d made a conscious effort to get rich on the East Coast,” Eaton says. “I failed miserably.” He left Florida and headed west on what he calls a pilgrimage. He settled in Durango, Colorado because, he says, his car broke down there.
Where others saw coincidence, Eaton saw opportunity. He acquired a bale of Levi’s from an acquaintance for $1,000 and started selling the jeans at flea markets, including the one at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. He watched others in the vintage game rabidly picking through piles of denim for rare pieces, and he started to wise up. What got his blood pumping—besides the cash—was the history of Levi’s, which in a way is the history of the American worker. Suspender buttons started to disappear from denim in the early 1920s when ranchers stopped needing them. Copper rivets in the crotch disappeared in the 1940s due to wartime rationing. There are also stylistic clues to decipher the denim’s age. Levi’s jeans produced before 1971 have a capital E on the red tab; in the trade, these are known as “Big E’s” and are more valuable than later styles. A “Double X” refers to a Big E with a rivet. Some of the best finds are “buckle backs,” pre–World War II denim with cinching across the back waist.
Part of Eaton’s appeal is his personality. He opened a vintage store, Carpe Denim, in Durango in 1997; when an employee from the Gap admired the jeans Eaton was wearing, he took them off and sold them to her for $250. He also seems to have a knack for finding valuable merchandise. He tells me about a church sale where he found a pair of rare Lee Cowboy jeans from the 1940s. He paid 10 cents (“It was dime day!”) and later sold them for $750. He once discovered $50,000 worth of vintage Levi’s jeans in an abandoned train depot in Nevada. He sold a pair of circa-1900 Levi’s he’d found in a mine shaft to a Japanese collector for $12,500. (Lynn Downey, a retired archivist for Levi’s, explained the Japanese obsession with Levi’s to The New York Times. It began in the mid-1980s, she said, with men who’d grown up in occupied Japan after World War II, watching American soldiers who wore Levi’s and carried Zippo lighters.) Eaton went all-in on the vintage game, so much so that he got a vanity license plate: BUKLBAK.
But eBay put a dent in his plans. Suddenly anyone with an internet connection could find out what the crap in their attic was worth. He imitates some customers, screeching, “I’m not an idiot. I looked these up on eBay.” When he could no longer find the good shit at Goodwill, he had to get creative. He had to go on the road. His skill—and it’s definitely a skill—is going into places no one else would dare risk entering, from run-down buildings to hoarders’ pigpens, to find truly one-of-a-kind pieces.
Blaine Halvorson, who started a line of high-end denim and menswear called MadeWorn in L.A., travels to Durango twice a year to pick through Carpe Denim’s stock. Although he half-jokingly suggests one get a tetanus shot before entering Eaton’s untidy warehouse, Halvorson estimates he drops more than $15,000 each trip, buying gems such as vintage chaps that he uses to make bespoke shoes for A-list clients including Brad Pitt and Elton John. A pair of rust-stained Levi’s 501 Double Xs that he bought from Eaton for $1,000 inspired a design in his latest collection. “I don’t have any interest in a $30,000 pair of Levi’s that’s been laundered and cleaned,” Halvorson says. “Brit’s finds still have the toxic Egyptian dust on them. Smack those things once and you’ve probably got cancer. That’s the beauty of them.”
Eaton’s job does have some occupational hazards. “Have I come close to dying?” he says. “Fucking absolutely. I pepper-sprayed my balls one time with bear repellent. It’s like pepper spray on PCP. I was in an abandoned mining building. I thought I was going to die; suddenly I’m in mortal agony in the lower regions. I dangled my sack and cock in a puddle of water for 10 minutes. That didn’t work. I jumped in the car naked, drove to a mountain stream half a mile away, where I knew the water would be freezing.” He pauses for emphasis. “I thought about cutting my cock off. I’m not kidding.”
This is a crazy way to make a living. It is also a lot of fun. We’ve been driving for an hour on our second morning when Eaton spots a possible score on the side of the road and pulls over. He stares at the house through his binoculars, announcing, “I’m gonna go pull some valuable old jeans out of there.” I don’t see how this is possible; from where I sit, the roof looks entirely caved in. But I’m game. We put on heavy gloves, climb over a low barbed-wire fence and push through the house’s rotted-out front door. The stairway to the second floor looks rickety at best, and there appear to be more floorboards missing than in place. When I hesitate, Eaton shames me—as though we’re kids on a school playground—so I reluctantly follow him upstairs. I step on the remains of a dead cat and scream, but Eaton steps in shit: Underneath a dank old mattress in what must have been a child’s bedroom he finds a pair of Big E pre-1970s Levi’s worth at least $500. “In this condition,” he says, “I have a Japanese collector who might want it as an art piece.���
“High five!” he says, imitating Borat.
Twenty miles later we pull unannounced into a ranch; inside the barn, a 30-something cowboy has just delivered two baby lambs, which stand before him knock-kneed, shivering and wet. One is so small the cowboy feeds it with a medicine dropper. Somehow he doesn’t seem surprised to find three strangers standing in his doorway, asking about denim.
“I work with movies and fashion designers,” Eaton says, giving the rancher his standard opening spiel. “I buy old clothing. Can we take a look in one of these old buildings, see if there’s a jacket on the wall or something?” The dude hesitates, but Bitters offers him a can of Natural Light beer—then three more—and he agrees to show us around the property’s outbuildings.
Eaton is a machine. And tireless. He borrows a ladder and climbs into an attic, emerging with a newspaper from 1915 and half an old denim jacket. He yanks more old denim out of a wall (the material was used as insulation—and still is) but nothing of value. Eventually he spots an oversize Harley-Davidson sign that looks like it should be hanging in a Double RL store in SoHo or in Zooey Deschanel’s loft on New Girl.
“Would you sell that sign?” Eaton asks.
“Hell yes!” the rancher says without skipping a beat. “It’s aluminum. It’s worth 75 cents a pound.”
Eaton is confused. “I don’t want to buy it by the pound. I’ll give you some cash,” he says, offering him $40.
As Eaton pulls out his wallet we spot a Shetland pony taking a dump a few feet away. The rancher tells us, “Shetlands are ornery cocksuckers.”
This is pretty much how the rest of the day goes, which is to say amusing but ultimately disappointing. Eaton drives a few miles, spots a house that looks like a winner, chats up some strangers and leaves with little more than his dick in his hand. “We haven’t found the epic thing that’s going to define the trip yet,” he says, and it sounds like a challenge. At least the people we meet are friendly, even the family with the aggressive sign informing trespassers WE DON’T CALL 911.
These are long days. And we have a lot of time to talk. During the four-day trip, Eaton holds forth on topics as far-ranging as the FDA’s failure to regulate genetically modified food to The Guinness Book of World Records (he once inquired about establishing a record for “being inside the most abandoned buildings” but was denied) to his unusual childhood (he knew the Menendez brothers). He tells stories that are impossible to confirm, often about his own prowess. He claims he can close his eyes, run his hand along a rack of leather jackets and pick out the most valuable item. He takes issue with the costumes in Brokeback Mountain, which he says are wrong. (“It’s supposed to be taking place in the 1950s and 1960s, and they’re wearing 1990s jeans, man.”) Late one night he tells me about a peculiar Japanese fetish called dick hige (pronounced HEE-gay), which apparently describes a pair of denim jeans worn by a well-endowed cowboy whose penis has left a particular fading in the crotch, the way a can of chewing tobacco might leave an imprint on a back pocket. I express extreme doubt over the existence of dick hige, but Eaton insists it’s real. “Certain Japanese collectors love this kind of striping around wherever the fucking dude’s dick was,” he says.
Later, he tells me about an odd pair of pin-striped jeans he rescued from a mining shaft; he says they came from a time when men had to go right from working the fields to a night on the town. This seems absurd to me, but maybe it’s true. He sold the pin-striped pair to an Italian company called BlueBlanket, which now sells very similar pants.
“So they knocked them off?” I ask. “That’s what your customers do?” This makes Eaton apoplectic. “A knockoff implies taking someone else’s idea and copying it,” he says. “It’s not someone else’s idea. It’s your idea based on the vision of what you’re seeing.” He looks down at my digital recorder. “Are you recording this?”
“Good,” he says and laughs. “That was some good stuff.”
Eaton is prone to grandiose self-pronouncements like this one. The fact that he bears a striking resemblance to Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold on Entourage only drives the point home further. He tells me he recently purchased a mining claim in Nevada and that he pulled $100,000 worth of clothing from the ground in a single day. Eaton often talks as if there’s a camera recording his every word—perhaps because there once was. In 2012 Eaton starred on a short-lived reality show on the Discovery Channel called Ghost Town Gold in which he scoured the West for antiquities.
His business relies on buying clothing from people and selling it for a lot more money than he paid. I ask if he ever feels as though he’s cheating these people. He corrects me: He’s doing them a service. Actually, he implies he’s doing God’s work. About 10 years ago, he says, “I knocked on this old lady’s door. I bought maybe $250 worth of stuff from her. She was practically crying at the end. She said, ‘Before you came this morning I was praying to the Lord that some money would come my way, because my power was just turned off. And here you came!’ ” He thinks on this. “That flipped everything on its head. I realized, I’m not here for me. I’m here for them. I’m gonna buy shit they don’t even know they have, and I’m gonna pay them well for it. And they’ll think, That guy is fucking crazy. What an awesome guy.”
We’re going on 48 hours together when Eaton says, “I’m without a doubt a person you either love or hate.” Or want to avoid. By the time we get to the casino café, morale is so low I’m afraid to make eye contact with Eaton. Even he is forced to admit, “Today fucking sucked.”
It’s the final day of our safari. We’ve seen a lot of cats but no big game. Eaton is hanging his hopes on the hoarders in Wyoming, but he’s starting to fade. The drive-through Mexican food doesn’t help.
As we drive on toward Wyoming—our last great hope—I start to wonder about Eaton’s business. He has 10,000 square feet in Durango, and it sounds like a mess. “There’s stuff I bought 10 years ago that’s still in bags I haven’t processed,” Eaton confirms. Some of his boxes are labeled, but it’s not exactly the Smithsonian. “That doesn’t mean one box is labeled SUPERMAN JACKET, SIZE 48,” he says. Rather than head out on the road, I wonder, why not organize the archives and see what treasures are there? Eaton is married, with two young kids at home. In a rare moment of quiet, he tells me, “The best word in the entire English language is daddy.” So why go on these trips? He doesn’t hesitate. “There’s gold in them thar hills,” he says.
Finally it dawns on me what this whole story is all about. Of course expensive heritage denim and Americana—as branding concepts—have always been about capturing the thrill of the old West and what it once meant to be a man. Sure, Eaton could use a business manager. He has since closed the retail arm of his operation and is in the process of converting some of his warehouse space into high-end condos. But denim hunting has never been about getting rich. It’s about the road and the thrill of the chase. Eaton is part of a great American tradition. Go west in covered wagons—or in this case, a Toyota Tundra four-by-four.
Jacqueline Cameron, a denim-industry veteran who has designed for Calvin Klein and Madewell and now runs her own label called AYR, has been buying inspiration from Eaton for years. She puts a fine point on the appeal of his wares. “I don’t want to buy a pair of denim because it’s a buckle-back single pocket from this time period,” she says. “I like to hear the story. That it has sun fading because it was used as insulation in the rafters of an old barn. What I’m more interested in, particularly at this point in my career, is starting from an authentic place. Anyone who has broken in a pair of jeans for five years? Their life is imprinted there.”
While obsessing about Eaton’s return on investment and his bona fides, I’m missing the real narrative. I start to think back on the people we met, like the retiree from a utility company who was watching a live steer auction on TV when we pulled into his driveway. He’d survived throat cancer, and a handkerchief around his neck covered a voice box. When Eaton explained I was a writer for Playboy, making the classic joke about reading the magazine for the articles, the old-timer casually pressed his hand to his voice box and muttered, “I read it for the pictures.” Eaton let out the biggest belly laugh I’d heard in days.
I think about the contractor we met in Wyoming who doesn’t wear a cowboy hat but told us emphatically, “I grew up on a ranch, and I’m a thousand times the cowboy any of these men are.” I think about the rancher we met who accidentally shot himself in the foot on Christmas years ago and wouldn’t part with the chaps he’d broken in all his life. When you walk into a Double RL store and pay $3,000 for a pair of high-end jeans splattered with paint and worn in by a cowboy, this is the feeling you’re supposed to get. But, man, let me tell you, the real thing is so much better.
We finally arrive at the hoarders’ house in Wyoming, a mess of run-down buildings beneath a cartoonishly blue sky. The basement is like something out of The Blair Witch Project Garbage is piled to the ceiling; an industrial freezer is packed with animal antibiotics and Swanson frozen dinners. Empty cans of cat food are strewn about; there must be a dozen cats roaming the joint.
Eaton tries to lighten the mood, saying, “You want to sell a couple cats?”
“Not these cats,” one of the hoarders says, missing the joke.
Undeterred, Eaton gets busy. Perhaps he is doing God’s work, because very quickly he finds a pair of buckle-back jeans from the 1940s. Then another. Then another. He’s found five in all—a $20,000 score, minimum. He also uncovers an odd pair of patchwork pants, which he’ll sell a week later to a designer from Ralph Lauren. The blood rushes back to Eaton’s head. “It’s fucking denim fucking city!” he shouts, declaring this one of the top 10 scores of his life. He’s a pig in shit.
When the sun sets we head into town for karaoke night at the local bar, a celebratory end to our trip. There are dollar beers and cheap steaks and men in 10-gallon hats and oversize belt buckles. Eaton is freshly showered and in great spirits. He strikes up a conversation with a dude who looks like Michael Chiklis and who’s heard some gossip about Eaton’s arrival in town.
“Is that your truck outside?” he asks.
The Chiklis look-alike inquires about the orange and black Harley-Davidson sign in the back.
“You can have it for 100 bucks,” Eaton says, sounding like Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross as reimagined by Larry McMurtry. Always be closing, yee haw! Without thinking twice, Chiklis whips out a $100 bill and grabs the sign.
There’s something thrilling about this scene but also something wistful. This stank-filled bar, with its green carpet and jukebox, feels like the last authentic place on earth. There’s not a chain restaurant for miles. The closest movie theater is more than an hour away, one of the patrons tells me. But these towns are disappearing for a million reasons. Perhaps we’re all clinging to words like heritage and Americana—and even shelling out cash for jeans excavated from mines—because we sense the end of an era. When all the old denim is gone, does the dream of the wild, wild West and the frontier die with it? What happens when there are no farmhouses left for Eaton to explore?
I think about this idea for a second, but only a second. Eaton jumps up on the bar like this is a made-for-TV movie and shouts, “The next round is on me! I love this town!”