Welcome to Style: Willamette Week's new column devoted to the creators, curators and entrepreneurs driving Portland's retail scene, from op-shop hunters to streetwear tastemakers. If you're doing something cool you think we should write about, hit me up at email@example.com.
The central eastside isn't known for its shopping.
Its yawning stretches of faceless warehouses are home to a small handful of devoted restaurateurs and barkeeps and the occasional art space. But that's where you'll find Laundry, a tiny 475-foot boutique devoted to vintage sportswear and '90s pop culture located in the mammoth Portland Storage Company building.
Opened by Phoenix transplant Christopher Yen in May, Laundry is reason enough to venture down to an area better known for its vegetable distributors.
Packed with racks of vintage Trail Blazers jerseys, Starter jackets sporting the logos of every NBA and NFL team across satin—a gold-backed 49ers jacket with red cuffs is my favorite—and T-shirts emblazoned with the scowling, keg-shaped skull of Stone Cold Steve Austin, Laundry has already become a fixture in Portland's thriving streetwear scene. Check Laundry's Instagram page (Laundrypdx), scroll past the pastel pink and blue logo and you'll quickly find the faces of influential Portlanders: rapper Mic Capes, former Nice Kicks editor/current ESPN correspondent Nick DePaula and former Blazer Mason Plumlee (RIP) beaming back at you with their vintage trophies in hand.
Yen's journey to Portland and into the streetwear limelight wasn't easy. He relocated to Portland in 2012, leaving behind a decade-long career in publishing and a lifetime in Arizona, after being squeezed out of an increasingly intolerant city.
"Phoenix was not a very hospitable place," explains Yen. "My family's been in the States since the 1920s, but there was a huge wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. We decided we need to move, and we needed to move far away culturally and politically. Portland was the logical place."
Yen developed an interest in buying and flipping vintage sportswear, along with mid-century modern furniture, in his last years in Phoenix. "I was drawn to Champion brand basketball jerseys from the '90s, which was the era I grew up in, the golden age of basketball as far as a lot of people are concerned," says Yen, a fan of the Phoenix Suns. "I bought some, and I sold some, and I realized that there was a market for this kind of thing. It was just a hobby for me though, and I never considered it would be any kind of profession."
As a fresh arrival in Portland, Yen began flipping his jerseys online from home, primarily through eBay, while starting a mid-mod furniture company called Fort Modern. As his businesses grew, he moved Fort Modern into the Brooklyn Mall antique house for a year, and then into the third floor of Portland Storage.
However, Yen found that most of his revenue was coming in from the sportswear side. In May, space opened up on the ground floor of Portland Storage.
"I thought I'd just do Fort Modern better out of a retail space, but I also wanted to test Laundry in this space," he says. "I started with one garment rack: A 1920s-era garment rack from a German department store. I had one wall of the space with jerseys and vintage T-shirts. From the first day I opened the space, that was the business that got people excited."
"By the beginning of August, I decided to kick the training wheels off," Yen continues. "I took out all of the furniture and shut down Fort Modern. At that time, another picker in town approached me about hosting a '90s basketball jersey pop-up. We did that, and there were two dozen people waiting at the door before we opened…By the end of the pop-up, we were already receiving DMs from an NBA player who ended up visiting the next weekend. It's just been growing almost exponentially each week."
Yen works with three other resellers, creating a treasure trove of vintage sportswear and '90s nostalgia that strikes the rare balances between curation and a generous stocklist. Laundry has even become a resource for Portland's sportwear titans, receiving visits from consultants from Nike, Adidas and Jordan Brand to inspect parts of Yen's collection that could fill gaps in their institutional memories.
Even better, Yen and his compatriots eschew the unfortunate trend of massive markups on hard-to-find vintage. Rarely, you'll find yourself paying more than $40 for a garment in a city where desirable vintage tees can retail close to $100.
"My ambition is to build an environment that spans time, invokes memory, connects people and spreads happiness," says Yen. "Laundry is a reminder that memory is what gives meaning to things. That is something I see here every day."
GO: Laundry, 204 SE Alder St., Open noon- 6 pm, Friday-Sunday. Instagram: Laundrypdx.