SCOUT OUT: A Tradition in Clothing at The Garment District

Photos by Meryl Tochen

Looking at the unassuming three-story brick building at 200 Broadway near Kendall Square, you would never think that this aging structure is home to the biggest thrift and vintage store in the Boston metro area. The building, now accented by painted pink stripes, was originally built in 1890 as a soap factory. The space moved into the textile game shortly after World War II, recycling and repurposing used clothing into base fabrics for wiping cloths and rags used in industrial settings such as auto shops, as well as fodder for stuffing futons.When manufacturing moved out of the Kendall Square area in the 1980s (a result of expanding education and tech industries), the textile business was sold, and the now iconic Garment District came into existence in 1986.

The idea was to complement early retail activities by selling clothing by the pound.“Originally ‘dollar a pound,’ or what we now call ‘by the pound,’ as it’s now $1.50 a pound, started in 1979,” says Chris Cassel, who started working in the store in 1990. Cassel soon rose to general manager and is now the company president. “This has been a continually evolving business. Clothing got cut up for rags here. If you’re an auto repairman or in manufacturing, you’d want something to wipe your hands with, and they used to be made here.

One of the things that’s impressive is that this building has been used for recycling clothes for all this time.”Recycling clothing is nothing new, as there is steady money in the practice. While the recycling of materials no longer goes on at 200 Broadway, items are now sold to modern day clothing mills, keeping the company’s tradition alive. “We’re part of the chain,” Cassel says. “Starting in 1990 the actual cutting stopped here [due to cost]. The company has evolved from the previous companies that have been here.” The Garment District’s unsold clothing items are still ground up for base fabrics – cotton can be continuously recycled and polyester can be melted down and repurposed. The only materials that cannot be easily recycled, Cassel says, are leather and fur due to their one-use nature.

As for the clothing that doesn’t make it to the mill: pounds upon pounds of it are still “recycled” on site through consignment and resale to the public. The third floor, restricted to employees only, is truly a sight to behold. A labyrinth of carts, racks and piles of items are sorted by category (e.g., vintage suit jackets, sundresses and ugly Christmas sweaters) that wait for their season to shine. While Halloween is obviously a busy time for the Garment District, it is by no means the shop’s only surge in business. Holiday sweaters have gained popularity over recent years, and the store also deals big in themed parties and costumed running events.

Everything comes back into style slightly differently,” Cassel remarks, “and The Garment District provides the real stuff. By dealing in unique, one-of-a-kind, and unusual pieces in large volume we’re able to keep our prices down for the public.”

Those who haven’t been to the Garment District might still recognize the cartoon cat seen on the store’s signage – an homage to Rags, a pet cat from when the store originally opened. According to Cassel, Rags used to sit on the counter at the entrance to the store and greet people as they came in. The store even has a costume of Rags that people can, and often do, rent. The costume, like the Garment District itself, keeps a little bit of the past right here in the now.