Chris Olberding of Gitman Vintage
Starting in on a story about Chris Olberding is like walking into a corn maze and immediately hitting walls on three sides. Lost amid the seven foot stalks, I find myself in this field of dreams as I share a bit about the man who was my mentor for the last year of my twenties.
Longtime readers will recall the night I met Chris. On the introduction of Shea Parton of Apolis, after Chris gave a tour of his showroom, I hustled home and drew up a blog post, sharing it in an e-mail to Chris along with this fateful sentence, penned — no joke — by a coworker:
Shortly thereafter, we met at my old haunt, P.J. Clarke’s, for burgers and beers, and not soon after, Chris was introducing me to his world in ways I’ll never fully appreciate.
Last night, while at dinner with the immensely talented photographer and filmmaker, Duncan Wolfe, Duncan said, “Dude.” as only Duncan can. This definitive, all caps, emboldened, italicized, onomatopoetic, underlined:
In relation to asking Chris for travel tips, Duncan explained, “That guy Chris is advanced. He is well-spoken, well-traveled. He seems to get it in a way I’ve never seen.” I’m paraphrasing, but Duncan saw what all who’ve met Chris saw, someone who has made it his mission to seek out the finest of the finer things, traveling the globe with a trunkful of colorful button downs.
While under Chris’ tutelage, for a little over a year as a traveling salesman, I lived and breathed Gitman. Among the countless trips to their inspiring factory, that odd football fields-long cinder blocked space cut into the basement of a house snug deep in the steep hills of Schuylkill County, I was alone, covering as much ground as the economy rental — and on rare occasions, my mother’s convertible Cabrio — would allow, learning every inch of interstate in a twelve or thirteen state radius of the Midwest (sadly, I only visited the Dakotas twice in my time on the road, once during a heavy snowstorm that blew in from all sides), staring at the wide and sometimes awful array of shell cordovan brogues and loafers pacing the endless yardage of grass green berber carpet that lines the millions of square feet of menswear toggeries throughout the nation, and passing out to SportsCenter in roadside motels in the middle of nowhere.
In my ear on a fairly regular basis, was the voice you hear in Duncan’s lovely video above.
“Maaaax.” or “Max-aaaay.” or some bludgeoning of my last name with any of a number of foreign accents. And what followed was guaranteed nonsensical dialogue to outsiders, but a language with which I became all too familiar during my tenure with Chris: the discussion of an obscure Russian art rock band that we’d both become fond of, some nearly lost to the annals of history rap lyric , a battle of one-upsmanship, quoting William Blake, or William Shakespeare, or William Shatner, and invariably, he say, “where are you again?”
“Go see the pressed glass at the Wichita Art Museum.”
Occasionally, he’d join me in his hometown of Minneapolis, with a simple text. “Meet at The Walker. de Kooning sketches.” And while he’d push me to visit museums or play tennis on grass or read some passage from Milton poolside in Florence, I’d encourage him into a torn booth of a greasy spoon or a beer-battered basement juke joint to see some long-forgotten country singer or some upstart punk-nosed alt-rock kid. It was a good mix, and I’ve never worked harder, nor failed quite as spectacularly as I did that year on the road.
Alas, watching Chris work, typically during trade shows, always with a giddy, nudging, jocular delivery was a master class in performative salesmanship. Talk about Proust and Magritte, Jerry Lewis and Woody Allen with the French. Discuss his love of The Divinyls and karaoke with the Japanese. Talk about cheese and beer and the weather with the Midwesterners. Always quoting some deep track or a passage from his days as comparative literature professor, as well-dressed as he is well-read, Chris is a true character and someone from whom I learned so much. I am indebted to him for the depth of my knowledge. That’s why, when Duncan told me last night that Chris’ video had gone live, I felt compelled to share today. Listen not just to what he says, but listen also to the way he talks. Chris is quick to tell you he’s not a designer, but I would say that what he does verges on art. He saw early and understood, build a following with basics, build a brand with what we called “Crazy Shirts.” On one of my first outings with Chris — some fuddy duddy industry dinner — he handed me a shirt.
“No way. Not unless you wear this.”
We were handing each other leopard print shirts. His was snow leopard. Where everyone else showed up in evening attire and suits, we were in jungle khakis and animal prints. It was a punk move, but it garnered precisely the response he’d hoped for: cheers and jeers. Rather than blend in, Gitman Vintage has always managed to do something outrageous to stand out. It’s a move that’s worked well as the shirts are as popular as ever.
So, as I said, listen to Chris in this video. It’s called “Meet the Maker,” and it was made in conjunction with the good folks at Need Supply.
For more of my experience at the factory, be sure to read this post.
Also, while on that leg of my life as a traveling salesman, I pitched Ian Leach and Matt and Carrie Eddmenson on carrying Chris’ shirts at Imogene + Willie. And finally, four years later, they picked them up. You can read about that story here.
The corn maze known as Chris Olberding is Vice President in charge of Gitman Vintage.