Where Hip Vintage in NYC Got its Start: Limbo on St. Marks Place
Limbo, the renowned vintage clothing shop on St. Marks Place in the East Village during the late 1960s and early 1970s, was started by Martin (Marty) Freedman in 1965. It was first located at 24 St. Mark’s Place, and by 1967, made its home at 4 St. Mark’s Place. This second-hand shop, initially appealing to hippies, rebellious teens, and young adults, would elevate vintage to an unprecedented level of coolness, and Limbo became not just the place to shop, but the place to be. Clientele included Janis Joplin, JImi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol, Baby Jane Holzer, Nico, Viva, and Edie Sedgewick. The clothier frequently outfitted musicians playing at the nearby Filmore East, and was regularly featured in New York newspapers and national fashion magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue. Fashion designers Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger also frequented the shop and were influenced and inspired by it and its merchandise. Apparently even designers from Paris would make trips to the famous clothier.
Prior to moving to the East Village, Marty Freedman had a shop in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. That shop did not enjoy the success Freedman hopes for, and he began to look for a new location. He tells the story in Ada Calhoun’s a New York Magazine piece “The Birthplace of American Vintage” that he was partying in the East Village at the Dom, when he saw a tenant getting evicted from 24 St. Mark’s Place, a 1903 New Law tenement. As any savy New Yorker would do, he quickly found the super and signed a lease for the first floor of the building.
Stock for the new (old) clothing store came from large warehouses of donated clothing, what Freedman referred to as “carefully selected dead man’s clothing.” Merchandise included army surplus, vintage suits and dresses, as well as original clothing of Indian cottons and silks. Freedman would get Levi 501 jeans from Utah Mormons who eschewed jeans for their children with any signs of wear. Freedman would enlist artists to embellish these used jeans with embroidery and leather scraps, elevating the jeans’ appeal to his clientele (as well as elevating the price). When he would run low on vintage jeans, he would send them out to be washed, making him the first to sell pre-washed or distressed jeans — a trend that continues to be popular to this day.
According to Fred McDarrah’s (former photographer for The Village Voice) son Tim, Andy Warhol would call his father all the time to ask him to take his photo. On December 9, 1966, McDarrah agreed to go shopping with Warhol on St. Mark’s Place. McDarrah’s photo of Warhol in his thrift store military bandleader jacket, purchased at Limbo, ran on the front page of the Village Voice soon after. John Lennon and Yoko Ono were loyal Voice readers. Tim McDarrah says that John once told his father that he showed the cover image of Andy Warhol to his bandmates, who loved the look, and it was this photo that inspired them to choose the band leader outfits for the Sgt. Pepper album in early 1967. Below is the famous photo which is part of the Village Preservation Historic Image Archive, courtesy of the Fred W. McDarrah Estate and it, like others, is available for sale as prints.
By 1967, Limbo had outgrown No. 24 St. Marks Place, and moved west down the block to No. 4, an individual New York City landmark (proposed by Village Preservation, designated in 2004) built in 1831 as a Federal style row house by Thomas E. Davis. As an aside, early in the home’s history, Colonel Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, son and widow of the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, lived here.
Other clothing shops selling both used and new wares would make their homes on St. Marks Place and nearby, further cementing the area’s reputation as the vintage shopping destination in New York City. Plentiful stoops also made it prime people-watching territory. As Charles Fitzgerald, owner of several shops along St. Mark’s in the 1960s, said, “you practically had to reserve space on the steps just to watch the parade of crazily dressed people passing by.”
Limbo was located here until 1975, when it was replaced by another legendary vintage clothing shop, the punk rock outfitter Trash and Vaudeville. Trash & Vaudeville occupied the basement and expanded to the first floor as well. The retailer moved to East 7th Street in 2016.
One response to “Where Hip Vintage in NYC Got its Start: Limbo on St. Marks Place”
I don’t know about the East Village…. but when I was between 14 and 15 in the mid 60’s I worked at Limbo when it was in the 50’s off Lexington Ave. near the tram to Roosevelt island.