With their shop still just a few years old, the three-man team behind the National Vintage League (NVL) have quickly gone from run-of-the-mill NFL fans to running one of the leading vintage sports merchandise suppliers in the country. We headed over to NVL HQ in Peckham to meet the men behind the memes, and learn a bit more about their shop, their story and their success.
After arriving at Peckham Rye station I follow my GPS for 5 minutes before awkwardly peering into a quiet lot of industrial sheds. On the verge of giving up hope, I hear a voice loudly calling my name from the furthest building. I arrive to find Hugh, Chris and Willie expecting me; the three vintage-loving, Starter jacket-sporting gentlemen that run National Vintage League.
“We’re not a massive company, it’s just three dudes who love this stuff.”
We head into their warehouse and after some COVID-cautionary procedures and sanitisation, I am led into the Mecca of vintage American sportswear. As Hugh describes it, this “hive of NFL vintage” sends you back in time as you stand in awe at the bursts of colourful popular culture covering every wall. From a Madden 1994 video game case to a replica of the “Geller Cup” from FRIENDS, this space plays perfect host to racks upon racks of vintage NFL jerseys. The wall also proudly displays a collection of jerseys from the World League of American Football, as Chris points out that they are only missing that of the Barcelona Dragons. The quirky hybrid of America and Europe, the ‘90s and present-day, embodies everything NVL is about and while it certainly feels like fun and games, you know these guys mean business.
📸Picture Day— National Vintage League (@NVLTweets) September 12, 2020
⚡️Always dropping fresh 1990s stock, straight from the attics and garages of the UK to your doorstep.
*yes, we clean and steam them first.
With introductions over, I take the time to set up our interview and the three employees immediately get back to their workstations with a vintage hip-hop soundtrack filling the air. Whether they are processing orders, sorting and steaming new stock or brainstorming ideas, Hugh, Chris and Willie strike an impressive balance of a laid-back yet efficient workspace. While they may be putting in the hard hours, Hugh insists that the warehouse is more of a clubhouse; “we invite people down to this space that isn’t ours, it’s everyone’s.”
After the interview, I’m given free rein around the warehouse as the guys once again get back to work. Exploring the “Bunkler” or “hole room” reveals a scene familiar to early fans of the shop who may have tuned in to the “Live Steams” during which Hugh and Chris would happily discuss sports trivia while preparing the latest additions to their store. It’s impressive to think that the whole enterprise grew out of this room, now a whole warehouse, website and even pop up shops at the International Series matches at Wembley. The guys fondly reminisce over their tailgate parties and you can feel real pride and appreciation in how they talk about the community they have developed.
“Just having a great time with some people who love the stuff you love.”
Hugh reflecting on their International Series pop-up shops
These values of community, and above all sustainability, are crucial to NVL’s entire vintage venture. Be it in their biodegradable packaging, carbon offsetting or simply their recycling of all of this merchandise, Hugh and Chris speak passionately about their efforts to make or at least encourage a real change in the industry’s relationship with the environment. Most notable perhaps is their Twitter engagement last year with former NFL linebacker Carl Banks, who is currently reviving the Starter brand which once produced revered NFL jackets. Pulling the CEO up on his use of unsustainable materials ultimately led to little more than a social media spat, but it did allow the team to express a sentiment truly important to them. As Chris describes in our interview, sustainability “has got to be a tenet of every new company…we can’t do it all but everyone can do a little bit.”
Another of the company’s core values is straightforwardly its commitment to the community. The shop’s Youtube channel, which undoubtedly deserves more attention than it receives, is Hugh’s brainchild and gives the team a chance to engage with their viewers, customers and fans while enjoying everything football, and everything vintage. The team display their genuine passion for the sport and culture at every step, with Willie now creating a new Instagram account devoted to historic titbits of NFL knowledge @NVLHistory. This passion is clearly something shared by millions throughout the US and the world, and National Vintage League has done a fantastic job at building upon that passion and ensuring that it will live on even longer than the recycled polyester jackets they offer on their site.
“Props to everyone that has followed us to this point because we wouldn’t be able to do anything of this without them.”
Chris on the NVL community
And while these guys have come a long way, they are of course still just NFL fans at heart. Like all supporters, their attention turns towards Sunday, with Hugh lamenting at his fandom of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, albeit with a hint of hope that this season may offer more than the last. I am invited to join the team for a game on their Nintendo 64, a console which has become something of a centrepiece for the office hosting competition between employees, customers and rogue visitors from other warehouses in the lot. As I ask Chris and Hugh what their favourite game is, they reply, “MicroMachines” in unison before loudly evangelising the game and its intricacies to me.
“It has not been plain sailing, more like a little dinghy getting rocked back and forth by covid.”
Hugh on the company’s experience during the pandemic
Times certainly haven’t been easy for NVL, especially during the pandemic, but they find the time to enjoy every moment they can. Hugh is coy when pressed about what we can expect coming up from the company, but he assures me that “if there’s one thing you can always count on, it’s National Vintage League pumping out another thing.” Ultimately the team never lose sight of their goal, and they exude the passion and enthusiasm that comes across so clearly on their social media. For Chris, “it’s about nostalgia, it’s about connecting with your past” and in his role he can embrace that every day while offering the same experience to everyone the company interacts with. And for Hugh, it couldn’t be simpler: “Selling and reuniting people with statement pieces they love; there’s no better feeling.”