Kerstin Block doesn’t look like your stereotypical multi-million dollar business owner. A petite woman with white spiky hair and colorful, eclectic clothing to match, the Buffalo Exchange co-founder appears strikingly down to earth.
“We never imagined we would come this far,” says Block. “Our goal was to make a living that could provide for ourselves and our two children.”
As the co-founder of a hugely successful company, one that boasts a yearly profit of $72 million, it’s safe to say that Block has achieved the “American dream.” But despite her impressive entrepreneurial status, Block continues to live a quiet life in her Arizona home, where giving back remains her primary driving force.
“We’ve always wanted to have a positive impact on the communities we’re a part of,” says Block. “It’s more important to have a partnership with the local community - after all, we wouldn’t be in business without their support.”
It is this exact ethos upon which Buffalo Exchange was built almost 50 years ago in 1974.
The “new and recycled fashion” store began as a 450 square foot building near the University of Arizona. At the time, Block and husband/co-founder Spencer simply needed to pay the bills and put food on the table for their two children.
“I had been fired from my job at Sam Levitz and I had this idea and my husband said, ‘Let’s try it,’” says Block.
Little did they know that this tiny dream would still be thriving five decades later, now with 50 stores in 19 states. And with a recent societal shift of attention toward “slow” and ethical fashion, the thrift store chain was well ahead of its time.
“I’ve always believed that recycling clothing has an important, positive impact on the environment,” says Block. “There’s no reason that beautiful clothing should end up in landfills and there’s no reason for people to buy so much new clothing when there are so many great pieces available secondhand.”
Block lives out these values with her own wardrobe by keeping things minimal. In fact, she says herself that most of her clothing is eventually traded in at Buffalo Exchange.
“I’m a very practical person,” says Block. “So I actually don’t have that much clothing.”
Block adds that growing up in Sweden was a large contributor to her continued love of thrift stores and secondhand shopping. As a young person, she felt that Swedish street fashion lacked diversity. It wasn’t until her move to the United States that she found the tools to express herself freely through clothing.
“There weren’t really thrift shops or places to find unique clothing [in Sweden] and I wanted to dress differently than other people and express my own personal style,” says Block. “When I got to the US, I discovered thrift shops and I loved secondhand shopping.”
As for the last 46 years of secondhand fashion, Block says that western-inspired wear such as fantastic cowboy boots, pearl snap button ups and vintage Levi’s have stood the test of time. These pieces continue to remain popular among Buffalo Exchange’s clientele. Boots in particular, Block adds, won’t be going out of style anytime soon.
“Boots will always be practical for the cooler months and they're a classic wardrobe staple,” says Block. “They're also continually evolving with new iterations, making boots a continually on-trend item.”
Block has similar hopes for the world of vintage clothing in general. Secondhand shopping continues to gain in popularity among kids and adults alike.
“Instead of shopping fast fashion, you can find more quality pieces for the same price with much less environmental impact,” says Block.
And with that Block encapsulates the core message behind Buffalo Exchange in its entirety-- going against the grain should be celebrated as it can lead to tremendous success and positive change down the line.
“Don’t be afraid to think differently,” says Block. “You won’t get far by doing the same thing that’s always been done.”
What exactly does Kerstin love about boots and western culture? We dove a little deeper. Here's what she had to say:
1) In what ways do you believe western culture has inspired thrifting/vintage clothing or visa versa?
I don't know that Western wear has inspired thrifting in general, but being originally out of Tucson and the Southwest, items like fantastic cowboy boots, pearl snap button-ups and vintage Levi's have always been a favorite in our stores.
2) We've seen a few photos of you and your stores with shelves of different eclectic boots. Tell us about your love for boots?
3) What are your thoughts on boots as the statement piece of an outfit and in general?
Boots with fun prints and bright details make for a great statement piece to build an outfit around, whereas more toned-done options are great because they go with everything.
4) In your opinion, are boots a fashion item that will continue to stand the test of time?
Of course. Boots will always be practical for the cooler months and they're a classic wardrobe staple. They're also continually evolving with new iterations, making boots a continually on-trend item.
5) What is your favorite "cowboy-ism"?
Have you shopped at Buffalo Exchange? Any favorite vintage pieces in your closet? What do YOU love most about vintage fashion? Let us know in the comments below.