Kicking off our monthly 'Community Collections' series, we spend time in Basement community member Indiana Jensen's singular neon sportswear signage sanctuary.
Streetwear and collecting are two sides of the same coin, so it goes without saying that collector culture sits at the very core of The Basement. But beyond the sneaker and Supreme archives, what else do The Basement fam have scurried away?
Launching a new monthly column spotlighting collectors from the community with something special to share, we caught up with Indiana Jensen who has single-handedly curated one of the world’s most impressive private collections of vintage sportswear signage and paraphernalia. Running the gamut of brands from the Swoosh to Reebok (and all the usual suspects in between), his collection goes beyond just signs to include rare finds such as retro sneaker seats, mirrors, and beyond.
Check out some stand out pieces from Indiana’s collection below and our interview where we talk everything from his rarest finds to his plans for an exhibition to the question on everyone’s mind: what’s his electricity bill looking like?
Indiana, first up tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you from, what do you do, and how did you come to be #BasementApproved?
Hey! I’m just a guy from the Midwest United States and people call me Indiana. Right now I work in investments and have been working in the finance industry for a couple of years. Back in the early 2010’s I fell in love with streetwear. I joined The Basement in 2015 but I swear my request to join was pending for a year or two! I had heard about The Basement from other clothing groups I was in. I was interested in what people in Europe were interested in compared to the United States.
So vintage signage? Very niche which is what we love to see, how did you get started collecting?
Growing up my family was in the antique car business. We would travel around looking for old abandoned cars in yards, garages, and barns and buy them up. We would then restore them and sell them at auction. Digging through these old barns we would occasionally come across old advertising pieces. These pieces of advertising really resonated with me. Seeing an advertisement for a car that came out in the 1930’s just blew my mind. As a kid it was difficult for me to imagine people going and buying a brand new 1933 Packard or Auburn from a dealership so it just really caught my attention.
What attracted to you this kind of signage over anything else?
Around 2010 when I was in high school I began to get interested in dressing differently from my peers. I was never a fashionable kid in any sense, I had just worn what my mother had bought for me from the mall. To stick out from everyone I started wearing wacky clothes from thrift shops. Ugly sweaters, “World’s Best Grandma” shirts, really anything that would help me stick out from anyone and would make people laugh. One day I found a Chicago Bulls Starter jacket at a thrift store for like $2 and I remembered them being cool when I was growing up. I looked up the jacket on Ebay and was like “holy shit this sells for like $100 online.” Selling that one jacket turned into a full time vintage clothing business for the next eight years. I drew parallels from the antique car business to the clothing business. It was basically the same thing, just towards a different generations interests. Where our parents and grandparents probably saw their car as their way to stick out from the crowd, this generation uses their shoes and clothes.
Most definitely. Would you say your collector' areas of focus is primarily down to your wider interest in the culture and brands or is it more to do with a love of advertising and branding overall?
That’s a great question. It’s a lot of both. I had a huge interest in both advertising and the culture before I ever realised the two intersected. Looking back I think it’s pretty insane that for so many years I never thought about how my two loves could come together into one great obsession for me. It’s just great to look at what brands did over the years to showcase new product and to stick out from their competitors.
Best guess - how many pieces do you currently have?
To be honest? I’m not sure. Never counted. I believe I have around 40-50 pieces of signage up in my display room, but I still have more that I either haven’t gotten up yet or one that I am still working to repair. Sometimes the pieces I get are damaged or completely destroyed. It can take a lot of work to bring them back to life.
It's cool that you take the time to repair and restore pieces, too. Do you remember the first item you ever bagged?
The very first piece I found was a 1980’s Reebok illuminated sign with the British Flag. I was in college at the time back in 2015 and was visiting a local antique shop. I saw the illuminated sign on the wall and it blew my mind the same way that car advertisements used to blow my mind back in the day. It had never dawned on me to look for clothing advertisements up until then. After paying the $20 for it, I began to think to myself, “If there are Reebok displays there must be advertisements for all the brands I love.” Thus began the never ending search for more and more.
Where do you tend to find stuff? Is it hard work to track stuff down or is it easier than you might think? Do you tend to get shipped or is it pickup only? 'WTB light up signs'?
This stuff is extremely difficult to track down. Most of them were either destroyed or had to be returned to the company by the independent retails stores after the advertising campaign was finished. I really find the stuff in any possible way you can think of. I have driven thousands of miles in search of store displays, but have also just happened to find them when searching for vintage clothes. There’s no greater adrenaline rush than walking into an old store and seeing a sign hanging on the wall that you weren’t expecting to see. I would say that I have gotten half online and half in person. Problem with buying them online is how fragile they are. I wish I kept track of how many neon signs were shipped to me without padding in a cardboard box and came in completely shattered. Some of them I still have in hopes of either repairing or to use the non broken components to repair other displays. A word of advice to anyone who would like to get into collecting signs like me is that there are many fakes. If you go online to try and buy similar store displays, most of what you will see will be counterfeit signs made to look like original store displays or just people manufacturing modern signs that were never actually in any stores. Which is fine if you just want a little Nike neon swoosh to hang up in your room, but it will never hold value or collectibility like an original will.
What about financial investment? Quite an expensive area of collecting to get into, I'm guessing?
When I found my first sign in 2015 I would scour the internet for any displays and I basically bought 99% of them that would show up on eBay. At the time I would get them for incredibly cheap prices. $50 shipped for a Nike neon store display from the 80’s? I’ll take that all day. Nowadays the prices have gone up exponentially. Probably due to the popularisation of shoe culture as well as the fact there are so many resellers about nowadays. Countless times I’ve gone to stores to inquire about buying some signs and instead they take me to the back and give me a bunch for free. That exact situation happened pretty recently. I was out with a friend going to record stores and I happened across a sporting goods store. Inside was an incredible North Face display for the original 1990 Trans Antarctica Expedition jackets. I asked an employee if I could buy it and they flat out said “no.” So I asked another employee and they said they would ask the manager. The manager said “no” too. I told the manager to go back to the manager and offer him $100 for it. That made the manager come out from the back and we struck up a conversation. He told me to follow him and we went down to the basement of the store. Store has been in operation since the 1970’s and they still had a lot of their displays from over the years. He basically told me to take whatever I wanted. Sadly no illuminated signs down there, but I got some cool North Face and Patagonia displays. He told me to come back in a few months with a moving truck so I can take the rest! It’s incredible what can happen if you are persistent, curious, and polite.
Ballpark how much do you reckon you’ve spent? Do the items have much resell value or are you not interested in that side of it?
I am not sure exactly how much I have spent to be honest. Probably a quarter of my collection was either free or less than $20. I never kept track of what I spent as a whole and I don’t really want to know…
I am uninterested in selling anything I have, I am 100% a collector of store signage. However I can say that prices have risen astronomically over the years. With the rising interest in sneakers and fashion more and more people are seeing interest in store displays. Going back I mentioned finding and buying old automobile advertisements when I was a kid growing up. We would sell those signs to car collectors. A car collector wants the original 1950’s Cadillac neon sign to go up in the garage next to his 1959 Cadillac. I saw similarities to shoe collectors. I gambled that as our generation grows up we might not have a garage full of antique cars, but instead a room dedicated to our shoe collection. What better to have in your sneaker room than a 1980’s Nike mirror to look at your Jordan 1’s in? A Nike neon sign lighting up the room? They just go hand in hand. So at this time I am not interested in selling, but I know I can’t keep it all forever. Someday far down the road I will get rid of what I have hoarded. Hopefully to a museum of some sorts that can properly display everything to the public.
What about your electricity bill? Must be a madness...
Ha! For sure this is my most common question. To be honest I do not keep them all lit up very often. A couple times a month I might go hang out in my sign room and turn them all on, but not very often.
Tell us about some of your favourite pieces?
My flashing Nike Jordan display mirror for the Jordan 6 is one of my favourites. When it flashed on you can see Michael Jordan midair with a basketball in hand and when the light flashes off you see your own shoes back in the reflection. I have never seen another one. One of the first signs I was really searching hard for in the beginning was a Starter neon sign that I now proudly display. I have two Nike inflatable rafts that were given as promotional items to employees back from the 1980’s. Another favourite is a Nike swoosh door handles made from solid aluminium that I bought from an ex Nike employee that worked in Beaverton, Oregon. He got them when Nike was remodelling their campus and the construction workers were going to throw them away. I hope to install the door handles in my home soon. I can honestly go on and on about all of the signs I love. I have a story for almost every single piece in my collection.
What's the maddest way you've copped a piece? Any looting abandon malls in middle America?
For crazy stories I have two: they both happened in 2015 just months apart from each other. I was at a flea market and came across a guy selling shoes, nothing cool or interesting. Then I saw him get up from his seat and he was sitting on an original Nike bench that shoe stores had for customer to try their shoes on. I asked if he was selling and he said “No, I need them for my customers to try on shoes.” I said “I’ll give you $20 for it” and he jumped off of that bench so quick and said “sold!” I asked him if he had more and he said he had twenty more of them along with a ton of other displays. I got his number and over a series of a few weeks I tried to make plans with him but he always canceled. Finally I met up with him at an old warehouse in a really bad part of town. As we opened the door he started freaking out, he had been robbed. A lot of his items were missing and he was really upset. I think there were like four benches still there that I ended up buying from him for $20 each along with a few other small things. A couple months later I see a huge illuminated Adidas sign pop up for sale online. Pickup only and about a five hour drive away. I grab couple friends and we drive up to this guy’s house and I buy the sign from him and I asked him where he got it from. He then gave me a phone number to a little old lady who owned a shoe store with her husband that closed in the early 1990’s and they still had all of their old stock. I went to their old store and pulled so many great displays out. It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the building as it had no air conditioning or circulation and we were there in the dead of summer. I dug through the basement with only the light of my phone. The lady sold me everything I found for $10 each. I could barely fit everything into my large truck on my way out. So no looting from me, I have always acquired my pieces ethically ha. Oh, one more crazy story! I was at a flea market and saw a guy that had a huge Nike banner advertising the Air Max 95 hanging on his van. I asked him about it and he said it wasn’t for sale as that was his curtain for when he went pee at the flea market. I offered him like $10 for it and washed it a few times when I got home. Had to get those pesky yellow stains out…
Do you think we’re past a golden age of advertising and branding in the sneaker/sportswear space or do you think we’ve got good days ahead?
I think we are passed the golden age. Brands don’t seem to want to invest the same type of money into in store displays like they used to. It’s much easier to put an empty light box into a store where they can simply slide in a poster each month showing off that months new product. I truly hope one day brands see the soul and spirit of neon signs again. Every time someone comes to see my displays they are mesmerized and I would love to work with brands to make this happen again for them. I have become pretty adept at repairing signs and I hope to learn to blow neon glass one day.
Why are you particularly focused on the 70s-90s era? What is it about that time in particular that makes the pieces worth copping?
To me this is just the era that inspires me most. The music, the fashion, the pop culture. Also the time when sneakers really started to become popular. There are some great displays for brands like Carhartt and Levi’s that go back to the 1930’s and older. I am interested in those as well, but I just haven’t come across those in my travels yet. A lot of those older ones have been collectible for a long time now where as the signs I am into have seemingly only been sought after widely over the past two or three years.
Would you ever consider an exhibition or something like that? Is there a big streetwear/sneaker scene where you live?
I would love to have an exhibition with my signs. In fact, until December of 2021 I had never been able to have my signs all up before. I had them all boxed up in a storage locker until I had a place to put them up. The dream was always to have a exhibition of them in a public place where people could admire them and where I could share some history about them all. It hasn’t happened yet and I fear with Covid it may be a while before I get a chance. In fact boxing them up and transporting them anywhere would be extremely dangerous and time consuming. But for the right event I would make it happen. It’s a shame that they are hung up in my house where no one can see them. As I continue to hang up more of my collection I plan on sharing more images online of them so people can see. I recently moved to a new city and there is not a huge sneaker scene here so an exhibition would have to be in a much larger city than where I live.
Is there an all-time grail piece you don’t have but you’d love to acquire somehow or do you just know what you want when you see it?
I am always on the lookout for displays I don’t have. Sadly at this point it is super difficult to come across something I don’t have yet. There are a couple grails I am looking for. One is a 1987 Nike “Phaser Challenge” store display. It was a laser shooting game that was set up for customers to play inside of Nike retailers. There is also a large illuminated Vans sign from the 1980’s that I have been salivating over for quite some time. If someone reading this has something they don’t see on my walls, please reach out to me!
Got a weird and/or wonderful collection worth talking about? Hit us up at email@example.com and we’ll be in touch. The nicher, the better. Don’t be shy.
- 7 minute read