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Throwback Thrifty: Instagram Account Joe Pa’s Closet And The Penn State Vintage Craze

Leaning back in his chair in the basement of Irving’s, Penn State senior Zac Cowell stands out from the crowd of hoodies and t-shirts hunched over wooden tables in the dimly-lit room. Dressed in faded cuffed jeans and a clearly-vintage Tommy Hilfiger sweater, Cowell looks like he just walked off a runway circa 1990. 

Cowell’s had a long day already after waking up at 6 a.m. and driving around in his car looking for garage sales in and around State College. If you were to go back to his apartment, you would find dozens of pieces of vintage Penn State clothing in boxes on his floor and under his bed. Over the summer, if you were to stop by his girlfriend’s house, the same scene would greet you: dozens of packages addressed to Zac Cowell, all containing various pieces of Penn State shirts, jackets, and hats that haven’t hung on store racks for at least twenty years.

“I started out being into high fashion. When I was in eighth grade I was wearing Louis Vuitton and Supreme,” Cowell said, laughing at himself. “But then I literally ran out of money. I would be on Supreme trying to buy stuff, and my card would get declined. I was in debt in like tenth grade.”

Times have certainly changed for Cowell, whose vintage Penn State Instagram account, Joe Pa’s Closet, has garnered more than 7,500 followers since its creation last January. As an environmental resource management major who wants to work with water quality for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after graduation, running and managing a one-man clothing account is a hobby.

These days, Cowell posts new vintage items for sale at least two to three times per day, along with exclusive offers on a private Instagram stories for frequent customers. He said he receives about 100 direct messages every day, ranging from questions about his inventory to high school seniors asking for advice on their Penn State college applications.

“Oh yeah, I get some weird DMs,” Cowell said. “Some will be like, ‘I’m gonna come to Penn State. Do you think I’ll get in with my GPA?’”

Even though his account seems to run smoothly to outsiders, there’s a lot of work that goes into keeping customers happy. Before he had a car on campus, Cowell used to walk to the State College Goodwill almost daily looking for pieces that fit his page’s taste. As his business grew, Cowell had to become more creative to keep up with the demand. He’s enlisted the help of a friend who lives near Pittsburgh, who will send him pictures of the things he finds. He also looks online and in flea markets for other pieces. 

“I did a giveaway this summer. Eight-hundred people entered, and I got 1,400 new followers,” Cowell said. “And I was just like, ‘This is crazy,’ because in my first-ever giveaway, I only got around 20 people to enter.”

Joe Pa’s Closet came to prominence last summer, and it caught the attention of other big names on campus. Barstool Sports’ Penn State account reached out to him on Instagram for a collaboration, offering him a chance to do giveaways on their page whenever he wanted, and when the semester began, local film student and aspiring photographer and videographer John Scarpelli approached Cowell about being featured in a short documentary.

Cowell’s success continued when Doggie’s Pub agreed to let him set up a pop-up store inside the bar, which he has been able to pull off twice now despite potential under-21 customers not being allowed to attend. 

“That’s definitely something I need to figure out,” Cowell admitted. “A lot of people that follow me have wanted to come but just couldn’t [because they were underage]. But to still have that many people come out when I’ve excluded basically 75% of my followers, I’m just so thankful for everything. But I’ve been working on finding something that everyone can come to.”

As the most-followed vintage Instagram account at Penn State, Joe Pa’s Closet has definitely ignited a craze for vintage Penn State clothing that has led to the rise of other, competing accounts. But when Cowell graduates in May, what will become of Joe Pa’s Closet?

“The problem is there’s been similar things here before, but everybody leaves, so immediately after they leave, it just all fades away,” Cowell explained.

Penn State doesn’t currently have a club for vintage clothing collection or shopping, but if the number of likes and comments on Cowell’s posts are any indication, there’s definitely room for one in the future.

“I really want to make a vintage community here, like a club, before I leave,” he said. “There are so many people interested in this stuff.”

At the time of writing, Joe Pa’s Closet had just reached its 300th post and boasts more than 7,000 followers.

And Zac, if you’re reading this, let me know if you come across a ’94 Rose Bowl crewneck.

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About the Author

Katie Moats

Katie Moats is a senior majoring in English, and her goal this year is to get a big girl job. Seriously, though, if you're looking for someone who can write and edit like nobody's business, she's Katelyn Moats on LinkedIn and will literally interview with you tomorrow. You can follow her @k_moats24 on Twitter for stupid content, but if it's something serious, feel free to shoot her an email (preferably in the form of a poem) to [email protected].

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