When 23-year-old Olive Tuffrey spots someone with a jacket that she likes, she doesn’t bother asking where they got it. She’s not interested in heading to a high-street store and picking up a replica. Instead, as is procedure for style gazers her age, she opens Depop on her phone and begins a search. ‘It’s the first place I go,’ she says of the secondhand clothing sale platform – the world’s most eclectic market stall in digital form, with everyone from Megan Thee Stallion and Lily Allen to fashion editors on the app.
‘The beauty of secondhand shopping is that, not only will you find the kind of thing you’re looking for, you’ll find a better version than the one you originally saw, that’s also better for the planet,’ she says. Like many, Tuffrey is troubled by the fact that, in the UK, clothing worth more than £140m ends up in landfill each year.* Yes, she is part of a switched-on generation, but her attitude is becoming typical. In response, the fashion industry – both mainstream retailers and luxury brands – are paying attention, making a bid to harness the potential of the resale market.
Shopping preloved styles has enjoyed a major reinvention, and trawling for designer treasure is fashion’s favourite new sport. A slew of multimillion-pound deals verify that, as luxury group Kering – owner of Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent and more – invested £156m ($216m) in resale platform Vestiaire Collective earlier this year, and luxury brands are racing to work with secondhand sites. Alexander McQueen, Mulberry and Gucci have entered into partnerships with Vestiaire Collective and The RealReal, while Ralph Lauren, Rodarte and Richard Quinn have officially hooked up with Depop. Cast-offs have never been more coveted.
Compounded by a year that not only forced many of us to slow down our spending, but to clean out our cupboards and call it entertainment, the resale market (which was already on the up) has grown at an unprecedented rate. In April 2020, while the virus was shutting businesses worldwide, Vestiaire Collective reported a 33% increase in its site listings. Depop tells a similar story, logging 20 new sign-ups per minute during its busiest period. Other platforms, such as eBay, Vinted and ASOS Marketplace, also brimmed with other people’s unwanteds. You don’t even need to go to a specialist site: niche sellers with extra time on their hands have sold their wares via Instagram. The most successful among them seamlessly tap into customisation and the Gen Z mindset for cleverly repurposed pieces they can make their own. Indeed, it’s the reason that Sami Miró – influencer, model and upcycler to the A-list – has found superstar status, launching her business @samimirovintage due to demand for her unique pieces.
From those looking to trade up on their It bags to vintage hunters who stalk Instagram for wearable treasure (‘Vivienne Westwood is on everyone’s minds right now, and there’s a craving for Gaultier’s elaborate prints,’ says Johnny Valencia, who runs LA-based online emporium Pechuga Vintage), this global swap shop is fashion’s most exciting sector. Fashion search engine Lyst kept track of the booming demand, reporting that searches for ‘vintage fashion’ generated more than 35,000 monthly searches in 2020. Resale has come of age. It’s no longer retail’s alternative universe, it’s the centre of it – worth an estimated £28.8bn ($40 bn).**
‘It is all about the mix at the moment,’ says creative director Jaime Perlman, who founded a whole magazine on the idea that fashion should be deeply personal. In More or Less – the title she launched in 2018 – Perlman works solely with archive pieces to tell stories. ‘For me, a contemporary look is something that has been kept for years mixed with something new – and a really comfortable pair of trainers,’ she says. ‘Fashion has always been a juxtaposition of individuality and conformity. Now, more than ever, clothes should be a celebration of the person wearing them.’
Even in the wider fashion industry, where ‘new’ is still the currency, this idea of an outfit as a concoction of tastes, eras and sensibilities is everything right now. In Gucci’s shows, we find characters who appear to have chosen their outfits in the vintage store of dreams, with everything from band tees to sweeping film-noir-style gowns as references. Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia also casts his lens wide for inspiration, referencing street style for collections that mix new with old, and mundane with extreme glamour.
Our determination to draw from the past resonates with a new generation of designers. In their Wright Le Chapelain collections, duo Imogen Wright and Vincent Le Chapelain reinvent the idea of upcycling with luxurious fabrics foraged from British mills. There’s also a retrospective sensibility in the work of Emma Chopova and Laura Lowena who, with their brand Chopova Lowena, work with forgotten textiles from Bulgaria to create cutting-edge skirts. Both, and more, are far from niche, stocked beside household names on Matchesfashion and Net-a-Porter.
For the Gen Z shoppers and sellers driving this reflective approach to style (most Depop users are under 26,*** while Vestiaire Collective credits younger generations with driving its success), there is the sense that top-to-toe newness is a bit naff. An insatiable desire to own the latest trainers, cars and handbags is considered outmoded. ‘We’re tired of seeing the same people pushing products we don’t need,’ confirms super-seller Valencia, whose online shop went stratospheric when Kourtney Kardashian wore a Vivienne Westwood Gold Label corset from his archive. ‘All the new things we’re being shown already exist. To be new now means to stand out more than ever. Buying vintage 10 years ago meant you were buying undesirable garments; today it’s what everyone wants.’
For stylist Bay Garnett, the original thrifter and one of the first to put secondhand clothes at the centre of high-fashion shoots, there is no doubt that forward-thinking fashion enthusiasts are willing to cultivate unique style. ‘For so long, people were consumed by knowing the very latest in fashion. Now, people want the opposite,’ she says. ‘There’s this whole generation that seems much more comfortable thinking for themselves.’ The high street – best known for churning out trend after trend and gesturing towards sustainable practices without fully committing to them – was late to catch on to this shift in mindset. But over the past 12 months, the penny has dropped. Now several retailers – including those part of the H&M group – are working on plans to engage with the resale sector.
There’s an increasing demand from within the fashion industry to slow down, too. In an open letter last summer, Dries Van Noten called on fellow designers to slam the brakes on the relentless cycle of fashion shows. ‘The current environment presents an opportunity for a fundamental and welcome change that will simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable – and ultimately align more closely with customers’ needs,’ he wrote. Leading by example, he opened a store in LA where customers can shop archive pieces alongside the current line, giving forgotten clothes a second life – or ‘amplifying their magic’, as he puts it: ‘A beautiful thing stays beautiful no matter how old it is.’
This emotional attachment resonates with The Row’s Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are revisiting their most-treasured inspirations by selling archive pieces from brands such as Comme des Garçons and Karl Lagerfeld alongside ready-to-wear lines. British brands – from Christopher Kane to Mother of Pearl – are also adding resales to their offering.
With the obvious benefits of slowing the endless deluge of clothing, shoes, bags, lipsticks, phone cases and sunglasses produced each season (the average designer creates six major collections a year and a whole lot of spinoffs), the celebration of the archive is fascinating. There’s an appetite for nostalgia. ‘People are looking back at fashion they experienced – or, were too young to experience – with a desire to relive it,’ says fashion critic and avid collector Alexander Fury, who is far from alone in sourcing relics from stylish moments gone by.
This reflection is now aligning with a generation that takes a less misty-eyed approach. Influencer Lizzie Hadfield is proof: ‘I’m not sentimental when it comes to clothes,’ says the 27-year-old, whose Instagram account @shotfromthestreet has more than 560,000 followers. ‘I’m always like, What can I sell to afford the next thing I want?’ It’s a one-in, one-out policy, with the piece that’s going paying for the one that’s coming. And, because the resale market is now large enough, it can sustain both the ardent archivist and the novelty-seeker who views their wardrobe as a constantly evolving, revenue-driving entity. Of course, social and environmental responsibility underpin both of these shoppers. For tomorrow’s luxury customers, it is how a brand conducts itself and reacts to cultural issues that matters.
‘The major social injustice issues of 2020 have made people reflect on who they are, how they consume and which businesses have values they believe in,’ says Peter Semple, chief brand officer for Depop. By nurturing a landscape where customers and sellers communicate directly, Depop has emerged as a safe space. ‘As one member put it: “People come for the clothes and stay for the culture,”’ Semple says.
And new niches in resale are being found every day. For those who don’t consider themselves to be ‘digital natives’, there are platforms such as Chillie London, launched by stylists and veteran thrifters Natalie Hartley and Lydia McNeil. ‘We’re trying to break down the barrier for people in our [early forties] age bracket,’ Hartley says of the venture, which was concocted over a rummage through McNeil’s collection of thrifted treasure. ‘We do the hard work, so those short on time can shop secondhand without obstacles.’
Indeed, this is only the beginning of an exciting industry-wide shift. Vestiaire Collective CEO Maximilian Bittner is adamant that the future of fashion hinges on the bucket of gold hiding in our wardrobes. In his vision (which increasingly becomes true), we keep as close a watch on our unworn clothes as we do our bank balance. So the only question is: how much could you have in your cupboards?
*The Waste and Resources Action Programme, 2018. **BCG, 2020. ***Business Of Fashion, 2019.
This article appears in the July 2021 issue.
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