By  on November 20, 2008

PARIS — It’s the country that gave the world the ultimate purveyor of fast fashion in Hennes & Mauritz, but Sweden’s latest retail innovation offers the old rather than the new: a Filippa K store selling only its own secondhand clothing.

The 15-year-old contemporary label, which opens its first U.S. boutique today in San Francisco, has pioneered a 700-square-foot concept selling used easy-to-wear styles for men and women plus accessories on Stockholm’s bustling Hornsgatan Street.

The goal is to reduce garments’ ecological impact later in their life cycle. “Recycling is obviously an effective way to utilize resources, and something we think our customers feel is as important as we do ourselves,” said creative director Filippa Knutsson, who founded the company in 1993.

Thanks to the arrivals of hip boutiques such as London’s Beyond Retro and the success of homegrown names like Chanesse First and Second Hand, used clothing has shrugged off its once musty image in Sweden. “People go bargain hunting in thrift shops — you didn’t see that 10 years ago,” declared Lotta Ahlvar, chief executive officer of the Swedish Fashion Council. Now, she said, buying secondhand is seen both as hip and as doing something for the environment.

Appealing to increasingly green fashionistas is critical if secondhand stores are to survive growing competition from value retailers. While more recent figures aren’t available, sales at charity clothing stores in the U.K., for instance, fell 13 percent in 2006 according to the Co-operative Bank’s Ethical Consumerism Report, which cited competition from budget retailers and Web sites as the likely cause. Faced with falling sales, British charity Oxfam in May introduced a fashionable breed of boutiques selling everything from designer bargains to fair trade labels like People Tree, plus pre-worn items reworked into one-off pieces by young designers.

By uniting its collections under one roof, Filippa K’s store is a testament to the timelessness of its designs, claimed Knutsson. “A Filippa K garment isn’t something that becomes outdated in six months or a year,” she declared. And with new pieces arriving almost daily, some fans pop in once or twice a week to see what’s available.

Pegged at around half their original price (with newer clothes slightly more and older pieces slightly less), items range from ties for 199 Swedish krona, or $25, to 2,995 krona, or $375, for a leather jacket, originally priced at 6,000 krona, or $750.

While pioneers of in-store apparel recycling include Japan’s Uniqlo, which has collected clothes in its Japanese stores since 2001, and U.S. firm Patagonia, which has recycled fibers since 2005, Filippa K differs in that, like a consignment boutique, customers receive commissions. Splitting the proceeds 50-50 helps drive traffic since customers have to visit twice, and when they receive their payout, many spend it immediately, noted manager Moa Dahlin.

In a similar vein, firms are increasingly offering discounts on new lines to customers who recycle. From January, Swedish casualwear label Boomerang will give 10 percent off its new junior collection when consumers bring in pre-worn Boomerang garments, which will then be sold in stores. “Children grow out of clothes so quickly, this way parents can trade things to get new items, and it’s also a way for the company to keep consumers loyal,” said Catti Lang Unenge, junior designer. It represents, however, a big design challenge. “We will constantly have to look at improving quality to give garments as long a life as possible,” she said, adding the service will eventually include men’s and women’s wear.

Elsewhere, wearers of APC jeans have exchanged around 100 old pairs since June for new ones at half price at the French contemporary brand’s Parisian stores. Dubbed the Butler Wornout series, the old pants are washed, repaired, ironed and marked with the initials of the person who broke them in before being resold.

U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer this year, meanwhile, saved some 1,000 tons of clothing from landfills and raised 1 million pounds, or $1.47 million, for the British charity Oxfam through a recycling scheme where customers received an M&S voucher for five pounds, or $7.40, when they took the retailer’s clothes to Oxfam outlets to be sold.

Filippa K also continues to break new ground. Jon Abrahamsson, a former Ikea executive, is set to take the helm as its new ceo on Dec. 1. Meanwhile its first U.S. boutique, a 2,000-square-foot unit at 66 Kearny Street in San Francisco, is the first of a new natural design concept featuring a display of tree trunks and wooden furniture, replacing the former minimalist black-and-white layouts. The U.S., where the label is sold in Barneys New York, represents one of its fastest-growing markets, according to the company, which declined to give figures. The label, whose 2007 sales came in at 40 million euros, or $54.8 million, now counts more than 40 stores in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland.

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