By Misty White Sidell
with contributions from Sharon Edelson
 on August 27, 2018
Stylish women dress themselves in fashionable, pre-worn clothing.

Thrifting — once a retail subculture relegated to bohemian sects of society — has emerged from its cloud of incense smoke to become a household pursuit.

Worn by celebrities, sold at high-end shops, and glamorized on the Internet, thrift has become a thrill-seeking, good-doing mode of consumption.

Secondhand stores today range from local commissaries of everyday essentials to luxury boutiques that sell pre-owned $10,000 handbags. Web players as diverse as Depop, Grailed and The Real Real have brought thrifty ambitions online, providing 24/7 access to an endless well of luxury merch — and insomniacs a new sourcing ground for wee-hour shopping sprees. This retail variety has a spawned a booming sector that is expected to take in $41 billion annually by 2022, according to resale site Thredup.

A cocktail of social circumstances has altered the public’s perception toward pre-owned fashion items. In thrift, there are elements of bargain hunting, waste reduction and a quest for something unique. This pursuit of the rare, cheap and fabulous has become an intoxicating lure for many Millennials — whose generational cynicism and troubled finances have rendered them uniquely thrifty. Pre-owned clothes are expected to occupy 40 percent of a woman’s wardrobe by the year 2022.

A woman rummages through thrift at Salvation Army.

A woman rummages through thrift at Salvation Army.  MARK DUNCAN/AP/REX/Shutterstock

According to Parsons School of Design associate professor Anya Kurennaya, sourcing secondhand items is a reaction to “the sheer amount of production taking place. The general public, to some degree, is aware of overconsumption and many want to step outside that. Secondhand shopping allows them to access the kinds of styles they want within a budget they can swing and doesn’t pose as much of an ethical problem.”

Julie Wainwright, founder and chief executive officer of The RealReal, said that more than 80 billion pieces of clothing are produced worldwide each year, 75 percent of which ends up in landfills.

Thredup first recorded a surge in thrift shopping upon the start of the 2008 economic crash. According to sources, residual effects of the recession have stamped an indelible mark on many consumers’ spending habits.

“The effects of the recession are still being felt 10 years later. A lot of individuals still have the mentality that they want to keep up with the trends but might not be able to do so financially. In middle America, secondhand has emerged as a place where they can keep up with their consumption habits at a lower price,” Kurennaya said.

“You cannot deny that the recession of 2008 didn’t have a lasting affect. I saw people lose jobs and start selling on eBay. That has snowballed into something even larger today,” said Brian Procell, proprietor of renowned Lower East Side vintage store Procell.

The luxury market has seen one of the biggest about-faces in attitude toward secondhand clothes. With a click, shoppers can find Nineties Prada boots for $75, altering their perception of value as it relates to fashion and luxury. Approximately 76 percent of The RealReal’s customers say they now take an item’s resale value into account when buying something full price.

Vetements' fall 2018 men's show - held in a Paris flea market.

Vetements’ fall 2018 men’s show – held in a Paris flea market.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

Realizing that secondhand has the potential to cannibalize new fashion sales, some designer labels are incorporating resale models into their businesses. In April, Stella McCartney offered her consumers $100 gift certificates if they consigned old Stella McCartney pieces with The RealReal.

Secondhand purchases were once taboo among the glitterati, particularly in eras where designers like Yves Saint Laurent dictated radically new trends each season. Today, fashion editors, influencers and socialites flock to curated secondhand stores.

The Chinatown vintage boutique James Veloria is often seen on social media, with girls-about-town publicly boasting about the vintage Moschino, Jean Paul Gaultier and Prada Sport that they source at the store. “I think it’s about a certain amount of respect for history and fashion and maybe it has something to do with the never-ending cycle of new stuff being chucked out into the world nonstop,” James Veloria cofounder Brandon Veloria said of the change. “When I go into retailers nothing feels special anymore, maybe it’s not exclusive or unique. I think now people want to put together a look that has a certain history to it.”

James Veloria founders Collin James Weber and Brandon Veloria Giordano at their Chintatown mall store.

James Veloria founders Collin James Weber and Brandon Veloria Giordano at their Chintatown mall store.  WWD

The SoHo vintage store What Goes Around Comes Around, founded in 1993, has been witness to secondhand shopping’s evolution. “Market-level fashion is playing it safe, it is not inspiring the client as much as it used to. This has become a driver for our business — having older pieces that take risks. Consumers know if they buy a Chanel bag from 10 years ago, there are a lot less of them and its more individual than a lot of stuff produced today,” said the company’s cofounder Seth Weisser. He noted that “I think there is a coveting, a full acceptance now. It’s almost like we flipped a switch from when we first started the store, almost a majority of people are open to secondhand now.”

Various subsets have taken residence in what’s become a broadening secondhand luxury landscape. There are now gallerist-types seeking vintage Helmut Lang, logo-concious women looking for rare Dior saddle bags, and streetwear addicts looking for rare editions on the secondhand market.

Veloria largely attributes vintage’s wider acceptance to celebrities. This summer, Bella Hadid and Kim Kardashian were spotted in the most questionable of vintage clothing articles — bathing suits. Their endorsement of old Dior bikinis leaves the door wide open for fans to perhaps consider more prudent options, like a winter sweater.

“I think it’s definitely affected things — certain people who wouldn’t have shopped vintage before now are,” Veloria said. “Carole Radziwill [a Real Housewife] got a Moschino set from us. Now we have these women coming in saying they saw a real housewife wear our vintage in the opening credits. They come with Birkins — slumming it in a Chinatown mall.”

Dior's Saddle bag, now a trendy item for vintage collectors.

Dior’s Saddle bag, now a trendy item for vintage collectors.

Procell hedges a large portion of the industry’s ascent on social media, but is cautious that this growth is not sustainable, describing it as “pandemic, you can’t slow it down. It’s a household thing now.”

With the rise of curated secondhand has come an outpouring of imitators. Instagram is home to thousands of vintage dealers who initiate commerce via posts and direct messages. Even one of America’s biggest thrift store networks, Goodwill, is aiming to amp up its aesthetic quotient. This spring, Goodwill Curated opened in New York City with bright lighting, minimal allergens and color-coded racks of clothing.

Some feel that this emphatic acceptance of thrift could lead to its demise. Veloria has experienced trouble sourcing Prada Sport, noting rising prices. Dior Saddle bags, priced at $150 on The RealReal in 2015, are now stamped with a $1,500 sticker. Weisser said that Ossie Clark dresses — a staple of What Goes Around Comes Around’s shelves — are now going for three or four times the price. Japan — the world’s largest secondhand apparel market — has recently seen depleting resources of premium vintage, sending prices soaring.

Procell has built up an archive of merchandise, in case the thrift well should dry up. “I’ve seen the boom happen, but also see it as a detrimental affect,” he said. “Once things go too mainstream, they are not that cool. Social media influences everybody to be on same page. Vintage shopping is the only option in this modern world to be unique and stand out. What we are seeing happen is the opposite of that.”