“It’s vintage” is a second-hand vintage enthusiast’s favorite response when asked where an article of clothing was purchased. The appeal for used and repurposed items comes from the modern consumer’s desire to stray from mainstream fashion, as it has become less unique and more ubiquitous over the years. The scarcity of vintage items strengthens this allure, since the one-of-a-kind status is guaranteed, allowing consumers to drift away from generic factory-line fashion.
The popularity of vintage clothing exploded in the 1960s; traders collected and categorized old clothing due to rapidly evolving trends and styles. Before this time, buying used items signified lower quality or poverty. After World War II, Americans had entered a gleeful state of consumerism and were attracted to all things shiny and new. Second-hand clothes were solely for those who couldn’t afford the freshest, newest items. This was until the hippies embraced cast-off clothing and created novel outfits, which soon became “vintage fashion.” As more fashion-forward young people of the 1960s and 70s wore second-hand clothing, the prevailing disdain for recycled fashion began to shift. Second-hand vintage clothing began to attract the attention of the fashion-conscious. Consumers wore vintage to make a statement; they could afford to buy new clothing, they were just more special.
Discount second-hand stores such as Goodwill and Salvation Army spearheaded the vintage wave, helping to outfit the financially-conscious consumer. As the vintage popularity took shape, the same consumers who viewed thrifting as a personal brand began to redirect their shopping towards the discount stores, purchasing “hidden gem” items for extremely low prices. Capitalizing upon the redefinition of second-hand, a new segment of vintage boutiques emerged, such as New York City’s The Vintage Twin and Awoke Vintage. Such stores were known for their carefully curated and premium priced collections, promoting their “rare” and “specialty” stock. In addition, designer resellers like The Real Real and What Comes Around Goes Around emerged to offer second hand designer clothing, identifying the higher class vintage consumer. The common thread among these offerings is the uniqueness of the items, which is what makes vintage products so appealing to a discerning, fashion-forward consumer.
However, the gentrification of thrifting begs a very stark ethical question. In dissecting this dilemma, it is important to understand the difference between resale and traditional thrift and donation. Resale includes the major players in the second-hand designer category previously discussed, such as The Real Real, and other digital platforms such as Depop, Modcloth, etc. In contrast, the thrift and donation category includes the discount shopping such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, Arc, etc. Resale itself is expected to experience a 36% compound annual growth rate in the next 5 years, in contrast to traditional thrift and discount’s 6% growth. The issue here lies in the price differences between the two categories, and with the growth of resale, vintage will begin to soar past the discounted price bracket that the category was founded on.
Additionally, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, like many mainstream retailers, vintage shops have also shifted to online sales channels including Instagram, where sellers post specific pieces of clothing on their Instagram story, allowing shoppers to feel an in-person experience. E-commerce has completely changed the way we buy and sell clothing; it’s fast and easy to order through your mobile device and have something delivered right to your door within days. Selling online is also helpful to consumers, especially during a pandemic, because it allows the curation to be done and posted online where buyers just need to ‘click’ to find interesting clothing. I have witnessed the appeal of online vintage shopping firsthand. I run my own online instagram-based business, called U of Vintage (@u.of.vintage), where I sell a collection of college vintage clothing pieces that I source and curate. During the early stages of the pandemic, my sales and number of followers increased dramatically which kept me very busy during the quarantine phase. My followers could not travel to retail stores and were excited to take advantage of the accessibility of my product, which represented their favorite colleges and was delivered right to their doorsteps. In addition, my followers appreciate the scarcity of the items I sell, their unique qualities and their nostalgic charm. Vintage college clothing cannot be found in university bookstores!
The interest in vintage clothing has shifted from a trend originated in the 1960’s to a more mainstream appeal for the discerning consumer with an interest in fashion. Often, new fashion trends are just old ones coming back to life. The massive shift from brick and mortar retail to e-commerce, which was expedited by the pandemic, allows for vintage items to be expedited to the modern consumer. However, it will be crucial to keep an eye on the average prices and accessibility of resale and vintage items and how the commercialization of the trend could alienate some needy consumers. The overall vintage appeal promotes individuality, originality and allows consumers to achieve stand-out style, while also giving online businesses the opportunity to thrive in an otherwise challenging business environment.