Old clothes, new opportunities

How ‘thrift flipping’ and secondhand fashion is becoming big business.

Upcycling secondhand clothing is a multibillion-dollar industry. It's even got its own name now: thrift flipping. #ThriftFlip pulls up more than a billion views on TikTok, the favourite platform for resale and thrifting influencers. 

And these sellers are making good money – among them Isabella Vrana, who started selling secondhand clothing on Depop in her bedroom in 2015, while completing an undergraduate degree. Since then, she’s built a lucrative business, employing four people full time. ‘There’s more credibility to a garment when the person selling it is wearing it, too,’ says Meredith Fineman, author of the Secondhand Society newsletter.

According to a 2020 report published by online resale store ThredUp, using figures collected by market research firm Global Data, fast fashion will grow by 20% in the next 10 years, while secondhand fashion is likely to increase by 185% over the same period. Young adults are leading the charge. ‘Luxury, for us, is a piece that nobody else owns,’ says Olivia Tuffrey, editor-in-chief of Mad About Doin’, a slow fashion zine. That scarcity has led to the rise of a new business model in the thrifting space, she adds: ‘Resale businesses are moving to limited drop and pre-order models to gauge customer demand.’

Vintage curation

Photographers, business owners, writers, designers, and stylists are just some of the people curating their favourite vintage products on Basic.Space. On the members-only platform, founded in 2018, sellers are invited and verified before listing on the marketplace, which adds to a buyer’s comfort that they are purchasing something that’s unique and authentic – a frequent challenge in the resale space. 

It’s not the number of social media followers an individual has that earns them a spot on Basic.Space – it’s more about what they represent. Micro-influencers or creatives with a few thousand followers could find themselves earning thousands of pounds a month by selling pre-loved items of clothing. Holly Watkins, for example, started her secondhand business, One Scoop Store, while she was on maternity leave. ‘Buyers are getting much more savvy, and a little harsher,’ she says. 

Holly doesn’t have a particular style of clothing that she sources or resells, because specialising in one area of vintage, like prairie dresses or high-end luxury, would cut off a big proportion of her potential audience, she says. 

Instead, she chooses clothes that she likes and would wear herself. This authenticity appears to have earned her a loyal following: she posts between 10 and 20 new items in her shop every evening, and most are sold within hours. ‘If something isn’t gone in a week, I know I’ve probably priced it wrong,’ she adds. A hidden cost in the resale business, especially for independent sellers, is dealing with returns and refunds. ‘Platforms like Zalando have a 75% returns rate baked into their business model,’ Holly says. ‘Small businesses have to foot the bill of processing those returns.’ 

Damé Rynjah is the co-founder of Acid Rags, a Mumbai-based vintage curation business that launched in September 2020, which he runs alongside a full-time day job. Along with his co-founder, Damé sources secondhand clothing from all around India. When it comes to pricing, they usually stick to the £50 to £70 range, despite knowing that certain rare garments can sell for up to three figures. ‘We do want to make it slightly exclusive, but given that Gen Z forms the majority of our market, we don’t want to make it unattainable.’

Upcycling and thrift flipping

Saluto London started out as a vintage curation business, with founder Hannah Stacpoole, a former fashion journalist, sourcing garments from older women looking to give clothing away. Over lockdown, her Instagram following grew from 300 to 5,000 and, as a result, Hannah decided to pursue Saluto full time in November 2020. 

Over the next few months, however, she’ll be shifting her focus to a new vertical: Reworked, where she can charge higher prices for the effort that goes into upcycling a garment. ‘While I’ll always have a vintage edit, being able to personalise more stock will help the business grow. Some of these dresses take seven hours to make and I know from focus groups that people find those prices too expensive. But you can’t just always cater to the people looking to spend less.’ 

Upcycled or renewed clothing is changing the perception of the resale industry on price alone. Because they are unique, upcycled garments are thought of as high-value, luxurious pieces in comparison to secondhand clothes that are thrifted and sold on. Small Museum, a brand based in southern California, upcycles heavy-duty quilts and blankets into coats. Founder and former childrenswear designer Kara Hazen put her sewing machine to use at the start of the pandemic, dropping one-of-a-kind garments that are snapped up instantly. She also accepts mailed-in quilts from customers looking to turn their own old linens into coats. 

‘I price my pieces based on all the time it takes to run my business,’ Kara says. ‘I do the social media, the website, the creating, the shipping, the sourcing, and all the other little things that go into it. But customers react well to the higher prices because they understand what they are purchasing. There are details that fast fashion could never copy.’ 

Consumers looking for affordable upcycling options are turning to craft embroidery. Fuelled by TikTok, the more complex the embroidery that's requested, the higher the price the designer can charge. Paula Safronchik offers a bespoke embroidery service in New York City under the brand name Almacén, and Gussy is a similar service run by Alyana Ladha in Toronto. ‘Timing and the complexity of the design the client has requested all factor into pricing,’ she says, ‘as well as whether or not the garment is client-owned or something I’m sourcing. So, each order and price will be unique.’

Alterations and repairs

Seamsters and tailors hadn’t necessarily disappeared, but they had become less mainstream before the booming secondhand clothing industry gave them a boost. Market research company Technavio estimates that the global sewing machine market will increase by 11% year on year, to be worth nearly $12 billion by 2024. 

Drea Johnson started her Portland-based repairs and alterations business, Hidden Opulence, in 2017. ‘What I’m doing isn’t reinventing the wheel, but I’ve certainly seen more interest and curiosity in garment repair,’ she says. While each mending or alterations service might be relatively cheap – at Hidden Opulence, patching a hole is around $15, and a waistline alteration is $22 – Drea finds that having repeat customers keeps the business going. ‘Once people become comfortable, they can trust you with their clothes,’ she says. In recent months, however, Drea has seen many more high-value, complex projects come her way. ‘It’s a lot of trend-led stuff. We get people coming in with old drapes and asking us to turn them into one-off garments.’ 

In the UK, Josephine Philips has been working on a platform that combats the issue of repair services not being able to always take on customers’ requests. Her platform, Sojo, aggregates repair and alterations services in London. It’s a model that brings business to the doorstep for tailors and seamsters, who are increasingly difficult to find on the high street or are often hidden at the backs of dry-cleaners and laundromats. Customers can find local tailors based on their needs and budget, and tailors can take on projects across a price range, depending on their availability and capacity. 

With a commission rate of 30%, Josephine allows tailors to set their own pricing. After launching early this year, Sojo saw repeat customers coming back with more alterations within five weeks, proving that her business model is addressing a real need. 

Taking (back) stock

Even on resale platforms, buyers are more likely to pick up secondhand garments from sustainable or luxury brands than they are fast-fashion companies, according to a report by online consignment and thrift store ThredUp on the secondhand market. And those brands are looking to cash in by buying back worn clothes and offering customers credit on their next purchase. Activewear brand Girlfriend Collective offers customers $15 to send back old leggings and sports bras through its ReGirlfriend initiative. In March, New York-based brand Noah launched its Not Dead Yet scheme, through which customers can bring or ship used items back to the brand in exchange for store credit – which is determined by the condition of the returned piece of clothing. 

Five ways to make money 

Under-explored niches and exciting business models are gaining traction in the resale economy. According to experts and resellers, these are the main spaces to make money in. 

1. Menswear. The resale economy for men focuses largely on occasion wear and luxury items, like streetwear and watches. There is still an opportunity for everyday secondhand menswear to be explored. 

2. Cosmetics. Sites like Glambot and Mercari are starting to aggregate unused and under-used makeup products and tools from consumers – but the idea of using secondhand beauty products still isn’t mainstream. 

3. Diverse sizing. A big criticism of the resale and secondhand industry is that it doesn’t always cater for people of all sizes. Specific curation dedicated to plus-size or small consumers, for example, would prove popular, as well as accessible clothing for people with disabilities. 

4. Streamlining technology. From platforms tracing the movement of a particular piece of clothing to online sales functionality that can help resellers manage customer service and returns, tech can take a big admin burden away from small businesses. 

5. Digital thrift stores. While a lot of the resale economy has shifted online, local bricks-and-mortar consignment stores haven’t always found it easy to go digital. Thrilling, for instance, is a marketplace platform that aggregates stock from bricks-and-mortar stores for a small commission every time a sale is made on the platform.

This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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