"Secondhand clothes have gone uptown. Cities such as Boston, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. now have used apparel stores that resemble upscale boutiques in everything but their pricetags."
-- Money, June 1996
"It's fascinating to see how this thrifty pastime has changed into a fashion phenomenon."
-- Time Out, January 1998
"Mimicking some of their uptown retail cousins, many used-clothing retailers are offering quality merchandise, attractive displays and comfortable spaces that make them look like any other store. Used-clothing companies have also ditched the 'thrift-store' moniker and call themselves resale shops or vintage stores. Call them what you will, but the trend is clear: Americans are spending more money on used stuff."
-- ABCNEWS.com, October 1998
It seems you can't open a magazine or turn on the TV lately without getting word about the rise of secondhand clothes. The consignment, vintage, and thrift modes of shopping -- indeed, the resale of everything from sporting goods to computers -- is losing its air of down and out, and attracting a growing middle-class market. According to the National Association of Resale and Thrift Stores (NARTS), there are over 15,000 resale shops in the U.S. The association itself currently has over 1,000 members. Receiving about 200 inquiries per month, it is growing at 15 percent per year.
While the wide-scale interest is a relatively new phenomenon, the business itself is not. It's a good bet that the first used-clothing transaction took place in a cave. Since then, the resale business has had a long, successful, and extremely colorful history. Take a peek at a Victorian London market, through the eyes of a 19th-century reporter:
Petticoat Lane is essentially the old clothes district. Embracing the street and alleys adjacent to Petticoat Lane and including the rows of old boots and shoes on the ground, there is perhaps two or three miles of old clothes...gowns of every shade and pattern are hanging up. Dress coats, frock coats, great coats, livery and game keepers coats, paletots, tunics, trousers, knee breeches, waistcoats, capes, pilot coats, working jackets, plaids, hats, dressing gowns, skirts, Guernsey frocks, are all displayed.
Odds are this is where Dickens's Oliver Twist would have come to fill out his wardrobe (and here too his master Fagin would send boys to sell their nicked wares). The market was a rowdy place. The reporter went on to explain that "clothes first come through the Old Clothes Exchange. The Exchange had been so noisy that the East India Company, who had warehouses nearby, complained; sometimes it took 200 constables to keep order." Just imagine what it was like during sales.
If Petticoat Lane is a bit too reminiscent of the nasty old clichés about resale, why don't we look back even further, to the royal courts of France, where exacting rituals of dress and decorum reigned. Culture of Clothing, a sociological history of clothing in that country, notes that the tax records of the mid-18th century list approximately 1,700 resellers of clothing in Paris. At the high end was the so-called revendeuse à la toilette (a reseller who visited during the noblewomen's lengthy, gossipy get-up sessions before they appeared in court). Revendeuses bought and sold old fabrics, lace, jewels, and other items from the rich and resold them to equally upper-class customers. They can be seen in engravings of the period acting as "both confidantes and merchants at the morning toilets of the ladies."
Just like it was in the past, today's secondhand business is stratified, with different stores aimed at different segments of society. What's different now is the crossover -- the well-heeled are haunting the dingiest of thrifts, and the hard-pressed for cash are shopping at the snootiest of consignment stores. Moreover, today we're seeing a rise in specialty resale stores, such as Transfer in New York City's Soho, which features garments (mostly sizes 4, 6, and 8) straight from the catwalk and magazine feature shoots.
First Things First: A Few Definitions
This is a place where women who want to dispose of certain wardrobe items can resell them, with the store acting as middleman. Here's how it works. Our consignor, let's call her Mrs. Pink, recently lost 20 pounds and can no longer wear her lovely wool skirt, from the mall store called Ashbot's, purchased a year ago for $100. When she brings the skirt in, the store owner or manager will take a hard look, making sure it is clean (a must), free of damage and obvious signs of wear, of a recent season (though this is not always necessary), and suitable for the store's clientele. If they accept it, the store could tag the skirt at anything from $5 to $500, but most likely somewhere in the range of $30 to $90. If the garment sells, most stores will pay Mrs. Pink 40 to 60 percent of the selling price. The store will display the piece for an average of 60 to 90 days. If it doesn't sell at the original price after a set period, it may be marked down. If it still hasn't sold within an agreed-upon period (often another six to eight weeks), Mrs. Pink must reclaim it. If it does sell, she collects a check.
Many consignment stores stand in sequined reproach to the bad old reputation of resale -- they can be as exquisite as the best boutiques in town. And guess who is in the back office, agreeing on prices for last season's castoffs? The cream of local society, my dear -- but the good stores properly keep this mum. In fact, Carole Selig, owner of Encore on New York's Madison Avenue, said to be the oldest consignment store in the country, would only confirm that Jackie Onassis had been a frequent consignor because the story had already been published. The identities of her other consignors? She diplomatically refuses to say. This is not to imply that all consignment stores carry only haute-couture goods; quite the opposite. Most, like Buy Popular Demand in Chicago, stock Ann Taylor and Gap along with high-end gowns, maximizing their appeal to a wide range of clients.
Advantages of Shopping at Consignment Stores
Time savings -- the items have been prescreened by the management.
Rational display -- usually the clothing is sized, and sometimes arranged by color. Sale goods are often on a special rack.
Consistency of goods -- the owner's taste prescreens the merchandise -- either you like it or you don't.
Condition of clothing -- most stores accept only dry-cleaned clothes, on hangers, with little sign of wear.
Real dressing rooms -- you'll have privacy and good lighting.
Markdown policy -- pricing can range anywhere from 25 percent (for brand new, current season items) to 75 percent off the retail cost. Extreme bargains to be found if store holds clearance sales.
Service -- frequent customers get preferential treatment.
Disadvantages of Shopping at Consignment Stores
High $$$ -- reflecting original cost of garments.
Attitude -- while the vast majority of stores offer a warm welcome, some can be snobby.
Vintage (or "retro") clothing stores specialize in older and antique fashions. Here the merchandise may range from Huckapoo polyester shirts to Lily Pulitzer golf shorts to Balenciaga ballgowns, depending on the tastes of the owner and her clientele. In larger cities, vintage stores may specialize in certain fashion eras. Store owners generally purchase their stock from vintage-clothes wholesalers, from individuals like you and me who have been clearing out the attic, or from thrift stores.
Advantages of Shopping at Vintage-Clothes Stores
Distinctiveness -- most of the items are truly one-of-a-kind.
Volume -- if you love Victorian lace, you'll find it in quantity if you find the right store.
Craftsmanship -- the better clothing of the past has construction to die for.
Research opportunities -- vintage stores are like style museums. You can learn even if you don't care to buy.
Disadvantages of Shopping at Vintage-Clothes Stores
Possible high $$$ -- reflecting rarity of the garments.
Fragility -- many of the clothes are too delicate for everyday wear.
Condition -- not always impeccable.
Sizes -- can be very tricky to get right.
The majority of giant thrift-store chains, including those run by the Salvation Army, Goodwill, and the Junior League, are not-for-profit operations, offering acres of goods, including housewares, furniture, and books, at very reasonable (and often astonishing) prices. The merchandise is obtained mainly through individual donations, but sometimes also by special arrangements with retail stores and/or manufacturers. Single-store thrifts may be nonprofit (usually run by local charitable organizations), or for-profit. Fairly new to the thrift-store scene are charity-affiliated for-profit thrift chains, such as TVI/Value Village, and so-called "resale" stores, like Buffalo Exchange, which buys garments directly from the public and resells at a profit. Traditionally, thrift-store shopping has demanded hard-core connoisseurship (and stamina), yet in many parts of the country stores are increasingly catering to middle-class customers. Many stores now feature "designer racks" and pricing policies that demonstrate a new awareness about the value of their wares.
Advantages of Shopping at Thrift Stores
Bargains -- the best are found here.
Atmosphere -- for-profit thrifts often feature retail-like environments and organization of merchandise.
Variety -- new merchandise is constantly coming in.
New clothes available -- thanks to manufacturers and others donating unsold goods.
Comprehensive -- most thrifts sell everything, making it possible to put together an outfit, right down to scarf and shoes, in one place.
"Designer racks" -- featured in many thrifts, helps hone search down.
Charitable -- you're supporting a worthy cause by buying there.
Disadvantages of Shopping at Thrift Stores
Atmosphere -- not-for-profit thrifts may be run down.
Time requirements -- lots of time needed to shop stores fully.
Condition of clothes -- there is no guarantee that clothes are clean, much less in good condition.
Lack of rationale in display -- clothes often unsized, and haphazardly arranged.
Fitting rooms -- in some nonprofits, it's a case of "What fitting rooms?"
Other Key Stuff About Secondhand: Who, Where, and Why
Who Are the People Who Shop Resale?
As a rule, the people who shop in consignment stores are indistinguishable from those in your standard mall store -- except, perhaps, that they aspire to a better class of clothing. In vintage and thrift stores, the shoppers tend to be more colorful. Let's start off with some stereotypes, shall we?
The Bargain Queen: Wild-eyed, she charges in from the parking lot, hugging the rack so you have to go around, trying on everything from raccoon coats to motorcycle helmets, buying up sacks and sacks of schmatte that will sit untouched in her closet until it all gets dumped off at the next thrift down the pike. She's there for the thrill of the chase.
The Dotty Grande Dame: Wearing enough gold to set off a metal detector, she glares at the customers who dare glance at her. Gets into yanking matches with other rich old gals for some scuffed-up handbag that she "saw first."
Bizarrely Coiffed Anarchists: Making a transgressive statement by mixing plaid with fake ponyskin. Multiply pierced. Known to try on clothing over what's already on, buy it, and wear it out the door.
The Ill-washed: Unerringly, they detect your kind heart and want to be your best friend.
Irony-mongers: They hold up any item dating to the 1970s and, in very loud tones, make knowing references to TV shows that didn't merit viewers the first time round, never mind eternal life on cable. May be discussing your outfit behind your back.
Yes, on any given day, there will probably be a few of these types trolling the racks. They are part of the ambiance, and frankly, are a heck of a lot more entertaining than the crowd over at the White Oaks Mall. Oddly enough, the one kind of person you rarely see at thrift stores is the aggressively obnoxious. Thrift-store staffers, many of whom may have come up from hardship, have little patience for somebody who is blatantly disturbing the peace.
And then there are the rest of the shoppers. Many are so-called "creatives" -- singers, dancers, actors, artists, musicians, writers, and the like -- people who are working in fields notorious for being "gratifying" while paying jack. Others may be employed in subsistence-wage fields, such as nonprofit, publishing, or social services. Still others may be students, or those in the pre-bucks, trainee stages of their jobs, like medical interns and apprentice tradespeople. Others are traditional working people of all kinds -- from attorneys to zookeepers -- who want a solid work and leisure wardrobe but are offended by the prices these command at retail. Then there are mothers saving for a mortgage or the kids' education, but need -- as we all do now and again -- to spend a few dollars on themselves. The list goes on. That skinny girl over at the shoe rack wearing the killer leather jeans? She's a freelance stylist working for a top fashion magazine, hunting down a pair of pumps to counterbalance the luxe of a couture ballgown. That big guy with the little helper running ahead, tossing back garments for inspection? He's Gianfranco Ferré -- he designed the ballgown.
Where Do I Find Stores?
Check the Yellow Pages (see Charitable Organizations; Consignment; Resale; Thrift Stores; Women's Apparel, used). If you have access to the Internet, look up Thrift, Consignment, and Resale on a good search engine to find page upon page of listings. In England, look in the Yellow Pages under Ladies' Clothing, Charity Shops. In France, look in the Yellow Pages or have someone check the Minitel for Dépot-Ventes and Vêtements -- Griffes. Perhaps one of the best methods of all is to talk to your fellow resale shoppers. Like all good hobbyists, they're apt to happily share information and lore.
How Do I Convince My Sister That There's Nothing Tawdry About Retail?
She still needs convincing? How behind the times. Why don't we start by picking apart her arguments:
Those clothes are dirty. Well, sometimes, if acquired from thrift, resale, or certain vintage stores, they may be. But you should remind her that garments aren't necessarily spick-and-span in retail stores, either, especially toward the end of the season, by which time hundreds of people may have tried a blouse on, smeared it with Chapstick, stepped on it, borrowed it for a night out, etc. Another good argument if she goes to a gym: she'll pick up a lot more cooties off an aerobics mat or weight machine than she'll ever encounter at a thrift store. The capper? If she's paying $15 instead of $80 for a garment, she can get it dry-cleaned three times over and still have money left for shoes. If she remains squeamish, you can point her toward consignment stores, whose policies demand that merchandise be professionally cleaned.
Those stores are depressing. Here again, everything's relative. I can think of nothing more depressing than going into Ashbot's at the tail end of a Saturday to find a bedlam of garments tossed here and there, items missized, dressing rooms filled with other people's no-gos, and salespeople nursing the career option of mass murderer. All this and I'm still paying full price? Nuh-uh. I'd rather shop in a comparably squalorous thrift store, knowing that lovely pieces are probably wildly underpriced, particularly labels that are unfamiliar. Again, if this argument doesn't work, you can point your sister toward consignment stores and those thrifts that make a point of presenting a pleasant atmosphere.
Aren't thrift stores supposed to be for poor people? Those experiencing hard times do shop at thrift stores, it only makes sense. But the stores are not intended for any one kind of customer. The reason thrift stores are in existence is not to provide shopping opportunities for the disadvantaged, it is to gain revenue for their programs. Goodwill Industries, for example, made half of their total revenue in 1998 from their chain of thrift stores. This money is in turn refunneled into their community projects. The more people making purchases, the better off the organization is, so there is no reason to feel guilty spending money there.
I've been in one of those places and the prices weren't that much better than retail. Odds are, the place was a high-end consignment or vintage-clothing store, which can and will sell garments for prices miles beyond those found at middle-market retailers. Your sister should bear in mind that a beautiful blouse that costs $200 new is, for some, still a bargain at $75. She should keep looking. There are plenty of stores out there for every pocketbook.
There's so much to weed through! Yes. But tell her she'll be getting an education as she goes, especially if she uses guidance from this book. Once she's worked her way through a couple hundred white T-shirts, she will never again settle for any old T-shirt anywhere, because the potential variations -- in cotton weight, color, stitching, seams, cut -- will be obvious even in a garment this minimal. By becoming familiar with the possibilities, by using her eyes, fingertips, and know-how, she'll learn what she requires of a piece of clothing, becoming a more efficient, smarter shopper in the long run.
It takes too much time to find pieces I can wear. This is the downside of shopping resale. In thrift stores, the garments may not be arranged by size, and tags may be missing. She could hunt for hours and still come up empty-handed. However, this book will help both you and your sister learn to find high-quality clothing by the systematic use of sight and touch, and then make realistic judgments about how well those clothes work, given your individual styles. With time it's possible to become a faster, more efficient, and more effective shopper. What's more, all the lessons here can and should be carried over to retail, where, in case she's forgotten, it also takes too long to find wearable pieces.
I don't like to shop that way; I can afford to buy new. This means she can also afford to pay for things like the retailer's overhead (the slacker sales help), advertising (employment opportunities for supermodels), and business decisions made up the line (executive buying trips to Paris, all expenses paid). Sure, she can afford it. But does she really want to?
She's Still Not Convinced.
What else can I tell her about the benefits of secondhand?
Lower cost. This is the obvious one, the biggie. Never mind $2,000 couture suits popping up at Goodwill for $50 or less. Sadly, this doesn't happen every week. What does happen is major retailers like JCPenney supply overstock and irregular goods through surplus merchandising programs, resulting in amazing savings on everyday items. Read between the lines, and we come to the next point.
Often, the garments up for resale are brand new. Apart from retailers looking to get tax or other benefits from unsold merchandise, there are some crazy shoppers out there, people who regularly flood the secondhand market with new goods. You probably know one. Maybe you are one. I'm talking about women who love shopping so much, they buy simply because they were born to. Once they've purchased that adorable black dinner bag, it instantly loses all allure. So off it goes to resale, labels intact. Compulsive shoppers are ladies I'm very thankful for. Others contributing to the new-merchandise flow include:
- women who have recently lost or gained weight, or who buy clothing as a futile incentive to do so
- disfavored boyfriends and ex-husbands, whose gifts of clothing will never -- ever -- be worn
- garment-industry insiders who are a legitimate source of sample merchandise
- people like us who make mistakes, especially when it comes to shoes
You can build a humongous wardrobe shopping secondhand. Though I advise against this in Chapter 8, many of you die-hards will merrily ignore it. For you, resale is a way to have wardrobe abondanza for minimal investment. How good you look is another thing altogether -- again, see Chapter 8.
Resale can help you determine your best style option. A thrift, vintage, or consignment store can stock a wider variety of styles, colors, and makes than a standard store could ever possibly afford. Granted, they're not all your size, but secondhand nonetheless offers the chance to try on countless different styles -- not to buy, necessarily, but to learn which looks best flatter you. This is especially true when conventional stores are all beaming down the same three gimmicks from the designer universe, i.e., ankle-length skirts, midriff tops, and acid green.
If you're an experienced secondhand shopper you can pull a complete outfit together more easily than in a retail store. Department and chain stores do have resale beat in terms of coordinating tops to bottoms in a single line, but if you know your stuff you can work wonders in a resale store, because most stock not only clothing, but shoes, scarves, bags, and jewelry, all within an easy walk of each other.
Personalized service. If you are a steady customer at an on-the-ball consignment store, you can expect a level of service akin to that offered by personal shoppers at places like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom. The store owner will call you when pieces arrive in your size and style, and act as a partner in helping build your wardrobe. Even if you are a first-time customer, a good consignment store should offer the kind of warmth and attention that is hard to come by at the mall.
You'll get honest opinions from sales staff and other customers. As Veronica Lytle, owner of My Secret in Orange, CT, told me: "It does me no good to tell a customer something looks great when it doesn't. If she goes to a party and tells her friends where she bought the dress, I want everybody thinking she looks wonderful." These words were echoed by every consignment-store owner I've spoken to. They have a big stake in making clients look good. In thrift stores, you can also get honest opinions, especially from your fellow shoppers, some of whom live to give opinions.
It's a social experience unlike any other. Thrift and consignment stores are some of the few places I know where people of completely different backgrounds can have instant, mutually gratifying conversations about their one common interest. The inclination is natural for people to go girlfriend: chitchat, swap advice, offer opinions. Back in the 1850s, when the first department stores opened in Paris, they were an instant hit, historians say, because they offered price tags (previously, people had to ask), a wide range of stock, and the opportunity to browse. The fact that many other women were there doing the same thing only made it more enjoyable. Today, while retail stores can be oddly alienating places, at resale, some of the old magic still holds.
It's a chance to use your wits. Cunning is a vastly underrated quality when it comes to the shopping experience. At retail, it takes no brains at all to assemble an outfit the magazines say is hot, plop it down at the register, and go. But at resale, you have to be on your toes. At a very basic level, it's firing up the old hunt-and-gather instincts. But it holds the possibility of another ancient skill as well: negotiation. (How, when, and where to negotiate is discussed in Chapters 13, 15, and 16.)
You can get better long-term value for your money at resale. Given the quality of the fabric, workmanship, and trimmings, a previously owned jacket made to superior standards will look better and wear longer than new garments made to inferior standards. This is why an Yves Saint Laurent couture piece ends its life in a fashion museum, while a lesser imitator ends up in a landfill.
Speaking of which: resale is good for the environment. We've all heard about the waste stream, the overconsumption of resources, the ecological and even psychological damage that accompanies the apparel-manufacturing process, most notably in the Third World. Where our grandparents would have mended, altered, and handed down garments until they fell apart, we have become accustomed to the idea of disposable goods. Of the household waste generated per family in the U.S., about 3 to 5 percent consists of textiles. In addition to this clogging of landfills, we need to account for the environmental cost of making the textiles in the first place. Huge volumes of waste water are generated in their manufacture, water that may contain heavy metals from the dyeing process, as well as runoff dyes themselves. Growing cotton efficiently requires pesticides and fertilizer, and oil is consumed in the manufacture of synthetic fibers. By making the decision to purchase secondhand clothing, you are helping to prolong the useful life of a garment, reducing waste, and amortizing the cost of its manufacture upon the environment.
By shopping at thrift stores, you are supporting the efforts of vital charities. Nonprofit thrift stores not only help pay for charitable programs that are increasingly necessary as government funding diminishes, they also provide jobs for the people who work there.
Shopping secondhand helps local business. Megaretailing is a fact of modern life, with every mall in every city across the country featuring theusual round of identikit stores. The rise of mall culture has taken a toll on small business owners, particularly in downtown areas, because these operations are not able to compete when it comes to buying power and price-cutting policies. Yet one kind of business has flourished in the face of monster retailing -- that's right, resale. The people running these places are your neighbors, part of your community in a way that Sam Walton will never be. Shopping secondhand doesn't just keep good clothing going, it keeps good people going too.
OK? But before your sister guns the Fiesta, ready to beeline off to Goodwill, settle her down and tell her to spend some time looking through the rest of this book. It will pay off. What with the money she saves and the value she adds as a clothing connoisseur, she might even share some of her best finds with you.
Copyright © 1999 by Christa Weil
Finding Fabulous Fashion at Consignment, Vintage, and Thrift Shops
Finding Fabulous Fashion at Consignment, Vintage, and Thrift Shops
Would you like to find a mint-condition Yves Saint Laurent jacket for $25...a brand-new, pleated wool skirt still bearing the original $40 price tag, for $7...a genuine Dior suit for $75? Now you can! In Secondhand Chic you'll discover where to look, what to look for, and how to buy quality. In fact, you'll get all the secrets of spotting a valuable bargain so you can shop brilliantly whether you're in a consignment, thrift, or vintage store. Expert shopper Christa Weil shares the insider information that will help you buy the best clothes you've ever owned...at a fraction of the retail cost.
Spotting quality -- which you will know immediately from buttons, pockets, seams, and fabric
Labels...big names, department store brands, exquisite foreign lines -- and fakes!
Finding your size when there are no labels or tags
Flaws you can fix and the ones you can't -- from wrong lengths and wrinkles to stains and shininess
Unearthing handmade shoes, silk scarves, name jewelry, and other elegant accessories
Buying what you really need -- and caring for the clothes you've got
The styles that make your body look best
From domestic to international stores, from New York to London, from Memphis to Paris -- no matter where you buy, you can buy secondhand chic.