Va-va vintage – the rise and rise of resale
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In a warehouse in Tourcoing, on the French-Belgian border, sit hundreds of Hermès Birkin bags. There are also hundreds of Chanel 2.55 handbags, a bunch of Nike trainers and dozens of rails of clothes that are far more varied: Balenciaga sweaters jostle with lace Chloé dresses, alongside contemporary pieces by labels such as Ganni and Acne. Although often pristine, and frequently with hang-tags from department stores intact, none are new: they are some of the pieces offered for sale on Vestiaire Collective, a website that is part of the burgeoning and multifaceted business of second-hand clothes. More seductively termed “resale” or “pre-loved”, they comprise a market currently worth $24bn, expected to rise to over $50bn by 2023.
The catch-all term for these clothes is vintage – and today’s fascination with it isn’t anything new, pardon the pun. Fashion’s been obsessed with retro since the 1970s – the decade Yves Saint Laurent dressed models in rehashes of his mother’s ’40s evening gowns and platform-sole shoes, which became as synonymous with that new era as the old. Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music suited up in Humphrey Bogart drag and retro GI gear, and kids recreated those looks with flea-market finds. Then again, so did people like Paloma Picasso and Loulou de la Falaise, buying vintage clothes for authenticity and validity – the real deal, not a pale imitation. Vintage fell out of favour in the look-at-me-1980s, but resurged in the ’90s, with high-end retailers such as Decades and Resurrection in Los Angeles and Rellik in London doing a brisk trade. Today, vintage-clothing credits are littered throughout magazine editorials.
For a long time, vintage was seen two ways: either precious, tissue-wrapped and unobtainable, or musty, fusty, slightly mildewed and definitely cheap. A new breed of vintage has emerged, however, led by a clutch of sales platforms, each with a distinct and different approach to its consumers, product and treatment of second-hand clothes. All of these retailers have emerged in just over a decade. And all are focused online. Vestiaire Collective, the oldest, was founded in 2009 and has user-generated imagery and pricing similar to eBay; The RealReal, founded in 2011, has inventory custom-shot against white and recalls the website of an American department store; Depop, also founded in 2011 and aimed squarely at Gen Z, mimics Instagram; while Grailed, launched in 2014, sells only menswear, particularly hyped streetwear and fashion brands. There’s also the more niche Byronesque, which has a gritty curation of esoteric designers, and Re-See, which offers Gallic polish and a lot of Hermès – both source from dealers and wardrobes of significance.
Between them, these retailers have shaken up the vintage market. “In layman’s terms, until recently the market used to be categorised as antique, retro, vintage, thrift,” says Byronesque founder Gill Linton. Reselling has blurred the traditional distinctions to include second-hand clothes of all ages – whether from last season or last decade – as well as all budgets. “Just as contemporary fashion caters to many different customers, the same thing is emerging within the resale market,” Linton says.
Vintage feels relevant for a host of different reasons. First and foremost, it promotes sustainability and the circular economy. “More than ever, people are questioning their habits and looking for eco-conscious alternatives in fashion consumption, fuelling supply and demand for second-hand items,” says Sophie Hersan, Vestiaire’s co-founder and fashion director. “The pandemic has accelerated the transition. Wear more. Consume less.”
As opposed to the blow dealt to luxury brands by Covid-19, digital resale has benefitted considerably in recent months, possibly from the new sense of frugality, but also because online shopping has really taken off. Since a March low, eBay has seen its stock price more than double; clothing and accessories, comprising 16 per cent of products sold on the site, is the second-largest sales category by a small margin to electronics. Vestiaire Collective has seen a 101 per cent increase, year on year, in deposits (people selling items through its marketplace). Re-See has seen a 15 per cent increase in sales, and a growth in customers’ average basket size.
The pandemic isn’t just economic, of course. There’s fashion precedence for a retreat into the nostalgia of the past during times of crisis. Just as Christian Dior’s New Look encouraged a war-shattered Europe to look away from grim reality, this latest moment of economic hardship has seen many consumers looking backwards once again. But the pursuit of 21st-century vintage isn’t so much about creating a period “look” as finding individual pieces to mix into a contemporary outfit. That’s especially true considering that many so‑called “vintage” pieces are less than 20 years old. There’s a ferocious market for items from Nicolas Ghesquière’s 2000s tenure at Balenciaga, for instance, both to wear and to put into museums. Byronesque’s Linton, who claims that “everyone is wearing Ghesquière, no one is collecting”, calls her pieces “contemporary vintage” and says that rare and desirable items sell for thousands of pounds.
“We only select pieces that we feel represent modernity,” says Sofia Bernardin, who alongside the stylist Sabrina Marshall launched Re-See in 2013. “It’s not about selling second-hand name brands or outdated vintage, it’s about how we feel the modern woman wants to dress today.” Nevertheless, it seems strange to talk about vintage from the 2000s when so many of its practitioners are still with us, and the styles seem fresh. The latter is part and parcel of the currency of vintage: as opposed to designers picking over long-forgotten designs, today styles from the past decade are often riffed on and referenced. “One of the largest collections of runway Helmut Lang was sold to Kanye [West],” Linton tells me, while there is also demand for designs by the late Azzedine Alaïa, who is fêted for his mastery of cut.
Design houses are even referencing themselves. Prada has created a range of re-edition handbags, reproducing styles from 2000, 2005 and 2006 in nylon. And the brand has reissued its Bowling bag from spring/summer 2000 – the same season Dior introduced its Saddle bag, which has been successfully relaunched in a multitude of variations for women and men. In both cases there has been an understandable knock-on effect with people sourcing the originals – on Vestiaire, searches for “Prada Nylon” are up 353 per cent. Meanwhile, vintage versions of Dior sell, roughly, for 50 per cent of the current price.
Depop connects intrinsically to this nostalgia. Founded in Italy in 2011 and now based in London, it is favoured by teenagers and early twentysomethings as a combination of social media and sales platform. Goods sold on here run the gamut from Dior logo denims and Vivienne Westwood corsets – recently popularised by Megan Thee Stallion, Bella Hadid and FKA Twigs – to high-street or even label-less pieces, often sourced from charity or thrift stores. Its unifying factor is the youthfulness of taste. There are also dozens of lookalikes offered, for far less than the multiple thousands Westwood can command. Accessibility on Depop is key: rather than hundreds, sellers usually list items for five or tens of pounds.
As with all these platforms, there is a cadre of users who sell their clothes after one season of wearing – or, even, after one outing. Fanny Moizant, another co-founder and now president of Vestiaire Collective, describes our current time as “the end of ownership”. “I remember my mum buying a leather coat – and it was an investment,” Moizant says. “I think the fast-fashion industry and social media totally changed that.”
If an influencer such as Kim Kardashian West wears a specific vintage piece, prices can soar, as happened recently when she wore a Galliano-era Dior newspaper-print skirt, which saw online sites picked clean. The examples that remain can now sell for thousands. Scarce styles from current seasons may even sell for more than they originally cost. “Bottega has skyrocketed over the past few months – 520 percent year on year in terms of searches,” Moizant told me. One of the brand’s must-have chain-handle Cassette bags is for sale for £500 above its original retail price.
But what’s next? Vintage fashion has begun to cycle through trends: Kardashian’s newsprint and those Saddle bags were part of a general uptick in interest in the work of John Galliano for Dior, which was seen across the board. Auction prices jumped, as did resale on Depop. Last year, Charli XCX wore a Jean Paul Gaultier Victor Vasarely-ish print catsuit from his 1995 Cyber collection, and ignited a craze for the pieces.
Outside influencer specifics, the most popular labels are no huge surprise: at Vestiaire Collective the big sellers are Louis Vuitton, Dior, Gucci and Hermès; at Re-See it’s Céline by Phoebe Philo, Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and “of course” Chanel. At Byronesque, Margiela and Helmut Lang are among those holding their values. When asked what Linton thinks is coming next, she immediately answers: “I’ve got my money on Stella McCartney’s Chloé. There was something great about what Stella did at Chloé. It’s the rock-chick version of the Ghesquière girl. Now that everyone’s dressing more casually, they’ll be interested in those elevated casual, sexy late-1990s/early-2000s styles.”
Gen Y rather than Gen Z, I remember those years first-hand. They’re something I’m drawn to myself, partly from nostalgia for my misbegotten teenaged youth, and partly because the clothes produced back then were just fantastic. The Louis Vuitton bags daubed with graffiti by the late designer and artist Stephen Sprouse, for example; Margiela’s jumbo-scale, inside-out blazers; or Ghesquière’s Balenciaga collections, reconfiguring the human form through tweed, jersey and denim. But their innate and continual wearability is the big difference between these clothes and their high-fashion counterparts from the ’50s, or even the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s (shoulder pads, anyone?). Maybe it says something about the referential nature of this time – or, perhaps, a lack of identity – that these pieces don’t resemble the costume of 20 years ago, but fashion that you’d still be excited to see designers produce today. This redefined vintage, paradoxically, still feels relevant. Weirder still, it feels new.