Expected to be worth $50bn by 2023, the pre-loved market deserves a second look.
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.
Top: Comme des Garçons s/s 2006 Edwardian blouse jacket, £530, from Re-See. Skirt: Dexter Wong 2000s, stylist’s own. Boots: GUCCI by Tom Ford, £750, from Farfetch Pre-Owned. Jewellery: Givenchy 1980s earrings, £295, and Chanel 1990s bracelet (just seen), £1,395, from Susan Caplan. Bag: Gucci by Frida Giannini hoop-handle bucket, £300, from He
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.
Top: Alaïa s/s 1991 Tati, €2,310, from Re-See. Skirt: Céline by Phoebe Philo s/s 2010, €510, from Re-See. Boots: Dior 2010s Cannage, £215, from Hewi. Earrings: Chanel 1980s, £625, from Susan Caplan
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.”
Shirt: Dexter Wong 2000s, stylist’s own. Skirt: Alaïa a/w 1996, from Alexander Fury Archive. Earrings: Christian Dior 1980s, £275, from Susan Caplan. Shoes: Chanel 2000s, £220, from Hewi
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.”
Jacket: Versace by Gianni Versace a/w 1992 puffer, £415, from Hewi. Shirt: Hermès s/s 2010, £101, from The RealReal. Jeans: Versace 2000s, £84, from The RealReal. Shoes: Gucci by Tom Ford a/w 1997, stylist’s own. Jewellery: Christian Dior 1980s earrings, £255, and Chanel 1980s necklace, £1,895, from Susan Caplan
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.
Financial Times by Alexander Fury