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The rise of resale: How second-hand became fashion’s first port of call

The best advertising campaigns make you want to be the woman on the billboard. In 2013, I wanted to be Daria Werbowy in a pink, roll-top bath, naked save for a rhinestone-studded collar necklace and bracelets, in Céline’s spring campaign.

I dreamt about that sparkling choker, specifically, for months, though it was wildly unaffordable – upwards of £2,000 – on my peanut salary as a fashion reporter. Years later, when its creator Phoebe Philo announced she was leaving the brand in 2017, I thought of the necklace again. Curious to see if I could track one down, I hit Google. Fifteen minutes later, I had unearthed a German seller on the French resale website Vestiaire Collective, who was willing to part with theirs for £481.37, complete with its dust bag and original box. Reader, I bought it. And then I bragged about it. “It’s spring/summer 2013,” I told admirers who enquired as to the necklace’s origin at a Vogue party.

Time was when past-season designer wares would be pushed to the back of the wardrobe or donated to willing recipients after their moment in the spotlight. Now, pre-loved, pre-worn, used, thrifted and resale clothes and accessories could not be more desirable. “Vintage” is the term that covers all bases, though it makes the sticklers shudder: technically, it should only be applied to clothes made between the past 20 and 99 years. In any case, the second-hand market today is distinctly evolved from the two categories that “vintage” used to denote: an acid-free, tissue-wrapped couture dress acquired at an auction house on the one hand, or a moth-ball-scented slip dress unearthed at a flea market stall on the other.

For one thing, the pre-loved items that today’s savviest shoppers are hunting down are often not that old. And the hunt isn’t taking place in cavernous warehouses or auction houses, but online. Today’s well-dressed fashion fans score gently used Alaïa dresses on The RealReal, worn-once Bottega Veneta Cassette bags on Vestiaire Collective, vintage Chanel bouclé jackets on Hewi, and pre-owned Hermès Birkins on Collector Square. They snap up sold-out BNWT (“bought new with tags”, in internet speak) Zara leggings on Depop and second-hand Jean Paul Gaultier Cyber Dots mesh tops on eBay. They go to StockX for like-new Dior Air Jordans and to Chrono24 for lived-in Cartier Tanks, making a brief detour to Dotte for Mini Rodini cast-offs for their kids.

They sell, too. After all, their original Dior Saddle bag from spring/summer 2000 is worth a pretty penny since Maria Grazia Chiuri reissued it in 2018 – making it far too lucrative to pass on to a daughter.

“People’s sense of ownership has changed,” says Rachel Reavley, a former Vogue staffer and board member at Hewi, a family-run, UK-based resale site with particularly affluent clientele. (Hewi is short for Hardly Ever Worn It; more than 30 per cent of stock on the site has never been worn.) “When you’ve experienced shopping in a luxury re-commerce space, it really opens up your customer expectation. Then you start to look at things in your wardrobe, thinking, am I ever going to actually wear those Dior boots again? You go online, and as long as you’ve taken care of them, they’ve held their value. It’s a win-win – you have the financial reward, the feel-good factor of participating in circular economy. Then, you might buy something else, and it feels guilt-free.”

Resale is big business. The second-hand market is projected to double over the next five years, growing 11 times faster than the broader retail clothing sector to reach £67bn by 2025, according to a report by GlobalData and ThredUp. Why the boom? It must be said that women have been buying pre-loved fashion for decades; as far back as 1928, for instance, British Vogue was advertising 22 second-hand clothing dealers who could be trusted to discreetly dispose of last season’s Chanel suit. But the key word there is “discreet”.

Generation Z, who are primarily fuelling the growth in thrifting, are more likely to boast about their finds on social media than keep said item’s second-hand status under wraps. “From the research that we did in collaboration with Depop, if you analyse the youngest generation, they don’t have that stigma anymore,” says Claudia D’Arpizio, luxury goods guru at management consulting firm Bain & Company. “It’s clear they are also buying a lot of ‘first-hand’ products. But I think the stigma was more attached to previous generations.”

After all, eschewing the brand-new is cheaper and less intimidating (in the case of luxury items) than hitting London’s Bond Street or New York’s Madison Avenue, and more sustainable: according to a Farfetch report, purchasing a pre-owned item on average saves 1kg of waste, 3,040 litres of water and 22kg of CO2, compared with a new item.

Then, there’s the thrill of the chase. As Camille Charrière, journalist and influencer with an Instagram following of more than 1.2 million, and who regularly shops resale platforms for past-season pieces, puts it: “I get a lot of kicks from wearing things that no one else has got.” Her most highly prized trophy is a one-of-a-kind John Galliano for Dior dress from the Noughties, a gift for a recent birthday. She relishes the time spent acquiring one-off pieces. “You don’t need to buy the latest thing that’s just come out to be able to be well-dressed,” she says.

The pandemic has changed our world in myriad ways – but perhaps its biggest legacy for fashion will be the shift in mindset towards pre-loved products. Farfetch, for instance, has been selling pre-loved clothing alongside brand-new luxury stock since 2010, but 2020 was a clear turning point: pre-owned views increased 151 per cent year-on-year, with notable growth from March 2020 onwards, when the pandemic took hold. Moreover, it noted a 506 per cent increase in sales of pre-owned items valued at more than $10,000 (£7,253) from Q1 to Q4 of 2020. As Tom Berry, Farfetch’s global director of sustainable business, notes: “Our pre-loved curation isn’t necessarily targeted at a low-price offer. For us, people come for unique items, for great fashion, and it makes them feel better because it’s sustainable.” Customers have also been availing themselves of the “Second Life” service, where they can resell their luxury bags in return for Farfetch credit.

Net-a-Porter has been taking notes. Last October, it announced a resale pilot with Reflaunt, the tech company behind H&M’s “Rewear” programme, offering customers the chance to sell well-preserved designer items in their wardrobes in exchange for store credit. And at Printemps in Paris, a new 13,000sq m floor entirely dedicated to vintage and thrifted clothing, as well as a new buy-back scheme opened in October, reportedly the biggest-ever space dedicated to second-hand fashion in a department store. Marie Blanchet’s Mon Vintage, a high-end vintage service, is the star attraction, with its racks boasting original Versace bondage suits, Yves Saint Laurent safari dresses, and even the Jean Paul Gaultier cameo necklace from his spring/summer 1998 Hommage à Frida Kahlo collection, once worn by Madonna in the music video for 1998’s “Frozen”. “What we curate looks like it could be on the runway right now,” says Blanchet. She believes the pandemic has fundamentally shifted the way we feel about new clothes. “Now, it’s all about meaningful purchases. Vintage, in this sense, is a sustainable signifier. You are buying into a story, feeling unique, and wearing pieces that were made to last – the quality of fabrics on the whole is incredible.”

Gucci wants in. Hot on the horsebit-adorned heels of Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci – which stars Lady Gaga and is stuffed with throwback Gucci looks sourced from the house’s vast archive in Florence, as well as vintage dealers, eBay and Etsy – in September it launched Vault. Billed as an online concept store, it is partly stocked with vintage items acquired from Italian grannies and auction houses alike, reconditioned by in-house artisans, and in some cases customised by creative director Alessandro Michele.

Vault is a no-brainer for the vintage-obsessed Michele: the pre-loved pieces reinforce the seasonless codes on which he has built his Gucci reboot. As he put it in an interview at Vault’s launch: “Gucci turns one hundred this year, and it’s the time to show everybody how beautiful it would be to give a second, a third life and more to old things that are the most beautiful.” Having successfully reissued the archival Jackie, Horsebit 1955 and bamboo-handled Diana bags in recent years to monster sales figures, as well as revisiting 1990s hits from Tom Ford-era Gucci for its centenary Aria collection, stepping into resale won’t feel like much of a stretch for Michele and CEO Marco Bizzarri. After all, it won’t have escaped them that Prada’s recent decision to reissue its signature nylon handbags from the 1990s and 2000s has resulted in the originals increasing in value by about 174 per cent, according to Rebag.

Reissued and archive-inspired looks, incidentally, were all over the spring/summer 2022 catwalks. Guests leaving the Chanel show could be heard joking that the latest collection resembled their watch lists on various resale websites: creative director Virginie Viard had brought back a raised 1980s catwalk, sent a bevy of 1990s-inspired clothes and accessories down it, and charged her models with giving their best Claudia Schiffer impression. From the Chanel-branded white swimwear (a nod to Karl Lagerfeld’s underwear looks from spring 1993) to the pastel miniskirt suits (spring ’94) and the sequins-and-cycling-shorts combos (remember Linda Evangelista with the surfboard for spring ’91?), it was a typically shrewd bid to capture the attention of 1990s-obsessed Gen-Zers without alienating those who remember the hits from the first time around.

Pierpaolo Piccioli went one step further at Valentino, issuing faithful reproductions of pieces from archive collections alongside new-season spring/summer 2022 creations. Look one, a flower-embroidered blouse and skirt, was a skimpier update on a look from Valentino Garavani’s legendary White Collection for his spring haute couture collection in 1968, worn by Marisa Berenson for the Henry Clarke-lensed campaign shot in Cy Twombly’s Rome apartment. Look 16, a tiger-print maxi coat, was a recreation of one from the 1967 collection, worn by Veruschka for a photograph taken in a Roman back street by Franco Rubartelli for Vogue. “This is how I used to relate to Valentino when I was a kid myself… I dreamed about it through seeing fashion photographs, never the clothes or the shows themselves,” Piccioli told Vogue last October.

Olivier Rousteing didn’t plunge quite as far back as the 1960s for his spring/summer 2022 collection at Balmain, but he did mark his 10-year anniversary at the French house with a re-edition of 17 of his favourite looks from his tenure; from the heavily embroidered Fabergé-inspired lampshade minidresses from the autumn/winter 2012 collection to the liquid-gold chain-mail dress from his spring/summer 2017 offering, worn by Kim Kardashian at the show’s after-party. He did it partly out of pride, he explains over WhatsApp voice notes, to celebrate his greatest hits, and partly to show off the house’s savoir faire. But he also wanted to make the styles available to a new generation of the Balmain Army who perhaps couldn’t afford them when they were debuted. “My Balmain customer has a great appreciation of my archive,” he says. He wouldn’t rule out launching a vintage Balmain hub. “The future could be bringing back the past into the present. It’s kind of reassuring with all that we are going through right now to buy something that you know will never die. It’s more than a trend – it’s an iconic, timeless piece.” Even if an item was created within living memory, heritage is hot.

It’s also lucrative. With so many brands reissuing archival styles, it’s only a matter of time before they are controlling the resale of the originals, too. “Luxury brands were more sceptical before, but now they are embracing the opportunity,” says D’Arpizio. “They see resale as a strong hook to really connect with this younger generation and also to create a larger community… of passionate people around the brand that gives it a longer life.” Execs only need look to outdoor clothing brand Patagonia for encouragement. Worn Wear, its resale programme, invites customers to trade in old products for credit, get them repaired, share their stories and photographs of their long-loved items, and purchase second-hand and upcycled pieces on its microsite.

It predicts that by 2023, Worn Wear will account for a double-digit percentage of Patagonia’s overall revenue. Does D’Arpizio think that brands that don’t engage with the resale opportunity are missing out? “I think so. In reality, luxury products such as cars, jewellery and watches have always had a secondary market. It’s embedded in products that are durable, and luxury by definition is something that should have a long life.”

It helps that new-gen tastemakers from Rihanna to Bella Hadid have made vintage and past-season pieces key facets of their looks. Cherie Balch of US-based vintage website Shrimpton Couture, who supplies Rihanna with her 1980s Halston and ’90s Yves Saint Laurent, even managed to persuade Katy Perry to don 1978 Pierre Cardin couture for a recent Unicef gala in Capri, Italy. “She never wears vintage, so having her wear it was a strong message to her fans and followers,” Balch says. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo, who chose a pink and black tweed spring 1995 Chanel suit for a visit to the White House in July 2021, needed less encouragement. Like most of her Gen-Z fan base, Rodrigo buys and sells her clothes on Depop, where 90 per cent of its active users are aged below 26.

Millennials are at it, too: Lily Allen’s worn Gucci mules are listed on Depop alongside her gently bashed about Céline Cabas tote (asking price: £110, “used condition as shown in photos, but plenty more life in it,” reads the accompanying caption). No surprises there: more than 36 million of us became first-time sellers on the second-hand clothing market in 2020. “When faced with many uncertainties, not just on the health side but also the financial side, sellers have thought about ways to monetise their wardrobes,” says Fanny Moizant, co-founder of Vestiaire Collective, the Paris-based resale platform with 11 million active members and more than 20,000 items listed per week. “They realised how much money lies in their closets.”

Perhaps the price a fashion item can command on the resale market will come to be seen as the ultimate mark of success for a luxury brand. Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière admitted as much at a New York Times talk in September: “As an artistic director, my mission is to do ‘new’… And the challenge is really inspiring and I enjoy doing it, but of course, like every artistic director, my real dream is to have timeless pieces that last more than a season and that people will wear forever.”

Referencing the surge in interest from Gen-Z collectors in his early collections for Balenciaga, over which he presided for 15 years as creative director, he continued: “I am lucky enough and old enough now to have the experience of collections I did more than 20 years ago and that, because of the resale market, have become collectable and appreciated by young people – have become ‘trendy’ again.”

The good news for those who missed out on Ghesquière’s enduringly cool spring/summer 2008 neoprene florals? They’re just a few clicks away. But be warned – the search can become addictive. Michelle Elie, a Haitian-American designer and a fanatical Comme des Garçons collector, has spent years truffling out pieces from past Rei Kawakubo collections that she rues not purchasing at the time. She describes this needle-in-a-haystack process as “torture”. On occasion, though, she strikes gold on the second-hand market. “Driving to Paris to pick this new baby up this weekend,” she emails, enclosing several photographs of a Comme des Garçons gingham tube dress from the much-referenced spring/summer 1997 “lumps and bumps” collection, which she has just won at auction. “So excited! Rare, rare treasure.”

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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