It's hard to keep up with how many companies are getting into the apparel resale market.
Etsy's recent announcement that it will acquire Depop for a metric ton of cash has been the latest proof that resale is, in fact, not a trend. Secondhand is here to stay.
TechCrunch wrote about the acquisition with the hilarious headline: "Etsy asks, 'How do you do, fellow kids?' with $1.6B Depop purchase."
It's a brilliant quip, but it also gets to the heart of something important about resale — how it's been seen by traditional retail as a niche for a younger generation. However, this method of shopping for apparel may be the very revenue stream that keeps companies competitive.
An incomplete list of retailers that are doing resale, but enough to make my point
|Name of Company||Date of Resale Announcement|
|J.C. Penney via ThredUp||August 2019|
|Macy's via ThredUp||August 2019|
|Madewell via ThredUp||October 2019|
|Gap via ThredUp||Feb. 2020|
|Walmart via ThredUp||May 2020|
|Levi Strauss||Oct. 2020|
|M.M. LaFleur||March 2021|
|Nike (refurbishment)||April 2021|
|Rent the Runway (dropped subscription requirement)||June 2021|
|Etsy via Depop||June 2021|
|Stitch Fix (not confirmed, but said they are thinking about it)||June 2021|
There are great things to come out of a plethora of retailers getting into resale. It may cut back on clothing ending up in landfills. More people may consider purchasing something that is already made versus buying something new, thereby saving on environmental resources. Additionally, with the exception of collector's items or rare finds, secondhand is usually priced more affordably, which opens up opportunities for people to experience brands that they otherwise may bypass. (Or indulge in a product because it seems more reasonable to obtain.)
The thing that keeps nagging at me is this: Will apparel retailers now have to reckon with the proliferation of years of cheap manufacturing practices?
Even companies that aren't labeled as fast fashion have put out garments that have benefited from a type of shorthand manufacturing process. The ability to put out more apparel at a less expensive price point has meant that our wardrobes have grown and that, say, we can consider buying a dress for $15. Pumping out $15 dresses and then expecting them to last not only through one owner, but also when they are passed to a second owner, is a stretch.
In order to get some perspective I talked with Sarah Azzouzi and Kyla Embrey, owners of vintage apparel company Lost Girls. Their store started out as a '76 Winnebago-turned-traveling-store and has grown into two brick-and-mortar locations in Chicago with an online e-commerce presence.
Azzouzi and Embrey have sourced apparel and accessories since starting their business in 2013. They have lots of hands-on experience in observing how manufacturing process changes have transformed clothes.
"Incrementally, throughout the decades, you can see a change in quality," said Embrey, speaking of changes that happened when garment production took big leaps — like from being handmade to machine-made, and then when synthetic materials were introduced. "I think there is ... a more noticeable difference in the quality in garments made in the last 20 years."
And that inflection point is why I was specifically interested in talking with vintage experts. Because we are hitting an interesting point in apparel sourcing for the market. Vintage, in broad terms, is a label that can be placed on items that are 20 years old. That means vintage apparel can now be sourced from around the years 2000 and 2001 — when fast fashion was gaining speed in the U.S.
"We've been doing it so long that I feel like we have a pretty good sense just from looking at or feeling a fabric to know — this may be really cute, but it's not going to hold up. Or, it's already in pretty bad shape," said Embrey.
"The construction is really poor in more contemporary garments," Azzouzi said. "Fabric from 2000 on, the weaves are a lot thinner. So, because the weaves are thinner there are less fibers for the stitches to literally hold on to."
And that construction is, in part, the result of changing global manufacturing. "With denim and T-shirts, I think what we see once you start to get into Y2K is you can really tell the difference between a well-constructed pair of jeans or a well-constructed T-shirt and one that's poorly made with how the seams line up," said Embrey. "And that's really just due to the constraints on garment workers that started to be really, really pushed hard during that time to push out as many garments as possible. And rush through it quickly."
That's not to say that every garment in the past two decades has been poorly constructed. But production sped up, and consumers embraced low-cost clothes and off-price merchandise, which fed into faster fashion seasons, and ultimately micro-seasons. And, as a recent study by the London-based Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce pointed out, almost half of U.K. fast fashion is made from new plastic, thereby underlining the concept that much of our apparel is produced in a way that is inexpensive and unsustainable.
So we have all of this clothing that has been produced, and it's out in the world at large. How much of it can really go on to a new home? Even back in the pre-pandemic life of 2019, Women's Wear Daily reported that vintage clothing prices were going up because supply of quality garments was limited, even as buying secondhand became more mainstream. "[T]his frenzy for old clothes has created something of a catch-22 for the vintage industry: Business is booming, but there are only so many desirable old clothes in the U.S. to go around," WWD wrote.
Yet, maybe the rush for resale as a bankable revenue stream will ultimately calm down to a nice simmer. Resale will be incorporated into a larger way to obtain clothing, along with occasionally buying new items, renting and clothing swaps. As Embrey puts it — it's a way to open up shoppers to another way of purchasing apparel.
"I think of it kind of in terms of the Starbucks effect," she said. "There have been studies that have shown that when Starbucks opens in a neighborhood that already has a local coffee shop, you would expect that it's bad for the local coffee shop. But, it's actually the opposite. Because the bigger retailer coming in creates a bigger audience of people wanting to drink coffee. And I feel like it's kind of the same when we're talking about big brands, big stores, big companies dipping their toe into this market. The more they do that, the more that it becomes accessible."