Vintage Shopping Is Forever Changed—But Will It Survive?

In recent years, secondhand clothing businesses have been seeing exponential growth. Between the unsustainable and unethical manufacturing processes that go hand-in-hand with fast-fashion, one-and-done outfits have been losing their cool with conscious consumers.

Celebrities with a penchant for vintage have certainly upped the chic factor. Kim Kardashian West regularly wears vintage looks, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have chosen to wear archival gowns to the MET Gala for the past several years, and this year’s Oscars red carpet was awash with repeat dresses and suits.

Before the pandemic hit, the resale market was expected to double, hitting $51 billion by 2024, according to a 2020 trend report from ThredUp and GlobalData. Then COVID-19 capsized the retail industry, including both big-name brands and small consignment stores. Resale businesses were particularly impacted by questions around whether the virus could be transmitted through clothing and, if so, would it be safe to shop previously-owned garments.

As businesses get back to a new semblance of their pre-pandemic operations, here’s what to know about vintage shopping  now and what it might look like in the future.

Is it safe to shop vintage?

How likely is it to contract COVID-19 from an article of clothing? Very low, says Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist and chief of staff at Humber River Hospital. “The virus that causes COVID-19 really doesn’t live on fabric surfaces very long,” he says. “You’re looking at a day tops and that’s based on studies where they inoculated surfaces with way more virus than what you would expect from somebody just handling a piece of fabric or coughing on it.” He said the real risk comes from being face-to-face with other shoppers. (WEAR. YOUR. MASK!)

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Still, the information about how the virus spreads has been confusing, to say the least, as scientists grappled to figure out exactly what we’re dealing with. Many customers still feel tentative.

Nineteen-year-old Sarah Johnson, a student from Ottawa, has been shopping vintage for the past two years. Before COVID-19, she never worried about cleanliness, but didn’t love the smell of the strong cleaning product used on the clothes, so would wash anything she purchased at least once. “Whenever I tried on a lot of clothes I would come home feeling gross and take a shower,” she says. “But I was never worried about getting sick.” Since the pandemic, she’s yet to go back to a thrift store, but has admitted she’s gone to the mall at least a few times. Johnson says she wants to go back to thrifting, but feels unsure. “It wouldn’t be the same as before. I don’t think I’d try on the clothes.”

Alyse Stach, a 29-year-old purchasing specialist from Calgary couldn’t wait to get back to Value Village the minute it opened up again. She isn’t concerned about contracting COVID-19 on clothes and during a recent shopping excursion, tried on clothes overtop of what she was wearing in the aisle of the store. “I’ve been able to slip it on in the aisle and if it wasn’t that much I would just bring it home. If it didn’t work, I’d be like, ‘Whatever, I’ll donate it again,’” she says.

What are the new rules for shopping and selling vintage?

The policies around trying on clothes in-store vary. According to its website, Value Village has decided to close fitting rooms, but has extended the exchange policy to 14 days. Calgary-based consignment retailer The Upside started to offer free returns for online orders when the pandemic started, and does not resell any returned items for 24 hours as a precaution.

Courtney Watkins, owner of the Vancouver luxury fashion reseller Mine & Yours, introduced a handful of new procedures for in-store shopping, including limiting the number of customers in store to six, and once someone has tried a piece of clothing on it’s placed in a separate fitting room, steamed at the end of the day and then put back on the floor.

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All of the boutiques also offer sanitization stations and have increased cleaning of high-touch surfaces. Britt Rawlinson, owner of Toronto’s VSP Consignment, turned to a friend in pediatric cardiology who recommended a “really amazing cleaning product” that’s natural and safe, something that checked off two concerns of hers—green and effective.

Due to the current by-laws across the country, all consignment and vintage shops require staff and customers to wear masks while they are in-store. Forgot to bring yours? Don’t worry. At The Upside you can buy a mask made from a designer dust bag (not previously used), with a portion of proceeds going to a women’s charity, or they also provide disposable ones. Mine & Yours also offers pink disposable masks to match their branding.

In between TikTok challenges and Netflix bingeing, the other quarantine activity everyone couldn’t resist was purging their closets. Lauryn Vaughn, founder and CEO of the The Upside, has seen a huge increase in the volume of items coming in for consignment. “You can definitely tell people have been like, ‘This was on my to-do list for a while,’” she says. “There’s been a massive influx of incoming products.” Resellers have had to adjust their intake processes to deal with the sudden influx, and make sure they are able to reduce the number of people at their store at one time. Rawlinson says she used to let customers drop off at any time, but now she asks them to send images for pre-approval, which allows the drop-off to be very quick. Watkins has nixed the walk-ins too and now schedules appointments with sellers. At The Upside, the majority of sellers are outside of Calgary, so they offer a prepaid shipping label, meaning all you have to do is pack your items and drop off at the post office.

Can resale boutiques even survive COVID?

Although most places in Canada are now in Stage 3 of reopening, we are still very much in the middle of a global pandemic. With many companies allowing their workforce to work from home for the foreseeable future or even permanently (à la Shopify and Facebook), indoor gatherings still limited to 50, and the uncertainty back to school brings, it’s not a surprise consumers are changing their habits around refreshing their wardrobes, be it due to lack of occasions to get dressed up, financial concerns or, most likely, both.

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For some thrift shoppers, those financial concerns have made them put their wallets away entirely. Robin Sharp, a 35-year-old wedding photographer from Toronto, exclusively shops consignment, after realizing how unsustainable buying new was. In March she stopped shopping for clothes altogether, since weddings weren’t exactly happening and she had no income. Once her favourite secondhand stores finally reopened (and she was working again), she made her way back, but found the experience more challenging since she wasn’t able to try on clothes in store. “I’ve been lucky and everything I’ve bought has fit me nicely,” she says, “but it’s also made me a little more selective because if I’m not sure it will fit, I won’t bring it home.”

For others (lucky enough to be employed and have disposable income right now), with nowhere to escape but online—from Zoom calls to retail therapy—online shopping became a pandemic self-soothing mechanism. What people were interested in buying suddenly went from cocktail dresses to sweats. Rawlinson says she knew the minute the pandemic hit, sweatpants and cozies would fly off the shelves (they did), but what surprised her was what luxury items were still being purchased. “We were also still selling Chanel jackets,” she says. “I think it really was a form of retail therapy, like ‘It’s a great deal, I deserve it and it will look great on a Zoom call.’”

For Vaughn, her business took a big hit in March, but to her surprise the numbers began to increase the following months. “We’re continuing to outpace our last year’s numbers and even our projection after that,” she says. COVID-19 has forced a lot of people to reassess their values and priorities, including their consumer habits and how they directly impact the environment. Not only is secondhand shopping more sustainable, but it’s so much more economical than buying fresh off the rack. Case in point: This Smythe blazer is $398 here vs. a new one, which will set you back $795.

Watkins saw her business shift to online, which had its own benefits including making up for lost foot traffic. “March and April were definitely our most hit months [in store],” she says. “Our in-store traffic is still down by 50%, but our online traffic increased by about the same.”

It’s impossible to predict how long the pandemic will be around and what consumers will be craving when life goes back to so-called normal. But there’s good reason to believe that the economy post-pandemic will continue to fuel the popularity of the circular fashion industry. With everyone having Marie Kondo’d their closets, do they really want to fill them back up with more items they’ll eventually toss? Sharp says she purged her closet at the start of the pandemic: “I find it’s helped me figure out what I truly need and wear.”

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