Where to shop for vintage and secondhand clothing online and in-person

It’s time for #SecondHandSeptember, the Oxfam initiative that asks people in the UK and across the world to commit to buying only secondhand clothes for 30 days or more. We’re big fans of buying vintage and secondhand here at Sloe News, and I hope you are too! 

I love making my own clothing, but sometimes I can’t or don’t want to. With the exception of socks and underwear, vintage and secondhand shops are the first place I look when I need to buy something for my wardrobe. Not only is it a more sustainable option than buying new, I can usually get a much better quality garment for less money than I would if I went to a traditional retail store, even in a competitive market like NYC.

Interest in vintage and secondhand clothes increased dramatically in 2020. Online resale site Thread-Up estimates that the market will double in size over the next 5 years. Some say this is due to a generational shift in values. Millennials and Gen Z are said to be more invested in sustainability than previous generations, though the evidence is a little shaky depending on who you ask.

Regardless, it’s never been easier to shop for secondhand and vintage clothes online. 

Some sellers work directly through apps like Instagram, who’s photo and video capabilities make it a great tool to showcase items for sale. Or platforms like Poshmark, Depop, Mercari, and Thread-Up, which focus on newer, lightly used clothing. The brands on these sites tend to be from mass market retailers, mall stores, and maybe a few contemporary labels like Coach or Kate Spade. These sites are perfect for when you’re still thinking about that printed pant you saw at Anthro two seasons ago but didn’t buy. You might get lucky! 

Depop is unique among this group because it’s also home to a number of artisans who use the app as a digital storefront to sell their one-of-a-kind creations.

If you’re looking for high end designer names, you could try The RealReal or Vestiaire Collective. Both offer authentication services. With Vestiaire you are given the option to purchase the service. The RealReal includes authentication with every purchase, though you may want to take their judgement with a grain of salt. The company is currently being sued by shareholders for misrepresenting the rigorousness of their authentication process. Past employees allege they were not properly trained to authenticate items, and customers have reported receiving fake goods. For what it’s worth, I have purchased a number of items from The RealReal over the years, and they’ve all been fine. When I have had problems with an order (not related to counterfeit goods), they always fixed things quickly.

Finally, you have the OG clearinghouses for secondhand clothes (and let’s be real, everything else): Ebay and Etsy. These platforms run the gamut from junk traders flipping things they picked up at a local charity shop to upscale vintage archivists who stage elaborate, seasonal themed photoshoots. If you’re willing to put in the work of scrutinizing blurry camera phone photos, or getting creative with your search terms, you can stumble across some great deals. When I shop for vintage or secondhand clothes online, I usually end up purchasing from one of these sites.

Photo by Chrissie Kremer

What is the difference between vintage and secondhand anyway?

Secondhand means just that, any item that is being resold on the secondary market. It could be used, or un-used. There are no other requirements to meet. 

Vintage is more specific. Sometimes people use vintage and antique interchangeably, but technically vintage means an item that is between 20-99 years old. An antique is an item that is at least 100 years old. I hate to break it to you, but that means that everything from 2001-1920 is officially vintage. Don’t forget to put on your retinol tonight!

There’s a wide world of In-person options too. Just like their digital counterparts, how much you pay generally depends on how much effort the seller puts in up-front and how much digging you are willing to do. These businesses tend to be unique to your local area, so I’m speaking in generalities here. There are roughly 4 types of brick and mortar shops selling vintage and secondhand clothing. I’ve arranged them from least to most expensive:

  1. By-the-pound thrift stores: the Spirit Airlines of secondhand clothes shopping. You will pay very little, but nothing is included. These places do not screen their items for much of anything beyond making sure they aren’t heavily damaged. Some don’t even put items on hangers. They’re piled into bins and it’s up to you to dig through it all and extract any hidden treasures. If you do a google search for “[your town] by the pound” you’ll be able to find the closest business of this type.
  1. Thrift or charity shops: These are typically run by organizations like The Salvation Army, Goodwill, Oxfam, or more local groups. These groups use the sales generated by the store to help fund other programs as part of their charitable mission. Most items are on hangers, and are screened more diligently than shops that sell by-the-pound. The prices reflect the extra effort put into sorting, but they’re still far below retail for similar things if you were to buy them new, especially if you go on a sale day. If the shop is located in a trendy or higher income area, it might also feature more brand-name items or a section curated with style in mind.
  1. Consignment and resale shops: Their business models vary slightly, but their selection process is very similar. Resale shops will buy your unwanted clothes from you outright. Usually you can choose if you want cash or store credit. You may be familiar with resale chains like Buffalo Exchange, Crossroads, or Plato’s Closet. You bring in your clothing and an employee will sort through it to see if you have the kind of items they’re looking for at the moment and offer you cash or store credit for the things they want to keep. They may even offer to donate and recycle the items they don’t want to buy from you. Consignment works similarly, but you will have to wait until your item sells for your payout.
  1. Vintage and antique stores: These are usually local small businesses that are unique to your area. There can still be a range of quality and price-points among this type of store, but they merchandise their offerings like a more traditional retail shop will. So once you see a few items, you’ll have an idea of the prices and quality you’ll find at that particular shop. Regardless of price, this kind of store stocks exclusively vintage items. They may be organized by era and/or type of item. Thankfully, it’s becoming more common for shops to have a plus-size rack too, which can make shopping by size a little easier.
    The most expensive example of this kind of shop is sellers who deal in archival fashion. They only sell the best-of-the-best: The most interesting or famous designs, in the most pristine condition possible. It takes a lot of effort to put together collections of this quality and you’ll see that reflected in the price. Items from these sellers will routinely go for well over their original retail price.
Photo by Lara Chouette

Tips for finding exactly what you want

  • When shopping in-person, I don’t recommend you have your heart set on anything more specific than “a coat” or “a t-shirt”. With limited floor space and storage, individual shops need to be picky about what product they sell. There’s a good chance that means they won’t have the matching blazer that goes with the skirt you have.
  • If you have a certain style in mind, like “a wrap dress” or “linen cargo pants,” try taking your search online. Use descriptions like “item style + fabric + color,” or “brand name + item style + color.” From there, you can get more detailed if you need to. I like to do more vague searches to see if anything wild catches my eye.
  • If you are familiar with the item/brand you’re shopping for, using sizes in your search terms can be helpful. But sizing between brands and across ages is extremely inconsistent. It’s always best to consult listed measurements to make sure an item is likely to fit.
  • Be patient. Secondhand and vintage shopping is unpredictable. Sometimes you win big, and sometimes you go home empty handed. But it’s always worth holding out to get exactly what you want.

Do you have a great secondhand or vintage find you want to share? Drop a photo and your story in the Discord!

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