By: Summer Xu
From: Northwestern University
Welcome to an era where sustainability meets style — Vintage shops and resale markets are weaving a story of classic styles’ comeback. The rise of resale, remake, and retro fashion trends throughout the past few years under the rise of fashion sustainability awareness heightened the industry of vintage clothes shops in the U.S. Studies have shown that three-fifths of U.S. shoppers regularly purchase vintage items, ranging from clothing to classic ornaments and decorations. Resale markets and second-hand clothes have been prevalent for many years, yet most of its market share is either limited to nonprofits, such as Goodwill, or high-end vintage stores.
With more people participating in the vintage business out of the synergy between sustainability and fashion, chain vintage shops such as the Crossroads Exchange and Buffalo Exchange started to appear, targeting younger millennial buyers with a nostalgic taste. At the same time, many individuals also dive into this field to leave a lasting legacy in the growing revolution. Small vintage businesses rose during the past few years despite the challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic.
To understand the vintage trend's impact on both chain retail stores and independent small businesses, it's essential to explore the distinct business models behind these shops of varying sizes. In addition, taking a look into the factors that contributed to the global vintage trend is a crucial question to consider before delving deeper into the business operations.
The Rise of Sustainable Fashion
From yard sales to non-profit clothing donation stands, vintage shops existed long before they became a trend. Starting from early 2018, the “retro” trend made its comeback to the fashion scene as many major brands started their re-issue of representing designs in the past.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic tension and increasing nostalgia for the 2000s era also led to an increase in the second-hand clothing market and resale fashion. In fact, in a 2020 report generated by ThredUp, an online consignment store, the resale market grew 25 times faster in 2020 in comparison with 2019. Second-hand retail businesses continued to grow in recent years. According to Global Data, a retail analytics firm, the valuation of the second-hand fashion market in the United States was $24 billion in 2018. In three years, this number rose to a valuation of $34 billion.
From a fashion perspective, the vintage trend challenges the much-criticized fast fashion trend by celebrating creativity and providing more classic styles at affordable prices. Statistics show that the second-hand market has the potential to present competitiveness to the fast fashion market that appears to dominate the fashion business industry nowadays. Looking ahead, according to Global Data, there are indications that by 2028, the second-hand market is expected to exceed fast fashion by $20 billion, reaching a valuation exceeding $64 billion. From a sustainability perspective, resale emerged as a way of reducing garment waste and slowing down fast fashion, which is a major contributor to overconsumption pollution and exploitative labor practices. Apart from its environmental contributions, the vintage market also exists as a circular economy option, extending the lives and market values of used fashion items.
However, the questions of how vintage resale shops sustain their businesses amidst the competition of first-hand retail shops are worth considering. Additionally, how different second-hand vintage businesses operate also plays a significant role in the rise of the resale fashion trend. To understand these questions, here are two case studies conducted in Evanston, Illinois. The two interviewed shops below represent two major types of vintage businesses prevalent today: small personal businesses and large-scale chain retail stores.
Interviews with Local Designers and Shop Owners
- Stepping Out On Faith
Stepping Out On Faith is a small local consignment store located at 1632 Orrington Avenue in Evanston, Illinois. The shop owner, Vivian Killebrew, opened this shop fifteen years ago under her interest in vintage fashion. All the items in the store are put on racks for 90 days and all prices are marked down 10% every 30 days. If an item is not sold out, it would be returned to the owner or donated, which ensures a circulation of items in the shop.
With a strong interest in vintage fashion, Killebrew maintains an appreciation for all of the items in the shop. “Some items will never wear out pretty,” She commented pointing at one of the jackets, "That would last for 10 years.”
The time duration is what Killebrew sees as the most valuable aspect of owning a vintage store. She calls the fashion items purchased in fast fashion stores as “throw-away fashion.” At the same time, she also acknowledges that these fast fashion products are relatively more affordable. Therefore, she claims that the goal of the shop is to “get great brands, and get good quality stuff at a fraction of the cost.”
During the pandemic, Stepping Out on Faith faced challenges as the store was forced to close for three months. Connecting with customers is something that Killebrew believes helped the shop a lot over the past fifteen years. In the interview, she mentioned a story when a traveler coming from the West Coast knocked on the door of the shop one rainy night asking if he could buy a jacket to keep him warm. Although the shop just closed, Killebrew welcomed him in. In the end, the visitor not only made his purchase but also ended up ordering pizza together with Killebrew. With such connections, Killebrew secured a loyal customer base throughout the years in the town of Evanston.
Overall, the circulating items, affordable prices, and the emotional connection built between customers and the shop owners are some factors that keep these independent-owned vintage shops together.
2. Crossroads Trading
Unlike the small local business mentioned above, Crossroads Trading is a chain retail business for resale opening across the US that has been around 30 years. With the upsurge of digital-focused online resale markets, Crossroads Trading remains an influential presence in the resale market.
Walking into the shop, Crossroads Trading located at the center of Evanston Downtown seems more organized with a less sense of individual style. There were many customers, mostly college students and younger generations checking out the items assorted by styles and colors.
According to an online interview conducted by fashion magazine, Glossy, Crossroads Trading has maintained its physical store retail mode throughout the years. Crossroads Trading's most online-oriented offering is a mail-in selling option, allowing customers to send in their unwanted clothing from a distance instead of visiting a physical store. Crossroads’ competitiveness is maintained by its high-quality service, selling convenience, as well as opening more store locations.
Nowadays, the younger generation brings their emphasis on environmental protection and sustainability into the world of fashion, setting a new wave of fashion trends. The trend of "shifting to thrift" is not just driven by nostalgia; it also reflects the growing significance of sustainability awareness in fashion markets while celebrating fashion creativity. In contrast to the fast fashion industry, vintage fashion offers classic styles at affordable prices, making sure that each piece of clothing withstands the test of time, which reduces pollution generated by garment waste.
Despite challenges posed by the pandemic during the last few years, resale fashion trends thrived, especially in small vintage businesses. For small vintage businesses, apart from ensuring high-quality clothing and timely circulation of items within the store, the owners build a theme for their shop and maintain a stable customer base. For large-scale chain resale stores with long histories, an essential quest for them is to embrace the vintage trend among young generations. Many stores, such as Crossroads Trading, still preserve their tradition of physical retail despite the e-commerce trend. However, they stood out in the market for the past thirty years due to their high-quality service and multiple stores in different locations across the US.
Looking forward, the future of the resale fashion industry has the possibility of surpassing fast fashion as a trendy alternative for the new generation. This evolution of sustainable fashion will only benefit the fashion market and the environment. In summary, the collective effort of small local vintage businesses and large-scale chain stores cater to the tastes of various demographics, presenting a dynamic industry with a promising future ahead.
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