how second-hand became the main attraction of British fashion

If clothing swaps have traditionally been about lumpy sweaters and past denim, the format was definitely elevated last week. The Absolut Swap Shop opened in London with rooms full of pre-loved and “deadstock” clothes (clothing that never sold in the first place), chosen by sustainability influencer Venetia La Manna, body positivity campaigner Nyome Nicholas-Williams and Harry Lambert, the famous stylist who works with Harry Styles, Emma Corrin and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Together they have nearly a million Instagram followers. The sold-out event gave shoppers the chance to trade everything in their wardrobe for second-hand clothing.

Lambert says the event appealed to him because he recently changed his way of thinking about fashion. “When I was younger I would buy stuff and wear it a few times and then throw it away,” he says. Now he says he’s trying to put himself on a more sustainable path and hopes the Swap Shop will encourage others to do the same.

A retail space in the Brent Cross shopping center that once housed a Topshop has also just opened as Charity.Super.Mkt, a second-hand clothing department store conceived by former Red or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway and Maria Chenoweth, CEO of Traid . Many medium-sized companies such as Cos, Joules and Toast have started reselling preloved online in the past year alongside their new seasonal collection or organizing their own clothing swap. Love Island, a reality show once sponsored by fast fashion brand Pretty Little Thing, is now sponsored by eBay for the second time in a row, and Depop (which allows people to buy and sell vintage clothes online) has stars including Olivia Rodrigo, their sell clothes on the app. Children’s clothing is now the fastest growing second-hand sector.

These are all examples of how beloved fashion has moved from the fringe of society to mainstream. It can be found in both luxury malls and vintage boutiques, bought and sold by parents, influencers and celebrities.

These movements are in line with consumer behaviour. According to GlobalData, the UK clothing resale market has grown by 149% between 2016 and 2022. It is expected to increase by 67.5% between 2022 and 2026. There are also signs that the popularity of fast fashion is waning. Controversial cheap clothing brand Shein was the most Googled fashion brand in 2022, but a recent report revealed that sales in the US had fallen for five consecutive months from June last year. Charity shops, meanwhile, saw an 11% increase in sales in the three months to the end of September, while Oxfam’s sales were up 40% in the run-up to Christmas.

The boom in popular clothing is largely driven by Generation Z. A research project by Boston Consulting Group and resale site Vestiaire in 2022 showed that this demographic of consumers was the most likely to buy (31%) and sell (44%) second-hand items. with millennials hot on their heels. Depop reports that 90% of active users are under the age of 26 and the hashtag “vintage” has 28.7 billion views on TikTok, the favorite app of Gen Z.

Alex Goat, the CEO of youth culture consultancy Livity, says the motivation behind this shift is partly environmental. “Second hand wearing is a demonstrable expression of your intent and a rejection of one of the most polluting industries in the world,” she says. “Many young people are looking for a way to stand out and express their personality. Fashion has always been a way to do this.”

Anne-Marie Curtis was editor-in-chief at Elle until 2019 and launched Calendar, a magazine about sustainable fashion in 2021. She says her recent experiences buying preloved were inspired by her daughter in her 20s — and she’s not alone. “I think a lot of us actually learned from that generation, whether it’s your kids or someone in the office,” she says.

The huge increase in the market for children’s clothing shows another way in which older generations get to work second-hand. According to the 2021 Reuse Report from e-commerce company Mercari and GlobalData, it is the fastest growing resale category, projected to grow by 493% over the next ten years. EBay reported a 76% increase in second-hand children’s clothing sales in 2020.

If buying preloved is part of this story, selling is the flip side. Consumers are now selling what they no longer want to wear, thereby earning money and participating in the circular economy. Goat says this is part of the appeal for Generation Z: “the second-hand market is a legitimate way for young people to make money on their own terms.”

There is also a redefinition at the top end of the fashion market. Retailers ranging from Selfridges to Net-A-Porter have ventured into resale, and have twice partnered with Reluxe, a site selling popular designer goods founded by stylist Clare Richardson in 2022. They report that, over the collaborations, 90% of the range sold within a few hours.

Wayne Hemingway and Maria Chenoweth opened Charity Super.Mkt in North London's Brent Cross Shopping Centre, in a former Topshop.

Wayne Hemingway and Maria Chenoweth opened Charity Super.Mkt in North London’s Brent Cross Shopping Centre, in a former Topshop. Photo: Graeme Robertson/The Observer

Megan Reynolds, fashion and marketing director at Matches, says she sees the collaboration’s success as a sign that consumer priorities are changing. “Our customers are confident about what they want in their wardrobe. Sometimes [that] replaces the current season, so the opportunity to bring another chance to the one who escaped is exciting for us.

Curtis confirms this. Even among fashion editors, she says, pre-loved pieces are becoming the norm: “I don’t really know anyone in the industry who buys a lot [new] stuff no more.” Resale is now part of the vocabulary of the luxury consumer. Luca Solca, senior research analyst of global luxury goods at Bernstein, says players like Vestiaire and The RealReal “[help] creating a reliable second-hand market.”

And, says Goat, consumers of all ages are realizing that Generation Z is onto something: “Second-hand shopping offers solutions to several key issues: style, cost, and sustainability.”

Leave a Comment