NEW YORK, United States — There’s been a digital explosion in the market for pre-owned fashion. In the past year, we’ve seen a veritable land grab in the online consignment and resale space with the number of “re-commerce” sites now exceeding 50 — and many more, no doubt, incubating in Silicon Valley, New York, London and beyond. Several market levels are being addressed: mall/high street (Threadflip, Tradesy), thrift (LikeTwice, NiftyThrifty), upmarket (TheRealReal), haute vintage (Byronesque) and boutique (ReFashioner, my own company).
It may seem like these sites are dealing in a mere by-product of the fashion industry. But no, this is the product. Everything that’s bought becomes pre-owned. A tidal wave is building and it has the power to undermine or even destroy. Indeed, the stockpile of merchandise is overwhelmingly vast. I did the math in 2009 for ReFashioner’s beta, a luxury fashion swap site: $880 billion trapped in closets. And that’s just high-end womenswear in the US.
Picture the slide in all those investor decks from 2011 to 2012, during which an estimated $172 million in venture money was poured into second-hand fashion extraction vehicles. That spectacular metric seemed to be the successor to the surplus inventory calculations of Gilt, HauteLook, RueLaLa, Ideeli — not to mention the doomed, exorbitant US launch of Vente-Privee. As with flash sales, the investor story in “re-commerce” is about monetising excess inventory.
But therein lies the rub. As with flash sales, this inventory is delimited by the retail market. And it’s wayward. The ROI sucks when every SKU is singular and inventory is locked up — literally — in houses. And there’s something of a standoff between buyer and seller: the non-professional seller, accustomed to seeing 100 percent mark-ups in the real world, wants top dollar for her career basics and contemporary designer wear, while the buyer wants Zappos-like service, Etsy pricing and Net-a-Porter merchandising. There are other issues too: resistance to higher ticket items without fittings, sketchy return policies, knock-off trading.
But there’s more. This merchandise is personal. It’s not just a numbers game, it’s about everything fashion means to us. It’s about honouring the past of the clothes and their place in our lives. If this is going to work, we need to add content and context. Idealistic, maybe. But idealism is how things get changed and idealism can work to the advantage of this category.
Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that shopping second-hand was contrarian. I remember, because I’ve always preferred pre-owned. It’s about the hunt and the history and the souls of objects; it’s about the superior construction of true vintage, about loathing trends and liking to look different. But then, suddenly, vintage was in vogue (and in Vogue).
Back to that tidal wave. All this new-old merchandise, if left to its own devices, could drown a lot of bottom lines. As the increasingly variegated and expanding pre-owned market cracks the above-listed consumer fears — and it’s happening — there’ll be ever-wider acceptance of actual vintage and of past season pieces. The fashion industry can try to ignore it or fight it, but it’s happening and embracing it is really the only option.
At first glance this tidal wave of owned merchandise, when it’s resold, contributes nothing to the bottom line of those who originally produced it. It seems to undermine the industry. But with a more systematic approach to valuation, we could create a secondary market that actually enhances the primary one. It’s resale value as a selling point; a designer’s archive as author’s back catalogue. The best work stays in print — or the best pieces retain (and maybe increase in) value. I’ve come to think of this as the ‘Blue Book of Fashion’ — not the Corvettes and Cadillacs and Subaru Outbacks of different years, but the Birkins and Bumsters and Wrap Dresses of different vintages, and on through the ranks of fashion from haute to high street.
Such a ‘Blue Book’ would have the handy side effect of collating designers’ old work. And then quality past-season pieces of all price points can be recognised and properly valued. Conversely, trash can go cheap — no more Bangladeshi factory workers need die for fast fashion.
So how can such a massive task be achieved?
If all the clothes in the world come back to the market in a second (and third, and fourth…) round, who could possibly write that catalogue? Why, ‘the crowd’ of course. I envisage a structure into which the buyers and seekers and sellers and owners input each piece’s data — and an algorithm spits out its current value, according to factors like consumer desire, realised prices, original (adjusted) retail.
Why does this matter?
It matters because we, as a species, need to rethink our consumption. In all areas, including fashion, we must buy less, but buy better. Invest in quality that retains value. Gradually our mass taste buds will crave more haute flavours. And, if the pre-owned market is successfully stratified and organised, we’ll be able to purchase better quality items at several points in a garment’s lifecycle.
Currently, pre-owned vendors in the midst of the current land grab are fighting Round One, competing for the glammest cast-offs, rooting through socialites’ spare rooms, hitting up the same stylists, editors, designers, bloggers — oh there’s plenty to go around, even if the scuffle is a little unseemly. But then comes Round Two, when the first resold pieces come back on the market and everyone wakes up en masse to the cash that’s sitting in their closets. We don't want a bloodbath. We need a plan.
So let’s learn from the demise of flash sales and avoid a race to the bottom. The closet economy is a closed economy: let’s avoid inflation and set some standards. Let’s remember the true value of great design and good design and pre-loved ‘interesting’ design. Let’s work together to literally revalue the objects we spend our lives creating, styling, writing about and selling.
Kate Sekules is the founder of ReFashioner.
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