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Inside the Secret World of Vintage Fashion Scouting

In the rapidly growing market for vintage, a secretive group of elite 'pickers' know where to score the best clothes and accessories for celebrities and designers.
Racks of clothing at a second-hand store | Source: Shutterstock
  • M.C. Nanda

NEW YORK, United States — In 2018, Greg Ross flew out to a vintage warehouse in Seattle to sort through piles of vintage clothing at the behest of Kanye West. He wound up spending about $1,000 of the Yeezy brand and artist's money, mostly on thrifted military apparel, before flying back to Los Angeles the next day. The clothes later served as inspiration for West's Yeezy line, and Ross soon found himself going on more trips for West and other designers.

“I’d just be sent there to go shopping and find references, things that I liked or things that I thought could work for Kanye or the collection [Yeezy],” said Ross, who has also worked as a designer and stylist for West and Yeezy.

Ross is, in many ways, living the picker's dream. He and others in his profession sort through mountains of used clothes found at estate sales, flea markets and secondhand stores in search of grails. Some work for second-hand stores or private collectors. And some are hired by designers, celebrities and stylists in need of 1940s military vests with button closures or a perfectly faded, asymmetrical T-shirt.

While sourcing clothing for celebrities and designers is exciting and sometimes glamorous, travelling to second-hand thrift stores, small-town estate sales and warehouses around the country with uncertain payoffs takes its toll. There are professional pickers, like Ross, as well as many that count picking as a hobby, a way to make a little cash visiting vintage shops and browsing flea markets.

“If you put together all of the hours I spend working on this, I’m making significantly less than minimum wage,” said Alessandra Canario of Allybird Vintage in New Jersey and Seven Wonders in Brooklyn, a vintage vendor who does all of her own picking. “I don’t think people are prepared to spend every waking minute of their life sorting away.”

The demand for vintage and thrifted clothing has risen in recent years due to environmental concerns as well as a nostalgia boom that has Gen Z and Millennial consumers looking to the fashion of their (or their parents’) youths.

Anybody who's good at what they do isn't going to disclose anything at this point.

The industry has also moved to online platforms like The RealReal and Poshmark that are fuelling new demand, along with vintage and thrifted shops that are multiplying in middle-and-upper class neighbourhoods everywhere. Brands like Ralph Lauren, Guess and Urban Outfitters sell vintage and thrifted items to the masses. According to Thredup, the total secondhand apparel market was worth over $24 billion in 2018, a figure the resale site expects to more than double by 2023.

With new platforms and more competitors joining in, the expansion of the vintage and thrifted clothing market has changed how vendors and pickers alike operate. As prices continue to rise it has also fundamentally changed the landscape for low-income communities, once the epicentre of vintage and second-hand stores.

The market is shifting, and both pickers and vendors are becoming increasingly secretive about sources and clothing sites.

Vintage dealer Tommy Dorr speaks with about 20 pickers around the world on a weekly basis to supply his shop in Detroit and showroom in Los Angeles, as well as his personal archive. He won’t say much beyond this — where they are, who else they work for or even what they talk about.

“It’s hard to keep a secret in this business,” said Dorr. He started collecting vintage clothing in 1999 and went full-time in 2002 with his Detroit shop, later adding the Mothfood Vintage showroom in Los Angeles. “Anybody who’s good at what they do isn’t going to disclose anything at this point.”

Here’s what pickers will say about their mysterious profession: vintage in major cities is usually more expensive, so travelling around the country is the best way to consistently find good scores. Dorr said he travels at least once a month, mainly around the Midwest, to meet pickers or follow up on tips.

Often, used clothing can be purchased by the pound from warehouses or hangers, where minimum orders range from $200 to $500. Some pickers have contacts who point them to promising estate sales or store liquidations.

Customers vary from vintage dealers and brands to stylists, celebrities and collectors. Ross specialises in vintage military gear but said many brands come to him for help finding fabric styles, dimensions, graphics and patterns to use for their collections.

“It doesn’t matter if a jacket or T-shirt is ugly,” he said, since items are often taken apart in studios to be photographed, measured or sent to dye houses for future collections.

It’s usually not an especially lucrative job, considering pickers can spend thousands of hours sorting through piles of clothes. Vintage store owners and brands can spend upwards of $30,000 a year paying pickers, while some brands keep them in-house as salary positioned for research and styling help.

Secrecy is key. Pickers don't swap tips via online message boards; many prefer to talk shop one-on-one, and offline, for fear of having prime clothing sources overrun. Vendors strive to cultivate a sense of loyalty with pickers as the industry becomes more competitive and demand increases.

“I’ve been screwed over a lot,” said Dorr, adding that he’s careful not to post his location on social media when picking in case other vintage dealers try to find the source.

For vendors and pickers like Dorr, sourcing changed as the industry moved online. Resale platforms like Poshmark and Depop have produced a new generation of vintage vendors that eschew pickers for strictly one-time transactions on sites like Ebay and Yahoo Auctions.

It's hard to keep a secret in this business.

Oliver Purnell owns a Depop shop and brick-and-mortar store in Bristol called Oliver's Archive that specialises in streetwear and archival designer pieces, and does all of his vintage sourcing himself online. "The stuff I sell, you can't really find a supplier for because they would just rather sell it themselves individually," said Purnell.

Second-hand stores have become more aware of pickers in recent years: last year Goodwill worked with Google for a “Curated by Goodwill NYNJ” pop-up shop that took clothing from donations and trained “internal stylists and featured fashion influencers” to stock the store.

The influx of interest from fashion brands coupled with rising demand for sustainable clothing has caused prices to go up at many discount second-hand clothing stores. Members of low-income communities, and primarily communities of colour, have pioneered the second-hand and vintage clothing movement. They are being impacted by the “gentrification” of second-hand clothing stores, said Dominique Drakeford, a sustainability impact influencer.

When second-hand stores raise prices to capitalise on an influx of pickers and vendors, the communities they’ve serviced for generations are priced out.

“It leads to further economic turmoil for communities who have ... set the trend for mainstream fashion,” said Drakeford. “There are so many ways to integrate more equitable solutions without just solely focusing on the bottom line.”

Ross has also witnessed the drastic pricing changes in second-hand clothing stores over the past few years.

“As soon as a white woman in a Goyard tote bag and vintage or distressed outfit shows up, I know what she’s doing and why she’s there,” said Ross, who is Hispanic. “That’s when the prices go up.”

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