THRIFTIN’ AIN’T EASY
My Firsthand Guide to All Things Secondhand
As someone who grew up poor, I spent a lot of time in thrift stores with my mom and grandma.
At first, it was embarrassing, as my mom had quite the knack for finding the absolute worst matching sets (like a hot pink fuzzy one with the illest-fitting pants you ever did see) and forcing me to wear them to school. However, over time, as I was given more freedom and honed my own ever-changing personal style (and as thrifting absolutely exploded in popularity around my freshman year in high school), thrifting and hunting down things to wear to stand out amongst my peers became my favorite pasttime. While, as an adult who has finally started making *okay* money (enough to treat myself once in a while), I did have a bit of an aversion to secondhand as I reconciled no longer needing to thrift with poverty-associated traumas, I got over it, and now, especially as new clothes grow increasingly—I mean, let’s just say it—poorly made, almost 3/4 of my closet is secondhand or vintage.
In a perfect world, thrift stores would be a place where great quality clothes can find a second life with those who cannot afford them new. Unfortunately, our world is far from perfect. So, while there are plenty of options in the secondhand market now for high quality clothing, there is a lower tier, so to speak, that is being both driven and crippled by overconsumption, specifically of fast fashion. And that lower tier is what’s most accessible.
Other fashion educators who talk about sustainability tend to present thrifting and secondhand as a cure-all for our problems. And, to an extent, it can be. But it’s mostly on a personal level, and only if one first addresses and unlearns the shopping habits that lead to the problems in the first place. Simply put: we buy a lot of stuff. And unless all that stuff is constantly being shared or sold directly to other people and can hold up to changing hands for the entire duration of its lifetime (to be repurposed or recycled at the end), it’s still wasteful, whether you bought it new or thrifted it. While, yes, buying a lot of stuff means we’re donating a lot of stuff, it also means we’re throwing a lot away. And, as I’ve mentioned before on the True Style Podcast, thrift stores are also throwing a lot away, because not only is it simply too much to fit in stores, but also, the stuff the average person as access to is of increasingly poor quality and not even fit to be repaired let alone sold again.
Of course, secondhand will never die. But it, like the rest of the fashion industry, needs some major fixes, and those fixes start with firsthand fashion. We need to build a culture that values things for longer, and demand that brands stop selling us things that are put together so cheaply and quickly that we couldn’t even value them properly if we wanted to. We need to completely shake the habit of overconsumption, and make it so that it is not beneficial for companies to overproduce, from both a legislative and profitability angle (brands are encouraged in many countries to destroy excess product in exchange for a tax write-off).
And then, when we are ready to get rid of that coat from two years ago that’s just not our style anymore, we need to not just toss it in a donation bin and wash our hands of it, but get invested in really giving it a new home: whether that be by gifting or swapping it, reselling it directly, or by knowing that our local thrift stores aren’t so overwhelmed by Shein tank tops that the actual good stuff never makes it to the sales floor, going, instead, to landfills (or shipped off to other countries to pollute their beaches and economies).
In the meantime, it is worthwhile to consider replacing at least a small part of our brand new purchases with stuff that already exists. Whether that’s buying a resold designer bag, buying a one of a kind vintage piece at a boutique, or just combing the racks of your local charity-based thrift store: your wardrobe will thank you for it. And if all of us do it, maybe our planet will, too.
Do you ever watch those girls on TikTok who always seem to have the most amazing, complex looks that look straight out of an editorial and you just can’t believe that they thrifted everything? Do you ever wonder how exactly people are finding cool secondhand stuff when you seem to only ever find crap? It’s not some huge conspiracy: some people just have the vision.
Being able to look at, say, a frumpy cardigan top and come up with the idea to wear it backwards, or knowing exactly how to tie or belt a dress to take it from flat to flattering: that’s the vision. For the most part, thrifting—even on resale sites like the Real Real where everything is put on the most misleading mannequins known to man(nequins)—is about visualization. It’s clothing in its purest form: it’s not placed and pinned on the “perfect” model body, it’s not styled or even hung on the hanger correctly. Beyond what I’m going to tell you in this article, the most valuable tool you can have when it comes to conquering the secondhand market is Vision. Work on that, and the world if your oyster.