A vintage leather jacket is, in theory, an easy thing to find online. My weeks-long search, however, only led to an extended deliberation between three near-identical garments — all oxblood red, with a tieable belt — at three wildly different price points: $60, $125, and $250. I was conflicted. How could I make a sound decision when I wasn’t even sure what a secondhand jacket should cost?
“Choice overload,” as it’s called, is a natural product of capitalism. The numerous options I found on the internet made me dizzy enough to think, perhaps, $250 was an acceptable price for the perfect jacket, despite it being four times more expensive than the cheapest garment in my queue of tabs. Coined by futurist writer Alvin Toffler in 1970, the term describes a mental paralysis that afflicts modern consumers. This sensation doesn’t inhibit an inevitable purchase. Rather, it places additional anxiety upon the shopper, particularly when it comes to discerning the value of what they’re buying.
This becomes especially complicated in the secondhand apparel market, given the range of prices available and limited information about an item’s provenance. Customers buying brand new goods face this conundrum, but not to the same degree. With new items, the sale price is generally fixed to reflect the labor, shipping costs, overhead expenses, and profit markup that go into maintaining a store’s virtual and physical operations.
Pre-owned garments, on the other hand, have a wider margin for fluctuation. They are loosely dependent on an item’s condition, the brand label, its fabrics, modern trends, and the seller’s profile. On top of these varying metrics, more inexperienced buyers and sellers are entering the market, often with minimal knowledge about sought-after labels or what qualifies an item as true vintage (anything that is 20 to 99 years old). And with the profusion of resale marketplaces like Depop and Poshmark and professionalized sites like The RealReal, many consumers have ended up paying well-above-average prices for pre-owned items that aren’t all that special.
“It’s the wild wild West right now, both for designer and regular vintage goods,” said Sarah Korsiak Cellier, the owner of Rice and Beans Vintage, who specializes in vintage Chanel and designer pieces. “On many resale sites, individuals are setting their own prices. That creates a lot of inconsistency.”
Thus, sellers are incentivized to mark up their prices, even if the listed amount is unrealistically high. Outrageously priced items don’t often sell, but they show up in searches, subtly skewing consumers’ expectations about what a garment is worth. Since so many shoppers are also casual sellers of pre-owned or thrifted clothes, it leads to more inflated price points.
In the real estate industry, market conditions are described as either favoring buyers or sellers — depending on whether supply exceeds demand or vice versa. Most secondhand clothing sellers purport that it’s a buyer’s market in the US, since thrift shops are frequently overloaded with pre-owned clothes and unused fabrics. But while there is an excess of clothes, not all garments are made equal. Consumers gravitate toward what’s trendy or unique, so popular styles and brands from a certain era, like retro Y2K, can sell for above-average prices depending on mainstream trends. (Most donated clothes don’t even make it onto thrift store racks; they end up in landfills, exported overseas, or incinerated.)
Selling clothes from the thrift store online for double the price is gentrification— AURA STAR (@Lederrick_) July 12, 2020
Thrift store resellers are simultaneously contending with a simmering tide of animosity from consumers about their profit margins. Social media critics typically take aim at young, seemingly wealthy sellers, who buy cheap items in bulk from local Goodwill or Salvation Army stores and mark them up for profit on marketplaces like Depop. I’ve previously reported about this concern over “thrift store gentrification”; critics claim such novice sellers are inadvertently raising the prices of thrifted goods by purchasing an excess of garments. It’s a compelling but inexact argument: Individual resellers get the brunt of backlash that should be directed toward profit-seeking thrift stores and loosely regulated resale marketplaces.
As the resale market grows and piques the attention of venture capital, the tension over the prices of pre-owned clothes won’t dissipate. It does, however, raise questions about the ever-changing value of clothing. Are there clear metrics the average shopper can abide by to determine a reasonable price for an item? Or in a world with too many clothes, is the value of garments more fluid than we expect?
“It’s important to remember that anyone can sell anything online,” said Deborah Miller, a textile and clothing appraiser, who has evaluated pieces for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. “Listed prices aren’t always sale prices, and sometimes sellers with a higher profile can command a higher price for the exact same item.”
When assessing a garment, Miller typically begins with its condition and label, even for non-designer brands. “Once you know the label and condition, a shopper can easily compare the price points through different resale platforms,” she said. “When I look at listed prices, it helps me figure out the outliers, those who might be not-so-knowledgeable sellers that just threw up an item on eBay in the hopes that it sells.” With that range of acceptable prices in mind, Miller then determines whether a certain piece has special details — when it was manufactured, if it’s a unique cut, size, or limited edition. Comparison is crucial for shoppers on peer-to-peer marketplaces, she added, since sellers are setting their own prices.
The best deals, however, are usually found on resale sites like eBay, in small antique shops, or at in-person sales, according to Miller. At auction or estate sales, for example, buyers are able to clinch better deals, sometimes in bulk, instead of at a consignment shop. “It’s hard for people to wrap their minds around how a garment might have five to six different values,” Miller added. “It depends on who’s buying, who’s selling, and which part of the market the clothes are selling in. Are garments being sold wholesale for liquidation at a physical site? Or is it being sold on an Etsy shop that has a global audience?”
Before the internet, most vintage sellers operated their businesses locally or regionally, occasionally taking trips out-of-state to source goods. As one of the first international resale marketplaces, eBay changed that: Independent sellers now had the opportunity to reach more customers, and it was where most vintage enthusiasts scoured for affordable items online before Etsy and Depop. That meant sellers were able to charge more, since their pool of potential buyers has vastly expanded.
Social media, too, has helped accelerate mainstream consumer appetite for vintage goods, said Korsiak Cellier. Part- and full-time sellers alike are putting in more work to style and promote items, thereby pushing up prices. It’s a business model with proven success: Sophia Amoruso, the former CEO of Nasty Gal and a self-described girlboss, started her clothing brand on eBay, originally as a vintage seller.
“When I started, there was no Instagram,” Korsiak Cellier said. “The presentation and curation of the goods could affect how people perceive the price and what they’re willing to pay for it. That wasn’t so important on eBay in the 2000s, but now, that content definitely helps sell things, especially if you have a lot of followers.”
An in-demand seller with a loyal customer base could significantly markup regular vintage items, compared to those with a smaller online presence. Sororité Vintage, for example, a shop that specializes in selling vintage lingerie and designer accessories, has amassed more than 700,000 Instagram followers and routinely sells out its collection. Smaller sellers, however, have remarked that the store inflates its prices even for department store-branded lingerie, like Victoria’s Secret or Frederick’s.
Many customers are flocking to online resale marketplaces, leaving behind consignment stores and sellers that operate independent of these platforms. This has only made pricing more complicated — for buyers and sellers. It’s no secret that Gen Z loves Depop; in July, the company was snatched up by Etsy for $1.62 billion. Yet, retailers and investors think there’s plenty of room for competition in the $27 billion secondhand apparel market. According to Women’s Wear Daily, the resale space currently consists of peer-to-peer selling apps (Etsy, Depop, Poshmark, or eBay), managed marketplaces (The RealReal, StockX, ThredUp), and logistics partners handling the resale of unsold or used clothes from retailers (Trove and Recurate).
Brick-and-mortar charity shops and retailers like Urban Outfitters, Levi’s, and Burberry have launched their own resale programs and online hubs to support sustainable consumption. Whatever the reason, it’s clear there’s money to be made in this burgeoning market, whose growth is surpassing that of traditional clothing retail. But can these profits be sustained while keeping clothing prices affordable for buyers?
The growth of venture capital-funded resale enterprises concerns Marydee Reynolds, an independent seller behind Chicago-based Saffron Vintage. Selling secondhand isn’t always a consistent or highly profitable business endeavor, but it has helped Reynolds maintain a steady stream of income for nearly two decades. Since the pandemic, she’s struggled to retain freelance work as a musician and voice teacher, so selling vintage has become her full-time job.
“The goal of something like The RealReal is growth and profit,” Reynolds said. “The buying and selling process becomes consolidated, so you lose that personal connection with people through such a big corporate platform.”
The motivation to pursue growing profits means sellers might not always have clients’ best interests in mind. That’s reflected in pricing, not just among designer goods but regular garments that can easily be found at thrift stores or estate sales at lower prices. “It does make me worry sometimes that resale clothing, especially for designer pieces, is going to be as expensive as retail,” Reynolds added. Some sellers have a habit of sourcing items from other vintage shops and significantly marking up the price. With designer goods, that may not be a sustainable way to run a business, since most items are created in limited quantities.
“There’s no way to go out there and source rare pieces to turn a quick profit, which is what these resale sites want to do,” said Reynolds. “You can’t go out and find mid-century Dior just because it’s in high demand.”
The fashion industry, especially certain pockets of the resale market, is not as predictable for investors as, say, consumer tech or other goods that can be scaled. It’s an irrational space, fashion-tech CEO Peiman Raf told Vogue Business. “[Fashion] is not something you can inorganically pump thousands of percent of growth into year-over-year like you might be able to in tech or some consumer categories.”
The RealReal, which resells luxury consignment goods, went public in June 2019, but even after a triumphant year for resale, the platform is still in the red and doesn’t seem to be reaching profitability anytime soon. That’s not entirely indicative of the greater resale market, though, for regular vintage and used clothes (Poshmark, for example, is turning a profit).
It is, however, short-sighted to chart the success of the secondhand market without paying close attention to the firsthand retail market. These spaces are closely linked, since what’s sold firsthand eventually makes its way into the resale space. And contemporary fast fashion brands that have a short shelf life in buyers’ closets are bleeding into local thrift stores and resale platforms.
Some Depop sellers worry that in five to 10 years, fast fashion will make up the bulk of donated clothes. “There will be nothing worth reselling,” one Reddit commenter wrote. “My guess is that the ‘circular economy’ will probably still continue and reselling will too, but the life cycle of the majority of pieces are just going to be a lot shorter given modern clothing quality,” said another.
Miller, the clothing appraiser, urges shoppers to think of clothing — pre-owned or new — as closet investments, even if the garments aren’t likely to appreciate in value over time; it shouldn’t be “something you can put on the resale market after wearing a few times.” Secondhand shopping risks losing its eco-friendly bent if it’s predicated on a cycle of ceaseless consumption. The goal of buying pre-owned clothes should be to extend the closet lifespan of an item, not to resell them as quickly as possible.
Leather jackets, if correctly taken care of, can last a few decades to an entire lifetime, according to Miller: “It depends on the type of animal hide, quality of the leather, and how often you wear it or how it’s stored.”
I did, eventually, choose to buy the most affordable option: a $60 jacket sold by a Southern California seller, made in Korea by the brand Trappeur. It was stiffer than I had imagined it would be and it had some markings on the sleeves, but I was satisfied. After all, a polyurethane faux-leather jacket from ASOS costs nearly as much and likely won’t last a decade — even if it’ll be resold on Depop year after year.