It used to be that buying clothes secondhand was the domain of vintage lovers or those simply looking for a more affordable price tag. The pursuit required sifting through racks and, for committed thrifters, visiting multiple consignment shops. Today, thanks to digital resellers, buying secondhand has gone mainstream. In fact, by 2023 more than a quarter of the pieces in our closets could be pre-owned. That stat is courtesy of a 2020 study by Boston Consulting Group and Vestiaire Collective, the Paris-based luxury resale platform. “Secondhand businesses like Vestiaire Collective and the RealReal are helping to define a new era where secondhand is as good as, if not better than, new,” says Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the fashion policy think tank New Standard Institute and author of the new book Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, which examines the environmental impact of shopping.
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Vestiaire Collective is now a unicorn—finance-speak for a privately held start-up valued above $1 billion—the result of a new investment round led by Kering, the luxury group that includes Gucci and Balenciaga, and the investment firm Tiger Global Management. The platform currently has 11 million users across 80 countries, but when it launched in 2009 luxury brands wanted nothing to do with resale. Exclusivity is fundamental to luxury, and fashion brands were concerned that having their designs on resale platforms would both cheapen their image and put them in direct competition for customers who could buy their luxury products secondhand at a lower price. Over the past few years luxury resale has experienced rapid growth driven by consumers’ burgeoning interest in shopping sustainably and the industry’s embrace of circular fashion—the idea that clothes and accessories should remain in circulation for as long as possible. Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault’s comments at the time the deal was announced in March are indicative of this radical shift: “Pre-owned luxury is now a real and deeply rooted trend, especially among younger customers. Rather than ignoring it, our wish is to seize this opportunity to enhance the value we offer our customers and influence the future of our industry toward more innovative and more sustainable practices.”
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Increasingly, luxury brands are not simply accepting resale as part of the life cycle of their designs but are joining forces with resellers. In February, Vestiaire Collective introduced its Brand Approved buyback program with Alexander McQueen. Past-season pieces can be returned to participating Alexander McQueen boutiques in exchange for store credit to shop the brand’s current collection, and are in turn resold online. “We are delighted to be the first house in the world to collaborate with Vestiaire Collective on its Brand Approved program,” says Alexander McQueen CEO Emmanuel Gintzburger, “and to give beautifully crafted pieces a new story.” Adds Vestiaire Collective cofounder and president Fanny Moizant, “Our long-term goal is for every brand to have a resale service as a basic offering to consumers.”
Brand partnerships are also central to San Francisco–based luxury resale behemoth the RealReal, founded in 2011, which has 21 million global members and 16 retail locations in the U.S., including seven that opened during the pandemic. “We want our consignors to continue investing in luxury and in items that were made to last, and therefore can be resold and have a second and third and fourth life,” says Allison Sommer, the RealReal’s senior director of strategic initiatives. To that end, the RealReal launched its Circular Economy Program with Stella McCartney in 2017, giving a $100 bonus store credit in exchange for consigning, and has since added benefits with Burberry (a personal shopping experience with high tea service) and Gucci (a charitable donation to One Tree Planted, a nonprofit whose mission is global reforestation). Gucci also offered the same perk to shoppers, making it the first brand to incentivize buying its goods secondhand.
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Resale provides a key solution to the negative environmental impact of overconsumption by putting back into circulation clothes and accessories that would otherwise be piling up in our closets—or, worse, in a landfill. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw out 12.8 million tons of clothing and shoes in 2017, an average of 79 pounds per person. That sounds like great news for the planet, but Bédat offers an important caveat. “We don’t want people to end up buying more new clothes because they know that there’s an active market for their cast-off things,” she says. “The notion that one can invest in one’s wardrobe over a lifetime is a part of the origin of luxury, and if fashion can return to those roots it would do an incredible service to creating an industry that exists and thrives within planetary bounds.”
This article originally appeared in Harper’s BAZAAR US