If clothes swaps have traditionally been about bobbly jumpers and past-it denim, the format was certainly elevated last week. The Absolut Swap Shop opened in London with rooms full of preloved and “deadstock” clothing (clothes that were never sold in the first place) chosen by sustainability influencer Venetia La Manna, body positivity campaigner Nyome Nicholas-Williams and Harry Lambert, the celebrity stylist who works with Harry Styles, Emma Corrin and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Between them, they have nearly a million Instagram followers. The sold-out event gave shoppers the chance to swap anything from their wardrobe for secondhand clothing.
Lambert says the event appealed to him because he has recently changed how he thinks about fashion. “When I was younger, I’d buy stuff and wear it a few times and I would throw it away,” he says. Now he says he is trying to put himself on a more sustainable path and he hopes the Swap Shop will encourage others to do the same.
A retail space in Brent Cross shopping centre that once housed a Topshop has also just opened as Charity.Super.Mkt, a department store of secondhand clothes masterminded by former Red or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway and Maria Chenoweth, chief executive of Traid. Many middle-market companies such as Cos, Joules and Toast started reselling preloved online alongside their new season collection or organising their own clothes swaps in the last year. Love Island, a reality show once sponsored by fast fashion brand Pretty Little Thing, has now been sponsored by eBay for the second series running, and Depop (which allows people to buy and sell vintage clothing online) has had stars including Olivia Rodrigo sell their clothes on the app. Childrenswear is now the fastest growing sector of secondhand.
These are all examples of how preloved fashion has moved from the fringes of society to become mainstream. It’s in high-street shopping centres as well as vintage boutiques, bought and sold by parents, influencers and celebrities alike.
These moves tally with consumer behaviour. According to GlobalData, the clothes resale market in the UK grew by 149% between 2016 and 2022. It is forecast to rise by 67.5% from 2022 to 2026. There are also signs that the popularity of fast fashion is on the wane. Controversial cheap clothes brand Shein was the most googled fashion brand in 2022, but a recent report revealed sales had declined in the US for five months consecutively from June last year. Charity shops, meanwhile, had an 11% rise in sales in the three months to the end of September, with Oxfam’s sales up 40% in the run-up to Christmas.
The boom in preloved clothes has largely been driven by generation Z. A research project by Boston Consulting Group and resale site Vestiaire in 2022 showed that this demographic of consumers were most likely to buy (31%) and sell (44%) secondhand items, with millennials close behind. Depop reports that 90% of active users are under the age of 26 and the hashtag “vintage” has 28.7bn views on generation Z’s favourite app, TikTok.
Alex Goat, the chief executive of youth culture consultancy Livity, says the motivation behind this shift is partly environmental. “Wearing secondhand is a demonstrable statement of your intention, and a rejection of one of the most polluting industries on the planet,” she says. “Many young people are looking for a way to stand out and express their personality. Fashion has always been a way to do this.”
Anne-Marie Curtis was editor-in-chief at Elle until 2019 and launched Calendar, a sustainable fashion magazine in 2021. She says her recent experiences of buying preloved were inspired by her twentysomething daughter – and that she is not alone. “I think a lot of us have actually learned from that generation, whether it’s your offspring or someone in an office,” she says.
The huge increase in the market for childrenswear shows another way in which older generations are getting into secondhand. It is the fastest growing resale category, projected to increase by 493% in the next decade, according to the 2021 Reuse Report from e-commerce company Mercari and GlobalData. EBay reported a 76% increase in secondhand children’s clothes sales in 2020.
If buying preloved is one part of this story, selling is its flip side. Consumers now sell what they no longer want to wear – earning money and participating in the circular economy in the process. Goat says this is part of the appeal for gen Z: “the secondhand market is a legitimate way for young people to make money on their own terms.”
There’s been redefining at upper end of the fashion market, too. Retailers ranging from Selfridges to Net-A-Porter have ventured into resale and matchesfashion.com have twice partnered with Reluxe, a site selling preloved designer items, founded by stylist Clare Richardson in 2022. They report that, across the collaborations, 90% of the range sold within hours.
Megan Reynolds, fashion and marketing director at Matches, says she sees the success of the collaboration as a sign that consumer priorities are changing. “Our clients are confident about what they want in their wardrobes. At times [that] supersedes current season, so the ability to offer another chance at the one that got away is exciting for us.”
Curtis confirms this. Even among fashion editors, she says, preloved pieces are becoming the norm: “I don’t really know anyone within the industry who is buying much [new] stuff any more.” Resale is now part of the vocabulary of the luxury consumer. Luca Solca, senior research analyst of global luxury goods at Bernstein, says players like Vestiaire and The RealReal “[help] the creation of a trustworthy second hand market.”
And, says Goat, consumers of all ages are realising that gen Z are on to something: “Shopping secondhand provides solutions to several important issues: style, cost and sustainability.”