When we think about the vintage denim, we’re inclined to picture a worn-to-death pair of overalls, a Levi’s Type I jacket or perhaps a pair of orange tab flares from the 70s that would only appeal to purist denimhead or thrift enthusiast. But recently the conversations around resale, pre-owned or pre-loved fashion is evolving. And so too are definitions of what’s actually considered vintage. 

Ask any old school vintage dealers and their definition of vintage would include any era up to the early 80s. But, with another generation coming up, the 60s is the equivalent of an antique to any twenty-something buyer. Millennials and Gen-Z’s obsession with 90s and 00s have proved that a garment doesn’t have to be 20 years old to be considered vintage. Paparazzi shots of Kendal Jenner wearing throwback band-tees from the 90s and Bella Hadid resurrecting a Noughties It bag from Louis Vuitton’s 2003 Takashi Murakami collection are testament that near-nostalgia vintage is definitely having a moment. And this is where the lines begin to blur between secondhand and vintage.

Kendal Jenner wears vintage 90s Jean Paul Gaultier

Shaking off the negative connotations often associated with ‘second-hand fashion’, today’s resellers are offering seamless, social-focused experiences that enable customers to acquire anything from limited edition streetwear and vintage luxury to thrifted pieces. And so from a once-modest subculture of aficionados and bargain hunters, the global resale economy has exploded into multi-billion dollar market.

The rapid ascent of the resell market has been fuelled by changing consumer attitudes towards sustainability, luxury and the concept of ownership. Consumer interest in resale is expected to grow even further, with the US market alone predicted to reach $41bn ($31bn) by 2022, according to resale marketplace ThredUp. Currently worth $20bn (£15bn), the US resale economy is dominated by apparel (49%), followed by media and electronics (20%), books (13%) and homeware and furniture (11%). The report suggests US resale is likely to grow 24 times faster than the retail sector, with 71% of consumers surveyed planning to spend more on resale over the next five years.

The growth of the resell economy is largely driven by the millions of teenagers and 20-somethings who are shaking up the fashion industry by digging out their parents’ cast-offs, raiding charity shops and scanning boot sales to build mini businesses online. Gen-Z have been pivotal to the success of online platform Depop, a fast-growing social media app which combines the image creation of Instagram with a digital version of market trader bargaining.

Founded in 2011, Depop now has 10m users, most of whom are in the UK, and takes more than £300m ($400m) a year in sales, a figure that has doubled year on year. Its British shoppers, 80% of whom are aged 13 to 24, buy an average of 20,000 items a day. It reckons that hundreds of its top sellers make more than £150,000 a year selling online. Speaking to Forbes last year, founder Maria Raba said young consumers are choosing the Instagram-like Depop because it’s solving three of the biggest problems they face: “they want to feel unique, to shop with (and from) friends, and to build their own green businesses without losing a drop of street cred.”

Perhaps Depop’s biggest mission is to tackle the bland sameness of e-commerce and the high street: both of which make it difficult for shoppers to look or feel individual. Depop caught on to a trend in which secondhand is no longer second best, along with other online marketplaces including US-based Thredup, Poshmark and Grailed, which trade in a more social way to the original platforms eBay and Gumtree.

The start-up app Depop already has 13 million users worldwide and says its young users had made more than $570m worth of sales in 2018.

Ecological considerations are at play as well. Consumers are increasingly aware of the fashion industry’s environmental impact – and adjusting their shopping habits accordingly. Vintage fashion is an inherently sustainable option – and a recent study suggests that demand is on the rise, with 64% of women willing to buy pre-owned pieces compared with 45% in 2016 – and it is thought that by 2028, 13% of the clothes in women’s wardrobes are likely to be secondhand (Vogue).

Vintage naysayers who may have been put off in the past by thoughts of rummaging around in jumble-sale-like basements may be persuaded by the ability to buy online. After all, the rapid adoption of resale reflects changing attitudes among consumers, particularly at the luxury end of the market, who are far more comfortable buying high-end pieces online and not directly from the brand. 

This is exactly how luxury online resellers are positioning resale – as an antidote to fast fashion, tapping into consumers’ changing relationship with ownership. There is a shared feeling among Vestiaire Collective’s seven million members that while they may not want to wear their clothes for a lifetime, there has to be a better way than fast fashion. Rati Levesque, chief merchant at US luxury fashion reseller The Real Real, agrees consumers are thinking of purchases more as investments. The mindset, she said in an interview with Marketing Weekly, has changed so that when consumers purchase a luxury item they know they will eventually make 50-70% back on the original cost through resale. These changing attitudes to ownership are a hallmark of the millennial lifestyle, and reflect why for millennial consumers, and even younger generations, it’s Uber vs taxis and Airbnb vs hotels. It’s the idea of experiencing instead of owning.

Luxury goods resale platform Vestiaire Collective is in a fast-growing space. BCG expects the $25 billion market to increase on average 12 percent each year, reaching $36 billion in 2021

Investors have clearly picked up on consumers’ growing appetite for high-end used fashion goods, because the digital luxury consignment space is flush with venture capital. By 2015, the global online fashion resale market had already received over $400m in venture capital. With a series of eight- and nine-figure investments having been confirmed since then, it seems fair to speculate the industry has surpassed $1bn in funding, which paints an even more powerful picture for the resell market.

The success of these luxury consignment stores are testament to the fact that fashion’s “sharing economy” is catching on too. New apparel sharing apps like Wardrobe, which launched earlier this year allows you to rent clothes directly from other women’s closets. Just as air bnb allows you to monetise on your apartment, Wardrobe transforms your closet as a source of revenue. Even major retailers are getting in on the action. This summer Urban outfitters are starting rentals to subscribers; Nuuly will cost $88 a month and will allow customers to pick six items — up to a combined value of $800 — to rent, wear, and return. 

Not content to sit back and watch others profit from their vintage items, some labels are relaunching decades-old designs from their own archives or even reselling their own worn garments. Last year, for instance, Prada brought back its Linea Rosa collection because of the attention it was getting in the vintage fashion market. In 2017, Levi’s introduced its Authorized Vintage program, a proprietary resale capsule for which the brand sourced and re-sold a collection of pre-worn Levi’s denim. “Every brand is currently developing a point-of-view on how to coexist with secondhand,” ThredUp co-founder and chief executive James Reinhart recently told the Business of Fashion.

Streetwear is another sector that has embraced resale with vigour. It is a market dominated by the much-hyped ‘drop’ of new products from brands like New York-based Supreme. Such is the popularity of its limited edition weekly drops that Supreme has now introduced a ticketing system requiring shoppers to sign-up in advance for a chance to shop in-store.

The limited number of people physically able to buy in-store has created a feverish secondary market, with pieces popping up for resale on platforms such as Grailed, a curated community marketplace for men’s clothing, and its sister site Heroine. Grailed mixes fashion editorial with a peer-to-peer marketplace of streetwear enthusiasts selling new and used limited edition pieces, classic menswear and vintage. On the site, Supreme hoodies and jackets sell for more than $1,000.

Menswear resell platform Grailed experimented with a physical space during Men’s Paris Fashion Week in June to help focused on brand awareness, and educating consumers in the physical environment

But as street culture becomes pop culture, aspirational Millennial and Gen-Z consumers are starting to seek something different and relatable from their sartorial purchases. Moving away from merely buying deadstock streetwear items (never worn, never tried), this cohort are turning to the archives of some of the most revered designers of the past twenty years. Think rare ‘90s Helmut Lang, early 2000s Raf Simons to more obscure pieces from the likes of Walter Van Beirendonck or Kapital. Specialist resellers like @middleman.store, @noausterity and @sickboyarchive are helping shift the resell needle further by making it more about the concept of “grail hunting” and discovering out of production pieces deemed to be culturally pivotal. These secondhand enthusiasts pride themselves on their unrivalled knowledge of the market, often going to great lengths to acquire the object of their desire. 

So is old season the new season? We like to think so. Whether you’re buying a 80s metal tee, a Dior jean from the 00s, or a dress first worn by Naomi Campbell in 1996, the most important thing is that consumers are investing in recycled and it discourages people to buy new. The fast growing number of start-ups are not just the new eBays, they are the new fast fashion, where we first turned to buy cheaper versions of designer clothes. Now, by following the right sellers on Depop, “liking” the right items on Vestiaire Collective or renting off Wardrobe, you can get that cheaper fast-fashion price with the same original designer quality, and a moral pat on the back for recycling.