When you're trolling for the perfect '60s Ferragamo flats, or sifting through racks of vintage denim in search of super-soft, orange-tab Levi's, you might imagine that those pieces were lovingly selected by an obsessed store owner who attends estate sales on Sunday mornings like some people do church, and whose cross-country thrifting trips are straight out of a Free People catalog. But, for the most part, you'd be wrong.
These days, vintage is big business and, although most sellers go to great lengths to conceal the source of their wares, the romantic notion of the hand-curated shop is, in many ways, a myth. The truth is that a lot of what ends up in vintage shops started out as trash. Textile banks reclaim clothing from landfills, and operate their own clothing-recycling bins — kind of like those bright yellow or green boxes you see in supermarket parking lots. They then sell the clothes in bulk to vintage dealers, who steam the stuff (if you're lucky), mark up the prices, and sell it to you. There's some dead stock (never-worn clothing that's sat unsold for years, often with tags still attached) and thrifted finds in the mix too; plenty of eBay and Etsy sellers and smaller boutique owners stock their shops with hand-selected goods this way. But, for the vintage shops with lots of square footage to fill, bulk vintage is where it's at.
And, Googling the term "wholesale vintage" can tell you exactly how much those prices are marked up (the answer is "a ton," of course). Many wholesalers sell by the pound, like Rusty Zipper, which offers women's blouses, knit dresses, and stonewashed jeans for $2.50 per pound. Others sell similar items in lots. A current price list from BulkVintage.com shows that vintage jeans are going for about $5 each, with the more-coveted Levi's fetching $8, dresses for $6, and military jackets going for about $15 each.
For the vintage nerd (guilty), reading through these price lists is like a real-time feed of what's hot and what's not in the vintage world. Overalls, letterman jackets, baseball caps, and all things '90s? Hot. Corduroys, Western shirts, wide ties, and other '70s staples? Not so much. And, "Ugly X-mas" and "Tacky Teacher" sweaters are, apparently, year-round favorites (gotta keep frat bros in their theme-party wear).
Whether it's reclaimed from landfills, snagged from a Salvo, or pulled from a moldering Midwestern warehouse, we personally have no qualms about the markups on our vintage clothing. Finding a super-rare denim piece or T.Rex band tee in a massive bale of bulk vintage is truly a needle-in-a-haystack situation. That stack of overalls you receive may contain one faded, perfectly slouchy pair you can sell for $100 — but it'll probably mostly be too-baggy, light-wash, and embroidered with Looney Tunes or Winnie The Pooh characters. Having watched vintage-selling friends emerge from a bulk bin, dusty and sneezing, with a few sad secretary dresses and pleather belts in hand, we know the sorting and steaming they provide to bring us a sweet vintage selection is pretty much beyond worth.