How do you solve a problem like fast fashion? Recycling isn’t as simple as it sounds; 'Made in Britain' can still mean poverty wages; cotton is a problematic fave. In all the conversations happening around ethics, sustainability and style just now, it can sometimes feel like questions outweigh answers by 10 to one.
But if there’s a single solution that pretty much everyone can agree on, it’s putting secondhand first. Whether that’s preloved clothes or unloved, dead stock sitting under decades of dust or another go on last year’s Zara, old clothes are the ultimate get-out-of-guilt-free card – and they’ve never looked so fresh.
Perhaps you’re sceptical. Maybe your image of vintage shopping was forged in adolescence, standing in the corner of a kilo sale or sweating into a £500 Ossie Clark while a sales assistant with a micro fringe asks if you need any help with the zip. I was a vintage seller myself for six months in 2009, flogging musty polyester shirtwaisters to bemused tourists in Camden Market for minimum wage, wearing a fascinator I’d made myself by stapling fabric onto a bit of cardboard from a cereal box. It was a dismal time.
But where secondhand clothes used to be a rebellion against the mainstream, now the lines between old, new and 'alternative' are much less rigid. Depop has democratised the world of fashion resale, creating its own celebrities and attracting stars like Lily Allen, Emily Ratajkowski and Tess Holliday to flog their designer cast-offs. WAH Nails and Beautystack founder Sharmadean Reid currently has preloved Levi’s, Alexander Wang heels and Skepta x Nike Air Max up for sale on her page, with prices as low as £18.
Meanwhile on Instagram, there’s a growing breed of digitally enabled, user-friendly traders with their fingers firmly on the fashion pulse. Forget the old stereotypes of twee women in rockabilly petticoats and sneering hipsters in '80s shell suits. Vintage sellers have evolved, just like their stock.
"There seems to be a preconception that vintage equals victory rolls and big, full, floral dresses with tiny waists and bows and frills. I’ve got a lot of time for that kind of traditional approach to vintage, but it’s not for everyone," says Sarah Brand, who launched her vintage dress collection, Another Matinee last month in a flurry of sumptuous, candy-coloured Instagram posts. "I’ve really tried to show people how easy and modern wearing vintage can be. You can wear a prairie dress to the pub with your favourite trainers. But when you have a big party or wedding, it looks equally good with your hair in a bun and a slick of lipstick."
While buying your vintage via your phone might feel like cheating – the antithesis of the slow, patient, hands-on process that secondhand shoppers rhapsodise about – it has obvious advantages. No trawling overstuffed rails, no rifling through bargain bins. No fishing other people’s old tissues out of the pockets. Someone else has done the donkey work for you, and with an expert eye.
"The stereotypical idea of a vintage store is of an 'Aladdin's cave' which requires a degree of rummaging, and can perhaps be a little overwhelming," says Dulcie Emerson of Human Sea Vintage. "I try to overcome this preconception by offering an edited selection." With the tagline 'vintage you want to wear now', Human Sea is unapologetically on trend – slip dresses, woven disco mules, '70s crochet and Y2K tailoring all look completely at home alongside whatever pseudo-French chic & Other Stories is pushing into your feed this week. "Every item is selected for its quality, condition and potential to fit seamlessly into a modern wardrobe," says Emerson.
It’s a similar story over at the chic Retold Vintage, launched by Clare Lewis in spring 2018. "I’m a minimalist at heart," she admits. "I lean towards a high-low style, so customers can expect tailoring as well as gorgeous blouses that you can throw on with your favourite jeans. I love nothing better than a co-ord and I’m continuously inspired by the '90s, which filters through to my styling aesthetic and unashamedly tonal colour palette."
In harmonious beige and cream tones, with a pop of chestnut leather here, a twist of russet tweed there, Retold’s latest drop is a far cry from the clashing floral headache of your average vintage warehouse. Each item is a pristine classic. "I’m not a mass seller," says Lewis. "I create small, curated collections."
While big names like Beyond Retro thrive on sheer volume, the new wave of vintagrammers (as I’m calling them) are leaning in to this kind of nouveau-minimalism, with buzzwords like 'handpicked', 'considered', 'an edit'. And if we’re to escape the mental overload of fast fashion, with its avalanche of choice and 52 new seasons a year, it makes sense. There’s something calming about browsing a site with only a handful of items on sale and nobody but destiny to cajole you into buying them. You can’t ask for another colour or size, or click 'email me when back in stock'. It simply says: 'Do you want this? No? Cool.'
Of course, not being able to ask for another size can be a problem – especially in vintage, where plus-size garms get scarcer the further back in time you go. "It’s definitely a challenge to cater for sizes over a UK 10," admits Brand. "A lot of the vintage you come across is tiny, which is telling of the social norms and beauty standards of those times." But she puts the work in, to ensure that Another Matinee has more to offer. "I want to celebrate vintage style but reimagine how I present it, to reflect today’s changing attitudes towards women and our bodies and what is 'beautiful' in 2019."
Another trader determined to improve vintage’s accessibility is Holly Watkins, owner of One Scoop Store. Having sold secondhand clothes via eBay for 15 years, she launched the business initially via Instagram in 2017. Her stock is an accessible mix of high street, designer and genuine vintage (technically, clothes which are 20 years or older), with price points from £10 to £300. "I always wanted to make sure I could offer pieces at really affordable prices that would suit all budgets," she says. "I think One Scoop Store is one of the few offering decent high street secondhand, which is helping reduce landfill and appeal to a wider audience if true 'vintage' isn’t your thing, or luxury designer isn’t in your budget."
Watkins tells me her biggest challenge is dealing with our 'Supermarket Sweep' mentality. "I do feel that the fast fashion world has created a monster in terms of the psychology of shopping. Many people expect free returns and order lots of pieces with very little intention of keeping any of them." Addressing that commitment-phobia might take a while, but the vintagrammers are here to nudge us towards a slower pace of shopping. Why, you might ask, do they bother keeping items online after they’re gone? Why taunt us?
Inspiration, is why. What our mums and grans used to call 'window shopping', back in the days when it was more common to return from a shopping trip empty-handed than not. Turning the tide on unsustainable consumption is as much about changing attitudes as it is finding 'better' places to shop, so perhaps scrolling through grids of long-gone vintage could be a healthy outlet; a way to discover new styling tricks, fall in love with new eras, and remember it’s possible to admire stuff without necessarily needing to possess it.
When the stars align and we do find that absolute gem in our size, we’re more likely to foster an emotional connection; wear it more, treat it better and love it, even after the trend dies or the novelty wears off. "Most importantly, Instagram has allowed me to create a dialogue with my customers," says Retold’s Clare. Happy customers tag their traders, traders share their looks, and the story continues.
Still, she doesn’t see social media as a replacement for traditional vintage shopping. "By selling online, I do think you will never be able to completely replicate that experience you get in a bricks-and-mortar store. I really hope that our high street catches up and we begin to see more vintage and secondhand stores, not just charity shops, have an increased presence."
Personally I’d be sad to lose the ramshackle old-school thrift stores entirely. All it takes is a welcoming attitude and a high/low fashion eye to bring them bang up to date. Like Somewhere in Hackney, a ram-jam attic space where owner Melanie Otesanya has a knack for sourcing vintage and preloved versions of the exact Ganni/Rixo/Sleeper number that’s been haunting your dreams. Or fash pack favourite Laura Von Behr, who hosts private dress-up appointments in her chic London studio. There are '70s prairie dresses, '80s party frocks, '30s slips and '60s minis on the rail, and Von Behr’s friendly, bespoke approach couldn’t be further from the fusty stereotypes.
"My customers are often very new to vintage shopping, so I make sure that my dresses are in good condition, clean and wearable," she says. "I find it a challenge competing with fashion brands and work hard to buy pieces that reflect trends, to try and tempt people towards vintage."
Let’s not forget, pretty much all trends are recycled from the annals of history anyway. So what if, instead of buying the fast fashion reproductions, we skipped the whole mad merry-go-round and went straight to the source? With a digital stylist helping us sift out the gold.
"I think it’s just about finding your groove," says Brand. "Dressing in vintage doesn’t mean changing your style – if anything, it’s helped me hone mine. I know exactly what I like now."
If vintagrammer’s feeds are anything to go by, they know exactly what we’ll like, too.