Shopping secondhand is becoming the norm. The market is expected to grow by 127% by 2026 and even Primark now has vintage in its stores. There’s so much great secondhand stuff out there that it seems silly not to take advantage of it. But for some, there’s a sticking point: footwear. The debate rages on as to whether secondhand shoes are great or gross.
It's understandable. There is something off-putting about sharing space with a stranger’s feet, and sandals in particular seem to be a firm "no" for many. I draw the line at secondhand Birkenstocks thanks to the very distinct toe marks left behind by former owners. As podcaster Doree Shafrir puts it: "I barely want to wear my own sweat imprint."
However, according to figures shared with me by Vestiaire Collective, of the nine most popular footwear searches in 2022, the top three were sandals, with styles from Gucci, Prada and Dior topping the league. The most sold styles overall were sneakers, sandals, heels, ankle boots, and boots. The British Heart Foundation, meanwhile, sold over 500,000 pairs of shoes last year – from wellies to stilettos – via its shops, eBay and Depop, as Retail Director Allison Swaine Hughes tells Refinery29 over email.
With 24.2 billion pairs of shoes being made every single year, people are constantly turfing out old pairs to make way for new so, like clothes, many of the secondhand shoes on the market are either lightly or never worn. That’s true whether you’re shopping luxury consignment or browsing charity shops. By shopping secondhand everywhere from my local charity shop and Depop to pre-loved boutiques, I’ve found beautiful vintage leather boots, leopard-print, silver-toed cowboy boots, and brand-new-with-stickers platform loafers. Without exception, all my best shoes were sourced secondhand and almost all of them were unworn when I bought them. Although worn-in shoes have their advantages. "Secondhand boots are the best. Someone else wears them in ‘til they’re at the comfy stage! No blisters," says Jen Samani on Twitter. In a similar vein, there are leagues of people who will seek out secondhand Dr. Martens over new because they’re notoriously painful to wear in.
Here are, in my experience, the key tricks to finding your perfect secondhand pair.
Know what you want
The essential piece of the puzzle in finding that perfect pair is to know what you’re looking for. While secondhand clothes shopping can be a drop-in-and-browse affair, it helps to have an idea of what you want. I yearned for a very specific style of red heeled cowboy boots for years and spotted them from about 20 feet away in a thrift shop in Helsinki because I knew exactly what I was looking for.
Go in person
Shopping in person is always the easier option because it means you can try on – and you should always try on because vintage shoes in particular often run small – but there are some tricks you can use for shopping online too. Sellers usually list the size but if you’re in between sizes or it’s a style you’ve never tried before, you can ask the seller to measure the sole from heel to toe and compare it to a pair you already own. Asking for a measurement of the widest part of the shoe can be helpful too, to make sure your toes won’t get squished. If you’re looking for larger sizes, you’ll tend to find a better selection in modern resale than vintage (unless you’re looking for vintage cowboy boots, which have surprisingly great size availability, likely due to many of them being produced as unisex).
Freshen up your favourites
When you do find the perfect pair of shoes, and if they’ve been worn, there are countless ways you can freshen them up. Removable insoles can be replaced, soles can be washed with soap, warm water and a brush, the insides can be disinfected with a spray or wipes and, if you want to push the boat out, you can even buy UV shoe sanitisers. Bicarbonate of soda and vinegar can be used to kill any potential fungal growth in sneakers, and rubbing alcohol can be used to disinfect suede, leather and nubuck shoes.
Find your local cobbler
Another understandable worry is wear and tear. Buying a completely tattered pair of shoes isn’t a great idea for your bank balance or your feet, but certain factors can be tackled. Your local cobbler will be able to reheel and resole most standard styles of shoes, while specialists can resole everything from Birkenstocks to combat boots. Just make sure the rest of the shoe is in good enough condition to warrant the repairs.
Venture into upcycling
If you’re feeling really adventurous, you can completely overhaul a pair of shoes at home. I upcycled a pair of red loafers with the help of some pink leather paint and a pair of vintage shoe clips sourced from Etsy, while photographer and scriptwriter Suzi Ovens dyes hers to match her outfits. "One of my sisters got married last May. The dress I was wearing was navy but I didn’t have any matching shoes. I had some light pink heels that I loved the fit of but wasn’t keen on the colour, so I bought some navy suede dye to make them match the dress," she says. "When I had a friend’s wedding in July where I was going to wear a red dress, I bought a similar pair of heels secondhand from eBay and did the same."
Forget the ick factor; secondhand shoe shopping is the more sustainable option. It saves money, opens up creative possibilities and broadens your style horizons. And besides the countless motivations, there are countless approaches so you can do it within your specific comfort zone, too.