When the pandemic hit, Thrilling, an online marketplace that offers vintage and secondhand clothing from small businesses around America (with worldwide shipping) cut its commissions for the first two months. After brick-and-mortar businesses were forced to close their doors, and thus lose their main source of income, founder and CEO Shilla Kim-Parker knew that those owners needed every dollar they could make. Thrilling then released custom-printed vintage T-shirts to raise money for the 100+ stores it carries (you can still purchase them or donate to stores here). When protests started around the country, following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police, Thrilling curated a collection of clothing from Black-owned vintage stores — although, as a Black woman, Kim-Parker had amplified these businesses since the start of Thrilling, giving them the exposure they desperately need in a fashion industry that still prioritises whiteness.
Kim-Parker, whose prior careers were in industries ranging from finance to media and nonprofit arts, founded Thrilling as a way to support local businesses. “My grandparents started the first Black-owned business in the small town of Kinston in North Carolina in the 1940s, and it was a dry-cleaning business. At the time, the world was against them, and they suffered a lot of harassment and abuse and trauma and violence, but managed to survive and thrive for 50 years,” Kim-Parker told me over a Zoom call last week. “I’ve always had a lot of kinship for small business owners and helping support their place in the world.”
A vintage lover, Kim-Parker grew up secondhand shopping in New York City. “It’s my favourite and only way to shop. I think it’s where you find high-quality, well-made, one-of-a-kind items that are also truly environmentally friendly,” she said. She saw Thrilling as a way to not only support these stores but also broaden their customer base by making the offerings available online: “Secondhand and vintage business owners have been very frustrated about the lack of support from the tech community in helping get their business out to more customers around the world. I started this business to really partner with them and help bring them more revenue, so that they can continue to build their business and continue to be cornerstones of their communities.”
Kim-Parker says that the hardest part of the pandemic has been seeing these businesses face real fear about the future of their livelihoods. “It has been enormously stressful for our stores. They have had to shut their doors. In-person sales are the primary way that they earn revenue, and many of their landlords are unforgiving. They were shut out of a lot of federal grant programs, and so they’ve been under an enormous amount of strain,” she said. “There’s magic to the environments that a lot of stores have created in their stores that’s really important to preserve. There’s a real physical element, and social element, of being part of a neighbourhood that I think is super important.” There is also, of course, the thrill of finding a one-of-a-kind gem after physically going through the racks.
Not only does Thrilling carry fashion from vintage stores around the US but it also curates collections by categories and themes, and offers a large range of sizing — still, unfortunately, a somewhat rare occurrence in vintage fashion (Kim-Parker says she is “proud that we work with some of the best plus-size vintage boutiques across the US”). Prior to the pandemic, Thrilling also worked with the stores to photograph the clothing and upload it online, as well as help process the order. With COVID-19 putting a stop to physical visits, Thrilling pivoted to working with the stores to provide digital solutions so the owners could do it themselves. “The most rewarding part has been how much we’ve stuck together, how much we’ve sacrificed for each other to ensure our collective livelihood. I am sure our investors may have wondered about us giving up our commissions for two months, but it was undoubtedly the right thing to do because we’re a values-first, mission-oriented, and humanity-oriented organisation,” she says. “Thrilling is about community first and business second.”
That sentiment is infectious: When, in April, Thrilling partnered with Banana Republic — which, interestingly, started as a small mom-and-pop shop selling vintage — on a collection of vintage pieces from the stores on the site, the clothing giant (owned by Gap since 1983), in response to Thrilling giving up its commissions on sales, also decided to give up its commission; every dollar of that collection went to the stores.
As Thrilling’s sales have grown month over month since the pandemic began, Kim-Parker says it’s been exciting to see customers respond to the business. “Something that’s been really nice is that people are becoming activated, so they’re realising that they can be part of progress and activists in many different ways, including voting with their dollars,” she said. “We’re so grateful for support from people who not only just love fashion but also love supporting Black women, people of colour-owned businesses and are really passionate about supporting small businesses and really passionate about mitigating the impact of the apparel industry on the environment. We are seeing a lot of people aligning their consumption choices around their values.”
It’s to make it easier for people to further vote with their dollars that prompted Thrilling to curate the Black Vintage collection, though Kim-Parker notes that — given that most of the stores Thrilling carries are not only woman-owned but Black-owned and people of colour-owned — every collection supports them. Still, she is happy to see others in the industry focusing on supporting and highlighting Black-owned businesses and committing to making the industry more diverse — a movement that’s long overdue. “There’s an enormous amount of important work to do ahead. It’s not a flash in the pan moment, it doesn’t go away with surface solutions and press releases. There is important work to be done about changing the nature of systemic racism in our institutions, including fashion institutions,” she said. “We embrace it, look forward to being a part of the solution and seeing how other organisations and leaders, who have expressed support for the movement, address these issues, not just in the heat of the moment but a month from now, a year from now, 10 years from now.”
In the meantime, Kim-Parker won’t stop doing her part to support small, women-, and Black- and people of colour-owned businesses, as well as customers who want accessibly priced and sized clothing that won’t hurt the environment. “I come from a family with generations of persecution and trauma, and so much of what we encounter today and what our greater family and community encounter today is still problematic and unjust,” she said. “You have to fight for all of us or else you stand for none of us. And I’ve been given the privilege of starting my own company and being able to define who we are and what we stand for from day one, and so we are going to do just that.”
With businesses like Thrilling, the future of fashion — and the world at large — is something to be excited about.