The Secondhand Market Is Booming, But Not Everyone Is Buying It

Photo: Getty Images.
Cameron Bishop grew up thrifting because it was what he could afford. 
Bishop was a prolific upcycler in his teens, hacking and refashioning his secondhand wares into unique, custom pieces. Once, he came across a band T-shirt he didn’t have the money to buy, so he spent hours recreating the logo with fabric markers on a secondhand tee. Other times, he added buttons and patches to spice up his finds.
Despite his creativity, Bishop, now 31 and living in Minneapolis, says his unique wardrobe was as much a survival tool as a vehicle of self-expression. His family didn’t have a lot of money, but his mom worked at an elite private school in Atlanta that Bishop attended for part of high school, so he grew up the odd kid out among a cohort of teens who had elevators in their homes and Gucci pieces in their closets. For Bishop, wearing thrifted garments was a financial necessity, and altering them was a way to take control of his own narrative.
“As a kid, I wanted to stick out because I wanted to beat my community to the punch,” he says. “If I was going to appear different, I wanted to be intentional about looking different.” 
But when he started making his own money as an adult, Bishop abandoned the fabric markers. While working as a business consultant, he found himself shopping for a new outfit every time he landed a new client. “It felt like I finally had the ability to appear successful,” he says. “I always bought the outfit that I thought conveyed the message the client wanted me to convey to them.”
Bishop’s experience with secondhand clothing as a source of agency, creativity, and shame all at once point to the complex cocktail of reasons that many people still avoid used clothing, despite its growing popularity.
The resale market has experienced remarkable growth and cultural favor in recent years: According to a report by online secondhand platform ThredUp, the U.S. secondhand market will more than triple in value over the next decade. While other forms of retail floundered during the pandemic, the secondhand market kept growing. When TikTok started to take Gen Z by storm, the app was quickly filled with expert Depop sellers and “thrift flippers,” creators who upcycle secondhand pieces into more on-trend creations. Even the luxury labels that long sought to keep their goods from being consigned have started to get in on the secondhand action, with brands like Gucci and Alexander McQueen forging partnerships with luxury resellers like The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective, respectively.
One of the factors driving this growth is the increase in public awareness of fashion’s negative environmental impact. Buying secondhand keeps clothing out of landfills and, if it replaces shopping for brand-new items, can decrease demand for raw material extraction used to create the fibers spun into fabric. 

“I’ve always had a tense relationship with clothing... Add to that even more digging to try and find something that fits at a secondhand store, and it's just not worthwhile.”

Kendall Vanderslice
Still, barriers to shopping secondhand persist for many people. Some have to do with stigmas like the one Bishop faced, while others cite the trouble with finding secondhand clothing that fits. Since secondhand stores are stocked with one-offs, finding a garment that’s the right size is part of the challenge for anyone. But it’s especially tricky for people who don’t wear straight sizes
Kendall Vanderslice falls in between “plus” and “straight” sizing — clothing from the former tends to be cut right for her body but a bit too big, while the latter are often too small, not cut right, or both. As a result, finding clothes has always been tough. On the rare occasion she does end up in a thrift store with friends or family, she almost never finds anything to take home. 
“It's already an emotional process to go shopping,” says the Durham, North Carolina-based 30-year-old. “I’ve always had a tense relationship with clothing and spending a long time looking in mirrors at the shape of things on my body. Add to that even more digging to try and find something that fits at a secondhand store, and it's just not usually worthwhile.”
Vanderslice, at her in-between size, doesn’t even experience the worst of it — people who wear sizes larger than hers have an even harder time finding secondhand shopping options that work. It’s long been noted that the fashion industry fails fat people; the secondhand market is no better. While there are some vintage and secondhand stores that focus on plus-size clothing, like Plus BKLYN and Two Big Blondes, they’re few and far between.
But even some people who could easily shop secondhand based on their size don’t for other reasons. 
Therese Morillo is an accountant in the Bay Area whose favorite place to shop for clothes is Target. She has never been secondhand shopping in her life. Morillo insists that she’s not against secondhand per se — about half of her kids’ wardrobes consist of items passed down from their cousins — but she’s uncomfortable with the idea of wearing clothing from strangers. She says it’s hard to shake the idea that clothes purchased from thrift shops are “dirty” in a way that can’t be eradicated by one cycle in her washing machine. After volunteering for an organization that required her to sort donated clothing, she’s never forgotten the feeling of pawing through unwashed donations. But there’s also a deeper level to her hesitance. 

“It's like the energy and the bad luck of the person could come into my life, especially if they wore the piece every single day.”

Therese Morillo
A first-generation Filipino immigrant who moved to California as a kid, Morillo was raised to avoid thrift shopping. While secondhand shopping is immensely popular in her birth country — ukay-ukay stores, as thrift shops are called, can be found every few blocks in the capital city of Manila — it’s also not uncommon to view secondhand clothing with suspicion. There’s a common idea in Filipino culture that clothing and jewelry can hold onto the energy or spirit of previous owners. (One Filipina celebrity’s hack is to spray newly purchased secondhand goods with disinfectant and holy water before wearing.)
“It sounds so crazy saying it out loud, but it's like the energy and the luck or bad luck of the person could come into my life, especially if they wore the piece every single day,” says Morillo. “Wearing it can somehow rub off on you. So unless I know the person, I’d be wary.”
Not everyone’s barriers to secondhand shopping are quite so metaphysical. For Bishop, the stigma of shopping secondhand gradually lifted. After years of avoiding secondhand, he found himself drawn back to thrift stores. Part of what sparked his return was seeing his sister selling secondhand designer goods online. Rather than associating resale with other peoples’ worn cast-offs, he could now see it as a way to build the Gucci wardrobe of his teenage dreams.
Beyond that, Bishop began to reflect on his fraught feelings about clothing that wasn’t brand-new. He came to see that insecurity was at the heart of his approach to dressing, both as a thrift-savvy teen and then as a new-suit-loving adult. Part of what helped him move beyond that was meditating on Leviticus, a book of ancient laws in both Christian and Jewish scriptures. Bishop understood it as “a book about our relationship with the earth and with each other.” Though it might not initially seem like the kind of literature that would inspire a fashion breakthrough, it shifted how Bishop understood his relationship with clothes.
“I was seeing a greater purpose with a lot of things in my life, and fashion was one of those things,” he explains. “I wanted to have a proper relationship with the earth through what I wore.” 
This revelation ultimately landed Bishop back where he started: as an avid thrifter, but this time by choice. 

More from Fashion

R29 Original Series