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Learning to love pre-owned clothing

Look towards internet consignment sites if you want pre-loved clothing at bargains and can get over the ick factor

Consignment stores such as The RealReal offer designer labels and vintage pieces.
Consignment stores such as The RealReal offer designer labels and vintage pieces. (Photo: Alamy)

My fondness for pre-owned fashion goes back decades. Apparently, in picking through musty piles in search of dresses spun from angel wings, I have been doing my part to save the planet.

In recent months, internet consignment sites have been touting how much they are unlike traditional retailers by highlighting the amount of waste they save by recycling clothing. At the same time, the companies stress how much they are exactly like traditional retailers when it comes to basic shopping practices. Need something for yourself? Visit a second-hand store. Need a gift? Check out a consignment site. Not sure what to buy that special someone? No worries. They have gift cards!

Some websites, like industry leader ThredUP, focus on brands that shoppers can find at malls. Others, like The RealReal and Poshmark, offer high-end designer labels and vintage pieces, which usually means they are at least 20 years old.

This past Christmas season, I got to thinking. Could I actually do some of my Christmas shopping on a resale site, like I might cruise the Mall at Short Hills? And if I were to buy for other people, would it matter to them that the clothing had been worn by others?

“Does it concern you that the jacket, and more specifically, the trousers, belonged to someone else?"

It’s not a huge, huge concern. But it’s not nothing either. Where do these clothes come from? It’s not like that’s on the label. Is it as simple as “in with the new and out with the old?" Perhaps weight gain or loss? Migrating fashion tastes? Did the former owners move on to the great consignment shop in the sky?

I needed a test subject to shop for. Someone who appreciated well-made clothes. Someone who might or might not feel squeamish about donning a shirt someone else had sweated into. Or worse.

That would be my unwitting husband.

My reasons for loving “pre-loved" are personal. I like items that have some history. I also appreciate the possibility that by going pre-worn I won’t run into my sartorial doppelgänger, which is increasingly an issue as global brands and retail chains proliferate.

Sporting the current “it" carry-all handbag doesn’t make me feel particularly “in the know". At least in the horror movie Us, the otherworldly twins had the decency to not match their body doubles’ attire once they ventured above ground. Lupita Nyong’o never once thought “I have that purse" as she fought for her life.

I conquered any hesitancy about wearing pre-owned clothing years ago. My most memorable purchase was a tan suede frock coat with decorative embroidery, trimmed with long Mongolian lamb fur along the cuffs, front opening and bottom hem. I found it somewhere in France while on a Dartmouth semester abroad. I remember having to part the fur in my palm whenever I put out my hand to accept change. I never ran into anyone dressed remotely like me.

So when I first heard of online consignment stores in early 2015, I was ready. While shopping online lacked the charm of rummaging through racks in overseas villages, it was much more efficient. I found the vintage black lambskin Chanel evening purse of my dreams in 2015, and its mate in white with a swinging gold chain a few months later. With some patience, I secured a black lambskin Chanel for day, with gently twinkling rhodium-coloured chains, and then a patent leather Chanel with mixed metal hardware. The latter two are just large enough to hold a pair of heels in a pinch.

I have gifted my daughters resale-site vintage purses and skinny gold necklaces with teeny gemstones that were pretty and unique. But I had never gotten anything second-hand for my husband.

I decided on a suit. I know my husband’s measurements. I searched by those specifics, by price—under $400 (around 20,000)—and landed on some Paul Smith options. With an offer for 20% off, I selected a blue wool-and-mohair suit for $225, or $180 after the discount. Condition: Very Good. I checked the Paul Smith site. New Paul Smith suits clocked in at $1,560 for starters. So far, so good.

RealReal tells me that the suit saved 241 litres of water and 43.49 driving miles.

I added a Hermes Silk Abstract print tie with an estimated retail value of $195. It was listed at $75 but cost $60 after the 20% off. Its condition was described as pristine, with no obvious signs of wear.

Within a week, my packages arrived.

The suit’s shipping literature included a Christian Dior quote: “Don’t buy much, but be sure what you buy is good." The tie seemed to have other ideas: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing." Attributed to Mick Jagger.

Both items were as advertised, in look and feel. The suit was handsome. The jacket could be worn right out of the box; the trousers needed a pressing. The tie was flawless.

Christmas Day, my husband Eric admired my wrapping and started The Opening.

The suit was first. He slipped on the size 40 jacket. It was a hit. Perhaps Eric was won over because it fit like a glove. Perhaps he had remembered who he was married to and was hardwired to approve. Perhaps the slate-blue wool against the royal purple silk lining made him giddy. I know it made me giddy. Perhaps you simply cannot argue with excellent tailoring.

“Does it concern you that the jacket, and more specifically, the trousers, belonged to someone else?" Nothing quite says “Merry Christmas" like interrogating your husband. “Not at all," Eric said. He isn’t a clothes junkie, but as a trained painter, he does respect proportion, craft and colour.

“Do you think you are less concerned because you assume a certain social class of the former owner?" I ask.

“Absolutely not," he said.

Modelling his new clothing, he worked in some poses. And, inexplicably, he executed a goofy forward lunge, like a mannequin suddenly embroiled in a sword fight.

The trousers are a bit snug. Luckily, we have an excellent tailor one town over. For $45,he will work his magic. Sadly, I am on my own when it comes to the forward lunge.

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