Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020, but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

From sourcing stock to emphasising sustainability, online businesses dealing in secondhand clothes — or thrifting — have many wrinkles to iron out, moving forward.

Swareena Gurung January 17, 2021 12:05:02 IST
Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020, but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

Detail from Instagram post via @nobordersshop

Growing up, buying second-hand clothing was a clandestine affair. In Darjeeling, my hometown, the hub for this activity is a steep road that pierces the main town and is flanked by mounds of garments. At 17, I deliberately took that way back from school, carefully scanning the stock as I ambled past, stopping to rifle through only the most promising-looking piles. Even then, trusted friends stood guard.

Rumours abounded that popular shop-owners from the town could be found hovering in the same street during the early hours of the day, to snap up items that they could sell as brand new. Most of my counterparts, to my knowledge, had bought second-hand at one time or another; but for any middle-class teenager, that was strictly hush-hush information.

In 2020, dozens of second-hand businesses are being run by fashion-savvy millennials from my hometown. This naturally follows from an eruption of ‘thrift stores’ on Instagram, many notably from North-East India, that the absence of physical shopping experiences during the lockdown catalysed. ‘Thrifted clothes’ (a portmanteau term for second-hand, vintage, and export-surplus clothing) are now cool amongst Indian millennials, and for good reason.

Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020 but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

Image via Instagram/@bodements_

On Instagram, there are different categories of such online shops. High-end concept stores such as @bodements, @nobordersshop, @shopthelocalvintage, and @viangevintage offer curated collections of designer and vintage items handpicked from across the globe. Then there are those like @folkpants, @luu_liu, @mirinwonofficial, and @repose____ that source from second-hand and export surplus markets within India. Being affordable and impeccably styled, they are millennial favourites that have also been featured in editorial shoots in the country’s top fashion magazines. Another bourgeoning category is that of up-cycle stores such as @otsuclothingco, founded by Axone actor Asenla Jamir, that re-designs old clothes by combining them with local fabrics.

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When the pandemic hit, Chennai-based graphic designer Sruti Ashok started @therelovecloset to raise funds for a local NGO supporting daily-wage labourers. It raised Rs 7 lakh within a month, encouraging Ashok, who also runs INAI (@inaistory) an upcycled leather accessories brand, to continue the online store.  Ashok’s store is unlike other tightly curated thrift stores. By reselling items on behalf of like-minded people, while also raising funds for various social causes, she runs @therelovecloset more like a marketplace offering pre-loved and vintage pieces from luxury international designers, homegrown brands, and fast-fashion labels alike.

Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020 but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

Image via Instagram/@mirinwonofficial

Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020 but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

Image via Instagram/@thesalvagestory

While most sustainability-driven brands would frown at selling a Forever21 polyester dress, Ashok regularly puts up such items on her store after rigorous quality checks, hoping to prolong the life of even cheaply-made items for as long as possible. “I personally believe that there are no right or wrong rules towards being sustainable. Any step that one takes towards making a more conscious choice is a step for the better. The most sustainable choice is to wear what you already have but buying pre-loved is another good option as it diverts pieces from ending up in landfills,” she says.

Aliya Curmally, head of strategy of the Indian chapter of the not-for-profit global movement Fashion Revolution, agrees: “The material cost of producing textiles is huge, and we are slowly headed towards a world where we are running out of resources to create with, or are using those that have proven to be harmful to the environment. Extending the life cycle of a garment that has been pre-used is definitely a step in the right direction.”

“However” she adds, “from the broader perspective, things can get contradictory if, for example, the garment is being shipped over tremendously large distances (and is building up a large carbon footprint), or if the maintenance of the garment is chemical-heavy and needs a lot of dry cleaning…. But in general, not sending usable clothing to waste is valued over discarding them. Generating value from the resale/reuse/ repurpose of a garment is beneficial to the community as a whole.”

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Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020 but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

(Above and below) Images from Instagram/@shopthelocalvintage

Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020 but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

When 23-year-old Saanika Jha returned to India after spending a year studying filmmaking in Budapest, she missed shopping at her favourite thrift stores there, and instantly became a regular customer of numerous online thrift shops, investing in vintage luxury bags and corsets. “When lockdown initially started,” she says “and the physical experience of thrifting became non-existent, I was attracted to those thrift shops that put care into their styling. Since then, I’ve come to realise that simply buying many thrifted pieces because they look good defeats the very purpose of responsible shopping. Now, I try to ask myself if I absolutely need an item, regardless of it being second-hand. Nine out of 10 times I don’t, and so I leave it for someone who might actually need it.”

According to anthropologist and fashion journalist Phyllida Jay, “these stores add a kind of delight and unexpectedness to shopping, they give young consumers a way to shop on a budget and buy things that are a bit unique or different. They can foster creativity and individual expression to self-styling, which in itself can be a powerful reminder that you don’t have to reply on the latest trends and fast fashion.”

She adds, “buying from these stores can be part of a more conscious approach to shopping, but like anything, in relation to sustainability, it has to be part of a bigger picture approach. ‘Buy less and buy better’ is a useful way to think about what we buy in general.”

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Online thrift stores proliferated in 2020 but questions remain about how such businesses can be sustained

Image via Instagram/@nobordersshop

In 2020, despite several others setting up thrift shops, Afifah Siddiqui decided to discontinue her year-old venture, @thesalvagestory. Demand for her items was high, and within a year of founding her store, she had loaned clothes for magazine editorials, including a shirt worn by Jahnavi Kapoor in Grazia.

Siddiqui’s primary concern was the lack of transparency while sourcing garments from local vendors and markets. “To scale up and get access to large quantities of vintage clothing in India, I was looking for suppliers whose products met my requirements. However, it was brought to my notice that importing used clothing in India is illegal in most cases. There are some exceptions; for instance, I can import mutilated clothing to make rags without needing a special licence. Only those companies based in Social Economic Zones (SEZ) can import used clothing to sort and grade before reexporting 100 percent of it. This made me question whether or not selling used clothing sourced from local flea markets was legal. And I don’t think it is.” She adds, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about this because most fellow thrift store owners freak out, but I don’t want to give the impression that my store wasn’t doing well or that Indians are apprehensive about using second-hand clothes.”

The digital growth of thrift stores in India is fast accelerating, but this is not without limitations. For sellers, scaling up businesses means decreasing their reliability on imported second-hand garments and fostering domestic circular fashion economies. This equally involves shoppers who have to be more conscientious about how much they buy and the afterlives of their existing clothes. Thrifting is a more responsible alternative to buying first-hand, but as with sustainable shopping in general, the same rule applies here — just buy less.

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