In the early aughts everyone at my snooty high school in the Bay Area was trying to look like a surfer, skater or Britney Spears. With it's puka shells and rhinestones, Y2K style was the real disaster of 2000. I thought I was chic in my Delia's flares and glittery graphic tees, until we moved to Ohio. “Have fun in the cornfields” they said as I bid the West Coast goodbye.
Dazed & Confused Image via Vogue
It was a time warp. Although this school was also a bit snooty, this one made me feel as if I had been transported to the 1970’s. The boys had shaggy, feathered hair and the lockers were pastel yellow, pink and green. Instead of looking like bubble gum Disney princesses, there was something understated and easy about the cool girls' style that I couldn’t quite place. Mixed in with their designer clothes they wore unusual jewelry with heavy stones like turquoise and coral, vintage tees aged into muted shades, a pair of moccasins with faded jeans.
There was something earthily beautiful about it that didn’t make sense to me. I started asking girls where they got this or that thing but instead of saying a department store or a chain stores at the mall, the answer was often “I thrifted it”. It was a verb and an active one at that.
Image via Subrina Heyink Vintage
My friends and I started combing thrift stores every weekend. We weren’t looking for anything in particular, because you couldn’t. You had to dig, search, leave empty handed and sometimes do it all again the next weekend. Sometimes we left with nothing and other times we left with bags of ironic 80’s graphic tees and pearl snap button ups. In a few years I had made a religion out of it.
To achieve thrifting Nirvana, First, you need to do research about your own style. This can be informal, but thrifting works best when you diligently (ahem—obsessively) pore over fashion spreads online, Instagram, magazines or wherever inspires you. Just observe fashion wherever you can. Go as far as people watching in the park to making excessive Pinterest boards. Study and observe style and as you observe, you start learning what is beautiful to you. You start recognizing what you’re drawn to.
Once you’ve perfected creeping everyone's style, start browsing thrift stores. Don’t be discouraged if you find nothing. Just browse. Look at every single thing and thoughtfully consider it or just scan the rack quickly to see what jumps out at you. Often it’s a color, a texture or something as specific as the flutter of a sleeve. You’ll start getting good at this scanning exercise and eventually be able to speed thrift. You’ll be in and out in 10 mins after one rapid perusal of the racks.
Another thrifting hack is to be contrarian. Now is the time to take risks because if that piece ends up being a terrible idea, it only cost you $7.50. Try something that’s a bit wacky, or something that feels “too fancy”. Sometimes we get in style ruts and play it safe, but thrifting doesn’t have to be. That cheetah print raincoat or velvet maxi skirt might actually become your new favorite piece.
Thrift Town. Sacramento, CA
Thrift stores have evolved over time, just like the fashion industry. The massive Goodwills and Salvation Armies I cruised as a teenager in the Midwest were graveyards of bygone eras. There were a lot of unwearable, basic and just boring pieces but the virtue of a forgotten wasteland is that if nobody goes there, nobody finds the goods. By going often to these obscure spots you luck out when there is a sudden cache of chic, retro pieces from grandma or some other super chic lady's closet.
Some of the best scores I’ve ever had have come from the most random places i.e. The perfect pair of stonewashed Women’s Levi’s 501’s hanging in the kid’s section at a Goodwill in suburban Sacramento or the collection of Marimekko vintage dresses at a roadside shop outside of Cleveland. In high style cities good old fashion thrifting can be a bust because so many people with taste have figured out how to thrift. Try seeking out the undiscovered spots in or just outside of town.
Learning to thrift is learning to be an even better-trained fashion lover. Tibi
founder Amy Smilovic said thrifting is “good because it’s about the concepts, not the labels”. By learning to thrift you’re not giving up on current seasons or designers. In fact, you’re supplementing pricier investment pieces and building out an aesthetic around these ideas. Style changes so quickly, and most of us can’t afford to buy designer everything (or anything) all the time. Designers themselves are referring to vintage silhouettes and often getting inspiration from their own archives. Buying sustainable + vintage is how we change the fashion industry for the better.
Shopping secondhand is the lowest impact to the environment because you’re literally using zero new resources to get that garment. You’re also saving items from the landfill. More than 70% of thrift store clothing goes unsold and ultimately ends up in a landfill or shipped overseas to developing nations where trash is incinerated. The amount of excess we have now in thrift stores is largely thanks to fast fashion pieces that don’t last more than a year at most.
You just have to sift. But if you’re unwilling to really sift you can still thrift.
Secondhand resale sites like Poshmark and Depop are exploding. The key to success on these sites is still also, the most annoying tip-patience. You can’t look for specific things, but you can save an item search for “Black Chelsea Boots” or “Knit tank” or simply for a brand you like. You can pounce on or simply save these items and come back to later. These online secondhand sellers are not going to be as cheap as digging up something at Goodwill for a few bucks but secondhand designer goods may still be a few hundred dollars less than the original price.
Along with the classic hands-on thrift experience and user generated resale sites, another avenue for vintage shopping is from curated vintage shops. There are thousands of amazing vintage retailers who have done the work for you. This is also a pricier option but so many amazing vintage curators have already mastered the art of thrifting. Insta accounts like Subrina Heyink Vintage, Hassida Vintage, Roam Vintage, Nanin Vintage and The Consistency Project have figured out how to source the most gorgeous and relevant pieces. It’s a bit more expensive than rooting around Goodwill, but after reading this article you should know that curating vintage is is something of an art form and it takes time and patience. Perhaps it’s the remedy for fast fashion. Instead of creating a demand for more and faster, by thrifting we learn to develop our own style, take our time expressing it and by using the least resources while we learn to recognize the “right” thing instead of the quick thing.
Fast Fashion is packing our thrift stores nowadays and it can be harder to find actual vintage (pieces from 25 years ago plus). But if you find a great piece from Zara at a thrift store don’t be ashamed to purchase it. You’re saving it from the landfill. Repurposing fast fashion is still progress though not a perfect scenario. Even as you extend it's life that Zara piece will eventually fall apart and end up in the incinerator. The ideal is to have clothes made ethically, with renewable or biodegradable fibers that last a lifetime.
What feels like the crowning achievement for a thrifter is not merely thrifting luxury (Yes I once found a dead stock Armani silk top for $4), but even better is to score a piece from a sustainable designer. This feels like the ultimate goal and the future we want to create. Imagine a world where all clothes are made sustainably and of lasting quality and everyone has learned how to be a discerning shopper. Potentially all clothes would be “good” clothes and the thrift stores would be littered not with Zara and Target tees but a goldmine of vintage and sustainable clothes. To save a lovingly, ethically made piece from the landfill feels like giving it noble fate it deserves and hopefully is the future we’ll all live to see.
Here is a quick review of the rules of becoming a better thrifter:
- Start doing style research so you know what to look for
- Go often and expect nothing
- “Scan” the rack for textures and colors that jump out at you
- Try secondhand sites like Poshmark, Depop or curated shops from vintage hand sellers like The Consistency Project, Honey Dove Vintage, Subrina Heyink Vintage.
- Be patient
- Shop high quality vintage and sustainable brands so they’ll retain they’re value. When it’s time to give them away, resell them.
Check out these vintage resellers: