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Image: Steve Beech for Time Out

‘Very overwhelming and not cheap at all’: is London losing its love for vintage shops?

From Brick Lane to Portobello Road, Camden Market to Covent Garden, there’s no shortage of vintage shops in the capital. But just how sustainable is their future?

India Lawrence
Written by
India Lawrence

From the musty smells, to the welcoming sight of piles of old Levis, there’s nothing quite like visiting your first vintage shop. Since time immemorial, it’s been every 16-year-old’s rite of passage to spend an afternoon trying on Tommy Hilfiger dungarees, zip-up Nike track jackets and ‘shit shirts’ that looked like a pair of curtains had thrown up an oversized button down. Mom jeans, velvet scrunchies and neon windbreakers were all the rage and London was the place to get it. 

Portobello Road, Camden Market, Brick Lane: from the ’90s through to the mid-2010s, the capital was a world leader when it came to finding vintage treasures. The expansion of Rokit and the opening of Beyond Retro in the early noughties marked the start of vintage shopping becoming mainstream. But while buying pre-owned clothing used to be the cheaper alternative to high street shopping, now vintage shops are pricier than the alternatives – especially online fast fashion outlets like Boohoo, Shein and Pretty Little Thing, and even higher-end highstreet options like Cos, & Other Stories and Free People. We’ve still got loads of vintage shops, and good ones at that. But as Londoners turn away from buying pre-owned clothing IRL in favour of finding second-hand gems online, footfall is spiralling downwards at brick and mortar sites all over the city. Even the iconic vintage shop Beyond Retro on Cheshire Street near Brick Lane closed down recently.  

Rails of vintage clothes
Photograph: Shutterstock

But there’s more than just Depop and Vinted to blame. So how did London’s once magnificent empire of preloved clothing stores become so expensive and unpopular?

What actually is vintage?

The word ‘vintage’ is tossed around more than ‘small plates’ in London these days, but its definition has never been so hotly contested. For some traditionalists, vintage clothing has to be as old as 100 years, whereas for Gen Z, garments from as late as the noughties are seen as ‘vintage’.

The trendiest teens are wearing low-rise jeans, kitten heels and baguette handbags. Even chunky belts have made a comeback. For those who lived it the first time, this style, dubbed simply as ‘Y2K’, has returned like a bad hangover, but for a whole new generation of shoppers, it’s fresh, cool and definitely vintage. 

‘“Vintage’’’ is a term people started using to add value to second-hand clothes in the ’90s,’ says NJ Stevenson, a fashion historian and former Time Out fashion editor. ‘It was used to elevate secondhand into something that was desirable, comfortable and ultimately collectible.’

The term ‘vintage’ was used to elevate secondhand into something that was desirable

These days, shopping for second-hand is less about finding something collectible to keep in your archive for years and years to come, and more about searching for items that are on trend, affordable and ‘sustainable’. But this is where the lines become blurred. When does something stop being simply pre-owned and become vintage?

For NJ, an item should be ‘at least 30 years old’ to be classed as vintage. But she also admits ‘there isn’t a right or wrong answer’. Others aren’t as strict. ‘I’d class 2000s fashion as vintage,’ says Steve Lynam, director of second-hand warehouse Preloved Kilo. ‘There are die-hard customers who believe vintage has to be from the 1920s. But 100-year-old pieces sell for thousands,’ he adds. Most regular shoppers could never afford the likes of ‘true vintage’, as Lynam calls it. 

‘Items from the 1920s are few and far between now. Collectors hold on to them as well,’ Lynam adds.

The end of an era

Thanks to the raging popularity of second-hand clothing and the growth of fast fashion that’s slowly taking over the world’s stock of clothing, the once abundant well of well-made, long-lasting vintage garms is running low. ‘The golden era of vintage is coming to an end,’ says Rachel Jones, lecturer in Fashion Business at Westminster University. ‘The days when you could go to a local charity shop and pick up an amazing Balenciaga bag or a Chanel top are long gone.’

‘As fast fashion starts to become the most prevalent type of clothing around, it is much harder to find vintage,’ she explains. ‘Second-hand clothing becoming saturated with fast fashion means that the quality of the vast quantities of second-hand clothing shipped around the world is rapidly declining. In ten or 20 years time it’ll be very hard to find good, cheap, second-hand clothing.’

Outside of Zara shop
Photograph: Shutterstock

Stevenson agrees. She’s concerned that the low quality clothes made by the likes of Boohoo and ASOS won’t survive to be sold on as vintage in 20 to 30 years time. ‘The goalposts have moved,’ she says. ‘Nothing that has been developed for the mass market for the past 10 years will be vintage.’ 

Then there’s the fact that the dirt cheap prices of fast fashion have warped our perception of what clothes should actually cost.  ‘You can get a T-shirt for a pound in Primark,’ says Jones. ‘Low prices are demeaning the value of clothes and have skewed what things are worth. People need to be realistic – something that is well made and is going to last is worth a lot of money. Fashion shouldn't be disposable.’

Thanks to demand outweighing the supply, the prices of second-hand items – particularly the good quality ones –  get pushed up. Take Carhartt jackets, for example. According to Jones who runs her own vintage shop, the workwear jackets are ‘almost impossible’ to find second-hand, meaning their typically high prices are actually pretty fair. 

Depop girlies and Vinted warriors 

Not only has our perception of price and quality changed, the way we shop has too. The second-hand industry is booming, but IRL vintage shops are losing customers. Instead of having to travel into town to spend hours trawling shops looking for a gem, many shoppers prefer to buy online from the comfort of their bed. In 2022, Vinted rose from 30 million to 65 million global users.

TikTok has played a huge role in the glorification of second-hand shopping, with ‘vintage’ and ‘thrifted’ becoming buzzwords for any kind of pre-loved garms. The app is flooded with Vinted ‘hacks’, from brands to search for that will give designer dupes, to people screenshotting trendy finds for others to buy. 

The low quality clothes made by the likes of Boohoo and ASOS won’t survive to be sold on as vintage in 20 to 30 years time

This is all well and good, but the video app has also accelerated the speed in which trends are followed. Remember ‘strawberry girl’, ‘bloke core’ and ‘cottagecore’? The internet moved swiftly onto ‘coquette’ and the ‘mob wife aesthetic’. Shoppers are less concerned with finding items that are specifically vintage, but finding things that are on trend, and crucially, affordable. And even though buying second-hand is better for the environment than shopping fast fashion, customers are still buying a heck of a lot.  

‘I don’t stress so much on the vintage part. As long as it’s in good condition and at a decent price, that’s what I’m looking for,’ says 25-year old Londoner and fashion writer Avani Thakkar. ‘I’ve been on the hunt for cute leg warmers with ribbons (they start from £30 at places like Urban Outfitters) and vintage shops don’t have that kind of stuff,’ she explains. ‘Whereas Depop has them for like £10 and it’s handmade – I’ll never find a piece like that again, which makes it unique.’

On apps it’s become much easier for shoppers to find exactly what they’re looking for, usually at a fraction of the vintage store’s price. And it makes sense –  brick and mortar shops have got to shell out for overheads, staff wages and in many cases, paying people to grade the items to make sure they are legitimately vintage. 

Outside beyond retro
Photograph: Shutterstock

‘Vintage shops have become way too overpriced which is sad because I used to love the adventure of digging through charity shops and vintage shops,’ says Sam Gill, 29. ‘I find stuff cheaper on Depop because it’s flooded with competition.’ Twenty-six-year-old Millie O’Connor agrees, finding vintage shops ‘very overwhelming and not cheap at all’.‘I prefer Vinted, I use it all the time,’ she says. ‘I don’t generally go shopping “for the fun of it”, I’ll have something in mind that I want or need specifically.’

But it’s not all cheap designer gems and adorable handmade legwarmers. An increase in demand for vintage garments also means a rise in nefarious sellers, using the term ‘vintage’ to make a quick buck on any old second-hand piece of clothing. ‘There are shady characters who put stuff online as vintage but it isn't genuine or original,’ says Stevenson. ‘There are also people who take out old labels and sew [designer] labels in.’ 

The true price 

That’s not the only shady thing going on. The sad truth is, your second-hand clothes might have a bigger carbon footprint than you realise. Many pre-owned stockists, including Preloved Kilo which is based in Sheffield, source their clothes from all over the world. ‘One of our buying directors will spend months of the year in different countries selecting the stock. We then grade it, wash it, dry it, pack it and bring it to our events or shops,’ says Preloved Kilo’s Lynam. His team of buyers travels the globe every year, sourcing from the UK, Europe, the Middle East, North America and Australia. 

‘We’ve had a piece of clothing come to our shop, go to the Middle East, and come back to us. We knew because it had our tag on it,’ says Lynam. Exactly how this happened, Lynam doesn’t know. But it does hint at the existence of an endless cycle of used clothing going round and round the world like a giant washing machine.

There’s an endless cycle of used clothing going round the world like a giant washing machine

Donating clothes to charity shops doesn’t do much good either. According to a report by Greenpeace, out of the 11,000 tonnes of clothing donated to Oxfam in the UK every year, only 3,000 of those tonnes – 27 percent – is sold in its shops. Of the remaining 8,000 tonnes, 1,000 tonnes are recycled or thrown away and 5,600 tonnes are sent to Eastern Europe and East and West Africa. Much of this offshore clothing ends up in ‘Mitumba’, vast markets where bales of clothing are sold. The rest is either downcycled or dumped in huge landfills, often devastating natural areas. 

Greenpeace adds that more than 70 percent of all donated clothing in the UK is sent overseas. This means that the clothes handpicked by the buyers at places like Preloved Kilo could have come from the UK, but instead of finding a new home in someone’s wardrobe, have gone on a world tour before ending up right back where they were in the first place. 

A way forward

So, what’s the solution? Second-hand stores and online outlets could follow in the example of online platform Vestiaire Collective, which last year banned fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara from its site. By boycotting fast fashion, Vestiaire Collective hopes to lead by example and remove itself from ‘an outdated, exploitative system’. 

‘Every year, the fashion industry produces 100 billion garments,’ the founders wrote in a letter explaining the move. ‘Zara and H&M alone produce more than one billion garments per year. As we consume more and wear less, 92 million tons of textile waste is discarded on a yearly basis  – most of it coming from fast fashion brands. This is enough to fill the Empire State Building every day, and has a major environmental and social impact.’

A pile of clothing waste
Photograph: Shutterstock

Ultimately, though, it’s down to policymakers to make any real change when it comes to stopping vast quantities of reused garments from being shipped abroad – what some people call ‘waste colonialism’. 

But there are some things regular folk can do. As consumers, we can make small steps, like focusing on a garment’s quality and longevity when loading up on Vinted or Depop, instead of following quickly-moving trends. Old clothes could be repaired, instead of just chucked in the bin. As Jones says: ‘Sustainability isn't a trend, it’s a huge movement we should all be embracing.’

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