Vintage fashion: What's old is new (again) and the more the better

The trend of buying second-hand clothes is here to stay. Younger shoppers are re-discovering older trends as a way to be unique, save money, and lessen textile waste from fast fashion. The new “maximalism” trend also draws heavily from mix and match vintage styles.

Laura Seitz/The Deseret News/AP
Miranda Lewin shops at Pib's Exchange a vintage clothing store in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 15, 2022. Younger shoppers are increasingly hunting for vintage clothing as a way to be environmentally sustainable and make their own fashion statements.

The newest trends in fashion are nothing new at all.

Utahns in greater numbers are buying pre-owned clothing from bygone eras as a way to be environmentally sustainable, financially sensible, and stand out in the age of big box fashion, the Deseret News reported.

“It’s cheaper, its higher quality, and it’s a lot more unique. No one is going to be wearing this dress at the concert you’re going to,” said Jacqueline Whitmore, owner of Copperhive Vintage, twirling a floor-length, floral print dress from the 1960s. “This dress is 60 years old, and it still looks amazing. People are starting to get it.”

Ms. Whitmore, whose Copperhive caters to a midcentury aesthetic with bold floral prints and fit-and-flare dresses, is among a growing cohort of vintage retailers who’ve helped make the Beehive State a destination for thrift.

In recent years secondhand has become a first priority for more shoppers, who looked to vintage retailers when the supply chain issues and economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic made buying new less appealing. Now retailers think the new customers are here to stay.

“I’ve seen a lot more first-time customers. When they didn’t find what they wanted from Nordstrom, or what they ordered was taking too long to arrive, they come in here for wedding attire or special celebration attire, and even younger shoppers looking for outfits for prom,” said Ms. Whitmore, who found her way to vintage as a plus-size person in search of fashion that fit.

Notwithstanding pandemic windfalls, vintage has been on the rise for close to a decade, driven largely by a new generation of environmentally-minded shoppers who say buying secondhand – referred to as “upcycling” – is a critical tool in the fight against climate change, and most immediate way to put a dubious fast fashion industry in check.

“I feel better in my soul wearing something that’s not so disruptive to the environment. Buying used is a drop in the bucket, but it’s one thing I have control over,” said Taylor Litwin, a stewardship director for the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation who tries to shop exclusively secondhand. “It’s evident how much pollution we’re creating, so if I can in any way reduce it I’m going to try.”

According to research cited in outlets like Bloomberg Business and the Columbia Climate School, the current fashion industry “is responsible for 10% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and 20% of global wastewater, and uses more energy than the aviation and shipping sectors combined.”

Even established fashion brands are beginning to join the upcycle movement, including Levis Secondhand, the jeans giant’s new program that buys back worn wear to repurpose and resale.

Edgar Gerardo, who emigrated to Los Angeles with his family as a child and today owns thrift store Rewind, said he developed an eye for vintage trends out of necessity. As a Mexican immigrant in L.A., sourcing and selling used items was one of the few money-making opportunities available, he said.

“No one would hire you if you were an immigrant in L.A. back in the ’90s. This was the only thing our family could do, buy and sell at the flea markets. Little by little we learned what’s popular, what sells,” he said.

When the economy crashed in 2008, he moved with his family to Utah, where he initially planned to make a living “doing regular jobs.” But then he discovered an untapped trove of thrift.

“I didn’t know this place was full of vintage. And nobody was picking it, so I went back to what I know: picking vintage clothes and anything I could make money off,” Mr. Gerardo said.

Mr. Gerardo says the current milieu for upcycled clothing began in the Japanese and British subcultures, which started getting notice in the states around 2015. Thereafter vintage found the endorsement of celebrity influencers and the trend took off across the country, and in some cases has driven the prices of vintage clothes way up. For example, he said because of influencers he’s seen a 1980s rock band Metallica T-shirt sell for as much as $500.

“You’d imagine things like that wouldn’t be worth much, but then some celebrity or influencer wears it and the cost skyrockets,” he said.

Mr. Gerardo is suspicious of those who say they shop used for environmental reasons because he believes the phenomenon is first and foremost about basic consumer trends.

Recent years have seen a crush of vintage-inspired social media accounts. Yet those in Utah’s secondhand scene say this new crop of influencers are part of an ecosystem that operates by different principles, which emphasizes community while simultaneously celebrating individual expression.

Hannah Ruth Zander is an ascendant, Utah-based influencer who promotes the vintage industry through her popular Instagram account, where she curates one-of-a-kind outfits from the styles of various eras.

“I describe it as 1960s-mod-meets-modern-day, with a hint of 18th-century fashion. It’s super old, then a little bit newer, and then the super new. I like the collaboration of these different eras,” she said.

Ms. Zander says influencers are playing an important role by encouraging a return to an individual expression that has flattened in the stressful pandemic.

“During the pandemic, people really just wore athleisure. As it’s about over, I think most people don’t even want to look at another pair of sweatpants,” says Ms. Zander. “Now that people can finally go out with their friends and wear cute outfits, vintage is a good way to get their personalities out there.”

Ms. Zander says vintage has become especially relevant alongside the fashion world’s wider embrace of maximalism, an exuberant aesthetic characterized by clashing patterns and loud colors, and a pendulum swing from the subdued ways of dressing during lockdowns.

“With maximalism, the more layers the better, the more color the better, the more pieces you’re mixing together and the crazier the better. Which vintage is great for because you can mix and match so many different pieces from different eras and it can still be fashionable and cohesive,” Ms. Zander said. “It’s allowing people to be expressive again, and I think that’s really cool.”

This story was reported by The Deseret News and distributed by the Associated Press.

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