Another Bag, Not My Own
The lasting lure of secondhand luxury pieces in the market
“Luxury” and “secondhand” make strange bedfellows when it comes to fashion. Before the secondhand market exploded, used clothing and accessories were divided into two categories: hand-me-down Salvation Army cast offs and vintage items.
In 2005, I was sent to Kenya by WWD to investigate the secondhand trade. Ever wonder what happens to all those old clothes you gave away to charity? The ones that didn’t end up in orphanages or thrift stores actually did make it to Africa, where they were arguably needed the most, considering the high rates of poverty prevailing on the continent.
However, instead of being distributed for free, the capitalistic instinct took over. The clothes were packaged in bales and offered wholesale through enterprising (and unscrupulous) middlemen to vendors who then flogged the clothes in markets to customers desperate for imported, branded, albeit used, clothing.
The trade became known as mitumba, after the Swahili word for “bale.”
Across Kenya, scoring a used Nike shirt, or indeed Nike kicks, gave a young boy instant street cred. A newborn baby swaddled in Fruit of the Loom onesies would be the envy of all mothers, while a denim jacket straight out of Target made anyone seem fly.
Despite some of the trendy labels I spotted— Miss Sixty, 7 For All Mankind, and believe it or not, Banana Republic and Ann Taylor—the open-air markets, with stalls mounted like bahay
kubo on raw earth, were long on local color but decidedly short on ambience. That is, if you expect your shopping experience to come with a store atmosphere, which boutiques specializing in vintage clothing have in spades.
Back in the day, the savvy shopper knew where to go in Paris to score immaculate preloved Chanel suits, Valentino jackets, and Dior tops. The stores were called dépôt-ventes, quite literally places where you could consign your designer wares and sell them. Inside, the décor ranged from no-frills to eccentric to intimidatingly chic, and the treasures that awaited discovery were incomparable. And every smart neighborhood had a dépôt-vente; the 16th arrondissement brimmed with some of the best. My favorites then were Réciproque in Rue de la Pompe, where I found a Mani blouse (remember that line by Giorgio Armani?), and Dépôt-Vente de Passy in Rue de la Tour, where I chanced upon a shimmering green silk shantung Inès de la Fressange top that still looks amazingly soignée 20 years later—though the buttons could do with an update.
Today, the secondhand— oops, pre-loved—landscape has changed quite dramatically. The granddaddy of vintage high fashion in Los Angeles, Cameron Silver of Decades, faces competition from established boutiques like Screaming Mimis in New York and relative upstarts such as Milan Station in Hong Kong, not to mention new online players such as Guiltless, a luxury consignment e-commerce venture based in Hong Kong recently launched by Yen Kuok, the Stanford-educated youngest daughter of billionaire businessman Robert Kuok. What sets Guiltless apart from the competition is the combination of secondhand clothing with first-class service, which includes free international consignment pick-ups and luxurious packaging.
Ukay-ukay meets Net-a-Porter, in other words. Sign me up, please.