The coronavirus pandemic is affecting every layer of the fashion industry, from global brands to indie start-ups. In the early days of the virus, before we fully understood its spread or just how long we would be sheltering in place, I wondered how it might impact the vintage and secondhand market. Would people be newly freaked out about the potential germs spread through the “sharing economy”? (Rest assured, you’re very unlikely to be infected through clothing.) And would our favorite vintage stores even survive the economic downturn? Apparel spending has plummeted by 50%; as a result, designers of every size have furloughed their staffs and several department stores are on the verge of bankruptcy. Surely the things we love most about vintage would put it at risk, too: As a predominately “real life” shopping experience, it’s highly personal and happily low-tech; many of our favorite vintage shops don’t even have a website, let alone the budget for virtual fittings or augmented reality.
Still, as vintage dealer Haley Pelton points out, “The people who get into the vintage business are scrappy. They’re a resilient bunch.” The deliberately un-corporate, community-based world of vintage means its purveyors are quick to adapt—and their customers are fiercely loyal. Pelton reported that her Philadelphia-based shop Wayward Collection is currently closed, but business is still booming on her e-commerce site. “We have new customers every day, plus a lot of our regulars,” she says.
Shopping for vintage online can be a gamble since sizing has changed so much over the decades, so Pelton answers a lot of questions via email or Instagram DM. “We started shooting the clothes on models a few years ago, and that’s when the online business exploded. People need to see how the clothes look [on the body], and we style everything to make it look modern. I give really detailed measurements and accept returns for store credit, which a lot of vintage sellers don’t do. But I’m trying to attract the traditional retail customer who might otherwise shop for fast fashion, so we have to make it work.”
Pelton says her store will stay closed for the foreseeable future, so she’s focusing her efforts entirely on e-commerce. “The reality now is that more and more stuff needs to be available online,” she says. “We’re going to ramp up our website for the rest of the year and see how it goes. But what I’m losing a lot of time on is buying [for the website]. I don’t know when I’ll be able to go out and hunt for stuff at the Brimfield flea market again, or when I’ll be able to visit my dealers and warehouses…. I turn things over really fast, so unless you’re constantly shopping, it’s hard to keep enough in stock.”
Over the past few months, she’d been busy stocking up on new vintage for A Current Affair, the popular vintage show that was set to take place in New York on May 9 and 10 before it was canceled. “A Current Affair is a huge part of our business,” Pelton says. “It’s a really special thing to be involved in, especially the New York show. New Yorkers love to shop, and so many people save up for it. I buy things specifically for A Current Affair, the kind of stuff that really needs to be seen in person.”
The show will still go on—just in a new format. Next weekend, vendors from all over the country (including Pelton) will host 30-minute Instagram Live sessions on A Current Affair’s Instagram page to sell their wares. Viewers can tune in and claim the items they want by sending a DM to the vendor and organizing payment directly, most likely via Venmo or PayPal. “This is a moment for us to be creative and think outside the box,” Richard Wainwright, the cofounder of A Current Affair, explains. “We still want to maintain our relevancy and support our vendors. They can use this time to do whatever they want—to sell, to show their collection, or just to talk. We want it to be about community building and celebrating what we’ve built over the past 10 years.”
Vendors hoping to make some sales will need to show their garments from many angles and include as much detail as possible—measurements, fabric, color, fit—to make up for viewers not being able to try anything on. “An elevated level of customer service is especially important right now,” Wainwright says. “With my own vintage business, I’ve started sending customers videos, or we’ll FaceTime so I can show them how I’m measuring the clothes…. I never had an interest in online before, because I really like the face-to-face interactions with customers, but obviously this has forced me out of my comfort zone.”
There’s no substitute for touching and feeling a garment in person, but fans of A Current Affair are used to making quick, intuitive decisions; you can’t linger on a vintage YSL blazer or embroidered blouse for too long, or someone else will snag it. The same will likely be true on Instagram Live, where you’ll be competing with people all over the country for a one-of-a-kind item. The limited availability makes it a lot easier to pull the trigger—as does the fact that vintage is arguably the most sustainable, guilt-free way to shop. This pandemic is revealing the many cracks in the fashion system: the plight of garment workers, the instability of short-term profits, and, more broadly, the industry’s massive environmental impact. Vintage and secondhand are an antidote to all of that, because you’re buying something that already exists and extending its life span.
Wainwright believes vintage is actually a more resilient business model than traditional fashion, too. “My feeling is that we’re the future, and we’re on the right side of history,” he says. “Everyone’s hurting right now, but it’s going to be much harder for brands who produce collections and operate on the retail calendar to bounce back. Vintage can adapt, and people are waking up to the impact of fast fashion on the planet. They’re starting to realize their purchasing power. In the long run, I think vintage will be bigger and better than ever.”
We don’t just love vintage because it’s better for the environment, of course. Wainwright adds: “In times like these, people want things that are comforting, and vintage reminds you of a different time, maybe a time when things were a little easier and more comfortable. Vintage makes you feel creative and inspired. It feels familiar.”
Pelton echoed his sentiments: “A big part of why I do this is because there is so much stuff out there—I can’t believe we even need to make one more thing,” she says. “But vintage dealers need the fashion industry and designers, because they drive the conversation around trends and are often inspired by vintage, and we can mirror that in what we buy. That relationship is really important. Still,” she continues, “I definitely think it needs to slow down. We don’t need to consume as much stuff as we think, just because we’re shown so much. Hopefully this will be a wake-up call.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue