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Rise of patina-friendly products: pre-owned or second-hand?

Back in the mid-nineties, when the Internet was still a novelty associated with public libraries, university research, and quirky newsgroups, some people already worked to assemble the most significant opportunity of their time: a gigantic catalog of second-hand items for sale.

Some pioneers thought not only about books, videogames, and collector items likely to interest picky enthusiasts, but also clothing. Nevertheless, it soon seemed clear that people preferred to walk into a store to appreciate and try on the items before deciding on their purchase. The online clothing experience needed to wait for richer content and faster connections.

Two old friends in arms who learned first-hand the fast deterioration of former pristine environments across the US West, the South Cone, and Asia: the highly idealist Douglas Tompkins (The North Face founder), and Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia founder), image by Lito Tejada-Flores

I remember swapping some clothes with friends back then or going to a few second-hand stores to discover things; I had little money despite working at a restaurant on the weekends, but enough to get a few interesting, pre-owned things. We felt thankful for the person/s who had worn out the leather or denim of something getting my attention.

How much are quality and patina worth?

To us, unaware of the actual value of things, even the flea market had a few specialized items such as coats and complements; grunge had reached our teen world, and we enjoyed how easy it was to imitate the attires of the musicians we revered. The time had not arrived, though, to be able to digitally retrieve such items into a global “swap meet” based on quality and fair prices for sellers and buyers.

It would take many years for the online user experience to improve and for behavior to accommodate the expectations of the new era before online shopping for clothes became pervasive. The next frontier in the sector wasn’t to make more and cheaper items but to try and give discontinued and pre-owned clothing a second opportunity.

What in the mid-nineties was an affair between siblings or, at most, between friends and acquaintances has become the most promising business in fashion: new marketplaces are inviting people and stores to list all their old and pre-owned quality items —customers are ready to appreciate their worth, and the stories behind them.

The race for superficial consumption, in which buying more and more affordable clothes and throwing them away after a few washes (if any) had been made possible by fast fashion, is losing steam in favor of a more conscientious, curated buying experience: it turns out that growing number of people enjoy discovering —and wearing— vintage clothing.

Let my people mend and celebrate their old clothes

One of the reads Kirsten and I shared a few years back was Let My People Go Surfing, Patagonia founder’s Yvon Chouinard autobiographical account of the circumstances that brought him to create an influential outdoor clothing brand.

As a surfing and mountain climbing bum, young Chouinard suffered himself a lack of affordable technical apparel for what he wanted to do: the best-designed climbing gear and most sturdy clothing were produced abroad and, to his use, could be improved, so that’s what he did, making rock climbing gear for him and his friends, safe for them to use, and for the mountain to stay pristine.

Soon, his crafty shed in Ventura, California, was booming, and friends brought their acquaintances. The gear he’d seel on the back of his car would go in no time when he set an improvised shop by some nearby surfing spot or before entering Yosemite to attempt the ascend of El Capitan.

She understood patina: New Journalism pioneer and writer Joan Didion in 1972; her belongings (including clothes and accessories) are now being auctioned; click image to access source

Decades had passed from those humble beginnings when we visited Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura a few years ago, though the company still seemed to maintain some of its original values, wanting to sell sturdy stuff one could mend and keep using despite (or because of) the action and wear of time and constant use.

We also knew some of the old fleeces and jackets, sometimes worn out and patched in different areas, were as precious to some people as old t-shirts purchased in legendary music concerts. And, as collector items, they reached astronomical prices in places such as Japan.

The Patagonia headquarters have kept the original shed where it all started intact, and some of the clothing and apparel designs are now framed and hung on the wall. Yet most of it is still in circulation, waiting for an opportunity to serve to the fullest of its utility.

In his book, Chouinard, who recently announced he’s giving away the company after making sure that it will remain private to guarantee independence and profits are used to fight environmental degradation (nothing new: Patagonia started the program Ope Percent for the Planet in 2002), already confronts the main contradictions of consumption: the need of a business to sell more stuff to keep afloat and, eventually, thrive.

Enterprises that require new clothes vs. you

Yet Patagonia isn’t a charity and does not intend to be one. It is a profitable private business with a long-term vision incorporated in California, capable of advertising in the most prestigious media with provocative ads such as “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” a Black Friday stunt of the company in the New York Times in 2011.

Patagonia has also integrated clothing repair across its stores, though waitlists are long, up to several weeks since the initial Covid-19 outbreak. The company also maintains resources on DIY repair, including guides. And, unlike most companies, especially those in highly technical sectors, DIY repairs do not void the company’s guarantee.

Chouinard’s early approach to clothing comes from a tradition of frugality already vindicated in the nineteenth century by skeptics of the urges of modernity, such as Henry David Thoreau:

“I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

Still, companies like Patagonia are a minority, and fashion depends on economies of scale and supply chains that aren’t that concerned about their impact, the toxicity of the materials they use and their footprint, or the wellbeing of the workers who produce the clothes.

Yvon Chouinard, reflecting on the companies he created from the very shed where it all started with rock climbing gear firm Chouinard Equipment, the origin of Patagonia, the apparel company from Ventura, California (click over image to access source)

But selling more things at a lower price, detaching one’s mission from where the raw materials come from and where the apparel remains are headed after they are ditched, brings one more contradiction that should concern those who feel skeptical about aligning their purchases with reducing their environmental impact: most clothes cheaply produced use less durable materials and lack finishes that stand heavy use over time, making it more complicated for owners to extend their use, cherish, and repair or mend if necessary.

Upfront cost doesn’t equal lifetime cost

The company has also faced criticism for the cost of its apparel when it’s compared to its “fast fashion” counterparts, with popular nicknames such as “Pradagonia.” That said, the company hasn’t entered the game of collector series and designer collaborations explored by high-end brands specialized in “luxury” sports fashion, such as Moncler or sneaker brands.

Utilitarian quality has also disappeared from luxury, as former high-end, crafted apparel is outsourced to the same offshore facilities that produce their mass-market counterparts. Selected materials and clothes that can justify higher production costs, from luxury to technical garments for sports and niche activities, have retained their production attached to former textile areas.

But supply chain issues and geopolitical uncertainty may change the way we produce and consume clothing over the long term as much as raising awareness on the environmental or social cost of furnishing our closet.

Using clothes extensively and even celebrating their visible deterioration precedes modern fashion. Moreover, the origins of denim, a durable, utilitarian garment that maintains its association with the naïve nonconformism of youth, are forever intermingled with hard and menial jobs, ideally performed in the big outdoors.

Formal attire became affordable only after World War II, but its cost concerning wages and quality justified conscientious care. Repair and dry-cleaning shops proliferated in urban areas. Then, fast fashion proposed a new paradigm based on the seasonality and low prices of clothing subject to planned obsolescence: buy cheap, wear while it’s still a novelty, and ditch it right away, all at a lower up-front cost (which, accumulated over time, might have amounted to more than their traditional higher quality equivalent).

Using old suits before it was cool

Conserving, mending, and repurposing clothes has exploded in the last years, though the phenomenon isn’t new, and counterculture designers from the sixties made it their trademark (that is, before becoming a featured part of the established industry): in New York, London, Paris, and Milan, young designers started their shops with playful irreverence. During that era, some influential people defined themselves publicly by their attire, the way they dressed, or the accessories they wore.

This would explain why estate auctions of iconic figures of the era, such as the belongings of New Journalism pioneer Joan Didion, reach prohibitive prices, or why years ago, when Lapo Elkann, the rebel grandson of Gianni “Il Avvocato” Agnelli, legendary industrialist from Fiat and jetsetter, decided to prepare for responsible adulthood and aim at controlling Fiat himself, he modeled himself in Il Avvocato.

One Vanity Fair article from February 2006 explains to which extent Lapo would reach for the aura of his grandfather. Among other things, he would nurture relations on both sides of the Atlantic as his grandfather did but also… wear the suits of Il Avvocato, some of them several decades old:

“He would streak across the country in his grandfather’s hand-me-down suits in a battery of Fiats and associated brands—Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Maserati—urging his countrymen to buy Italian products, a crusade which had culminated only a month before his collapse in the star-studded launch of Fiat’s new, make-or-break model, the Grande Punto.”

In a constant turmoil, the then enfant terrible and Fiat heir would soon get to know the cruelty of paparazzi and jet-set stardom before the era of social media influencers:

“Lapo inherited his grandfather’s suits, which he often wears with sneakers, and he emulates his speech (rolling his r’s), public dating habits (starlets accompanied by headlines), and taste in cars (an ever changing stable of Fiat-manufactured steeds awaiting him in cities all over Europe). Named for a close friend of the poet Dante, Lapo had been born into a soon-to-be-fractured fairy-tale existence. His mother, Margherita Agnelli, Gianni Agnelli’s pale, artistic, only daughter, could have had her pick of royal suitors, but instead she married a writer: Alain Elkann, the handsome, suave son of a French banker.”

Old Patagonia items in Japan

The mentioned Vanity Fair article also details the coming-of-age of Lapo. He studied at Turin Polytechnic and the European Business School in London:

“He shared an apartment in Belgravia with a fellow student, Alberto Bresci, who said Lapo arrived with 100 pairs of shoes and a trunk full of his grandfather’s suits for disco nights at Chinawhite and Tramp with an endless string of beautiful young women. ‘He was always telling me, ‘Alberto, I don’t like to study. I want to work.’ His dream was to work at Fiat. For him, his grandfather was like God.'”

Now that the Instagram influencer era has lost its innocence, we maintain a door to a new high-stakes industry based on image perception: a celebrity economy has grown around influential people willing to associate their persona with products and sometimes eager to become designers themselves. But this model that relies on perceived influencer capital shares the risks of social media hyper-ventilation and the rise and fall of the stars propelling some of the products. It can be as volatile as the valuation of shitcoins.

Patagonia collectors and the likes of Lapo Elkann might have been onto something in their early vindication of what they perceived as the real value of their used clothing: their authenticity, quality, and patina-friendliness.

A few years after, and thanks to improved discoverability in niche digital services, second-hand quality clothing has transformed into a business that sustains entire platforms but also small resellers and people with access to a real-time valuation of what their old clothing is worth.

Rise of pre-owned quality clothes

German company Zalando, the biggest European online retailer, announced in February 2020 the launch of a “Pre-Owned” category in Fall 2020; by then, the Coronavirus outbreak would cause lockdowns and halt some real-life experiences such as buying clothes or finding second-hand apparel. Some customers, executives at Zalando stated then, were increasingly in search of pre-owned items,

“whether for reasons of sustainability or to enrich their looks with a unique piece. On the other hand, decluttering is now part of the fashion conversation, and customers are in search of innovative ways to do so.”

The success of the new category helped Zalando in fashion-conscious cities such as Berlin or Paris, expanding their offer of high-end brands, second-hand clothing, and categories such as “shop-by-values,” such as water conservation, animal welfare credentials, workers’ wellbeing, materials reuse, emissions, or the product’s total life. The “pre-owned” category could represent up to 25% of the gross merchandise volume (GMV) for the company in 2023.

Vinted, a Lithuanian marketplace for buying, selling, and exchanging new and second-hand items, especially clothing and accessories, has become Europe’s biggest app in the pre-owned category, with consolidation in France, Germany, and the UK, though Thomas Plantenga, the company’s CEO, explained recently that the company is entering the US and Canadian markets, explains Richard Milne in the Financial Times:

“In the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, the company’s mantra of making ‘second-hand fashion the first choice’ seems to resonate. While hundreds of other start-ups are slashing jobs, Vinted is one of the few still hiring.”

Vinted has grown steadily since 2016 and has more than 75 million users in 18 countries, most of them aged from 18 to 39 (and thus, unaware of pre-Internet purchasing experiences, which involved a great deal of personal passion and serendipity to get to find worthy items).

A few curated great things vs. pumping new plastic polymers

Despite growing fast, second-hand apparel still represents around 3-4 per cent of the total market, declares Thomas Platenga. Vinted, he says, is still hiring despite cuts across the board in the tech sector. Cost of living has gone up along with inflation and uncertainty, and pre-owned items can help those willing to sell their clothes as much as those in search of things: Vinted is developing a “locker system” in which somebody could place clothes in a locker in the Netherlands and a buyer could then retrieve the item somewhere in France, with little environmental and economic cost.

Vinted and Zalando aren’t the only online retailers with booming pre-owned clothing options. Second-hand apparel is a consolidated option in general marketplaces such as Ebay, and has also been present in classifieds sites such as Craigslist since the Web 1.0 days. marketplace options within social networks like Facebook Marketplace or thrift stores on Instagram and hyperlocal social networking services such as Nextdoor, an incremental evolution of Yahoo! Groups.

Even fast fashion brands such as H&M are recognizing the conscientious shift of a sizable percentage of buyers, setting up second-hand shops. More and more people are willing to choose quality over quantity, and ready to appreciate the advantages of purchasing pre-owned clothes in good condition. The amount of clothes produced and disposed of is still comparatively gigantic if compared to the incipient pre-owned market, says Platenga:

“The space is so big. What we see as the challenge is to convert people to a mindset to first look at second-hand before looking at new.”

Can marketplaces of pre-owned apparel find a similar growth path and success in the US and Canada than in several European countries? The search for patina-friendly items incentivizes new, better ways to give charming things —and people longing for them— a second opportunity. Or a third. And on and on.

Circular economies begin at one’s own closet.