In Sixth Form I went through a phase where I would only wear vintage clothes. Yes, I was completely insufferable, but at 15, I learnt how to thrift a luxury bargain and had all the intel you need to pull a Pucci scarf from a £2 bin, not a sweat-stained bobbly jumper. My instincts were honed after school, spending hours in Covent Garden’s Blackout II vintage shop clad in my scratchy school uniform unearthing Jaeger skirt suits and Burberry kilts for £20 a pop, and Saturdays with my best friend bartering for ’60s shift dresses from Greenwich Vintage Market (RIP). Growing up in the center of London where fast fashion wasn’t really a thing yet and Big Topshop was fairly new, wearing old clothes wasn’t a status symbol like it is now, it was just what you did if you wanted to look different on a budget.
After university my thrifting obsession was overstuffed into cheap boxes and relegated to my mother’s attic with the rest of my youthful artifacts. But three years ago, when a rogue trip to a so-called picknweight in Berlin led to me buying a YSL blouse for €20, everything changed and I became a thrifter once again. Berlin’s good vintage is like LA’s, the crème de la crème is sold in hanger-like spaces and you have to sift like you’re mining for diamonds. But on that day, I definitely felt a crumpled flounce of luxurious sheer silk sleeve as I hauled garish clothes across a rail. After pulling it from the mess I quickly saw a Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche label. Googling the top’s characteristics on my phone (black, prairie-style ruffle front, billowing sleeves), I discovered it was a blouse from Stefano Pilati’s 2005 Yves Saint Laurent collection. I messaged my closest WhatsApp chat and the replies were immediate: “get it or I’ll fly to Berlin and buy it myself”. The feeling of finding a great luxury item while thrifting came floodIng back. Since then, I’ve largely bought consignment.
For me, the difference in luxury thrifting and shopping for vintage designer is that with thrifting, you’re looking for an amazing luxe piece cheap. Finding decent second-hand Chanel is fairly easy now on consignment sites like The Real Real or Vestaire Collective. But the price has to be right, and I prefer negotiating for the same bargain you could find at a picknweight in Berlin.
Clearly, shopping consignment is a humble brag. There are huge sustainability benefits – the circular economy and cutting the 10 per cent of annual global carbon emissions fashion is responsible for – are a couple. But I’ll admit, my interest is emotional, not intellectual. I love tying a period of fashion history to an era in my life. Maybe that’s why my lockdown thrifting has mostly revolved around nostalgia buys, like a Juicy Couture jumper after watching the This is Paris Hilton documentary and an Armani trouser suit after rewatching Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
Banks’s beloved blouse from Yves Saint Laurent’s autumn/winter 2005 collection.
© Pool BASSIGNAC/BENAINOUS
Pre-pandemic, thrifting for luxury vintage was a nice way to discover new cities. I’ve extended many work trips to spend a day trawling in Tbilisi, Paris, Milan and Hong Kong – finding a pair of ’70s gogo boots and a Diane Von Furstenberg evening dress, no less. But in lockdown I’ve been travelling the world online, riffling through the eBay page of a woman in Bulgaria with a huge collection of early Noughties Blumarine (a leopard print dress is in my basket) and perusing Kenzo dresses in New York.
I’ve learned a few new tricks now I’ve been driven online. Mainly, that it really pays to start relationships with sellers. My favourites aren’t the ones that pose like models in their wares, but the ones who don’t even think the orange jeans you’re trying to bargain for are nice. I’m now pen pals with a 50-year-old newly-divorced woman who was doing a big Etsy clear out of her wardrobe and is my size. “I woke up this morning and remembered,” she wrote to me on Etsy’s messenger service one day, “I’ve actually got this ruched Karen Millen dress that I thought you might like?”
I do suspect there’s something else at play in my rediscovered passion, however. In her book Crap: A History of Cheap Stuff in America academic Wendy A Woloson observes how fashion marketing has used the idea of jumble selling to encourage a feeling of value in shoppers: “Jumbled assortments created a sense of scarcity and urgency, exciting what experts in consumer psychology refer to as the “thrill of the hunt”; even better, shoppers might come upon something they hadn’t been looking for: an “unknown object of desire.”’ So while I feel that luxury thrifting is a smart habit, I’m also aware that it’s essentially accumulating more stuff that might not actually be that valuable. But I’m not above being a slave to capitalism. Sure, the fact I’m shopping consignment makes me feel like I’m slightly above consumerism, makes me as insufferable as I was when I was a vintage-clad 15-year-old. But it also feels the same as shedding the day with a glass of fancy wine: totally fine, as long as you don’t become dependent on it. I tell myself that when lockdown is lifted, these clothes will be worn and transform even the most boring work meeting into a fashion moment. Now to make my final bid on that Blumarine leopard dress.
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