This story was first published online at UNC Media Hub.
In March 2020, Caroline Le lost her best friend, as well as her coping mechanisms to COVID-19. Quarantined at home in Raleigh, she lacked the will to do much other than wait for the world to resume. When thrift stores opened, Le was reacquainted with a childhood love: vintage.
Soon, Le started selling her vintage thrift finds on her Instagram account, @vintagebycaro. With that, she joined a large, diverse cohort of Millennials and Gen Z who are making money by reselling thrift store finds.
Le’s interest in thrifting, however, is not new. She grew up combing through vintage treasures with her mom––a practice her grandmother, a refugee of the Vietnam War, imbued with meaning.
“They didn’t have much,” Le said, “But my grandma would tell my mom that there is always treasure in someone’s past.”
‘Thrift flipping’: A TikTok Origin Story
In 2020, a pandemic met economic uncertainty, which met TikTok, and a trend emerged.
Appealing to sustainability- and fashion-minded Gen Z, “thrift flipping” surfaced as a marketable hobby in which people buy items from thrift shops and resell them, typically at higher prices.
Sydney Swartz, a Durham-based thrift reseller, started selling items on a shopping app in February 2020 after she was laid off from her marketing job.
“I never, in a million years, thought that it would actually be successful,” she said.
A year later, she is a verified seller and has over 12,000 followers on Depop, a London-based peer-to-peer shopping app. She stocks items from the 60s through the 90s, with a focus on high-quality, natural fibers like silk, linen, cotton and wool. Swartz said that although her platform has boomed, it’s not as profitable as people may think.
After spending at least 40 hours per week shopping for clothes, cleaning, modeling and photographing them––and doing research on the brand and style to share with shoppers––she said she still makes below a living wage for Durham, even in her best months.
“Right now it’s a dream that’s getting me by,” Swartz said, “But I hope that it’ll continue to grow and so far it has been over the past year, very slowly and surely. Not surely, but slowly.”
Throwbacks and Screenprints
Brendan Lindgren, a Raleigh-based reseller, was watching “Slobby’s World,” a Netflix show about a man who resells pop culture clothing and collectibles, when he realized that he could do the same.
Lindgren started selling pop culture memorabilia as @raleighthrowback in 2019. His fascination for cultural collectibles bleeds into his platform of choice––Ebay––which in 1995, became one of the world’s first online auction sites.
Selling apparel and streetwear from the 80s and 90s gives Lindgren the opportunity to put his niche knowledge of obscure movie quotes, song lyrics and TV shows to use, he said.
“I always thought that I had no practical use for it,” he said. “I jokingly always say, ‘I finally found a use for that, that I’m also able to monetize.’”
While Lindgren uses the thrifting trend to extend the life of memorabilia, other Triangle thrift flippers are creating their own, such as John Vance, who started Champ Brand or Champ Wala, a branding identity he said he likes to keep ambiguous.
Vance enhances thrift finds with screen-printing and airbrushing to incorporate them into his brand.
Vance started Champ Brand in 2017. Now, he has 738 followers on Instagram and more than 2,000 followers on Depop. He also sells his clothing at Rumors, a resale shop in Chapel Hill.
Vance said his engagement with thrift stores comes from a place of creativity and artistic contribution. He draws on this when faced with the ethical dilemma of “thrift store gentrification,” a term that suggests thrift flippers are depriving low-income communities of resources.
“I don’t feel necessarily badly about utilizing thrift shops as a resource, because it comes from a place of creativity,” he said. “(It) contributes to the community.”
Vance sometimes collaborates with others to create special editions of clothes, donating the profits to causes such as Stacey Abram’s Fair Fight and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network.
Gentrification, or Generation-to-Generation?
Thrift store gentrification arose as a criticism to thrift flipping, gaining traction especially in various student-run publications. The argument points both to resellers depriving lower-income community members of resources, and to recent price hikes that thrift shoppers are seeing in stores.
It’s debated, however, whether thrift store prices are definitively rising, or just varying in response to the market.
Jeff Stern, director of business operations at TROSA Inc., said that TROSA aims to maintain an inventory with a wide range of prices to accommodate customers’ different budgets. He said that resellers are important to the thrift ecosystem, often buying pricier items which don’t appeal to other customers.
“(Resellers) may find a $299 midcentury modern dresser to be a ‘bargain,’” he said. “Whereas, other customers do not believe that a thrift store should ever have a dresser priced over $149.”
Stern said, however, that there is a reason for TROSA to sell items at higher prices, partly due to the need to finance their mission: supporting individuals’ recovery from substance use disorders.
“As a nonprofit, we clearly want to raise as much money as possible to support our mission,” he said. “We take that obligation seriously.”
Besides resellers’ contributions in buying higher priced items, Stern said they also help TROSA move through its large inventory more quickly.
Thrift store inventory is a topic of interest for Le, who said she believes that clothing is an abundant resource. In her research, she said, she was shocked by U.S. clothing consumption –– the vestiges of which often end up as waste on other countries’ land.
“We’ve basically trained ourselves to need new clothes by the season,” she said. “Which is not the lifetime that a piece of fabric was born to have. Fabric was meant to pass from generation to generation.”