This is something I’ve been mulling over for a solid two years.

Whilst I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means, I have loved vintage shopping for a good decade now, so I feel pretty capable of navigating myself through that world. But it has also meant that, over the years, I started to notice something.

When it comes to sustainability, I’m not sure that all vintage stores are created equal.

I first felt like something was off a few years ago, when I noticed that the stock in some of the big vintage stores in London was changing. Then last year, when I travelled to Amsterdam and Oslo, I realised the emerging trend I had noticed in London was a fully fledged operation elsewhere. Over the years I’ve googled it on and off, trying to delve deeper into the ethics of the situation or at least get some more information, but have come up empty handed each time.

The two things I’ve noticed are these: the introduction of multiples (selling more than one of the same item, often in a variety of colours or sizes), and the rise of the words ‘vintage style’.

Perhaps both of these things don’t seem like that big of a deal to you, but today I want to examine why these small details are actually very important. It’s something I sat on for a long time because I couldn’t find any research or sources beyond my own suspicion, and I didn’t know any vintage retailers myself to verify my thoughts. However this changed a few months ago when I met Louisa Rogers, the girl boss behind Newcastle-based vintage retailer Trendlistr, who source each and every item by hand from across Europe. We met after both of us spoke at a sustainability event up North and, after excitedly asking her a bunch of questions on the world of vintage fashion, visiting her beautiful studio in Newcastle’s city centre, and attending a presentation Louisa gave on the history of vintage fashion, I was finally able to get my head around some of what is going on in the complex world of reselling unique clothes.

Louisa’s work is not for the fainthearted, as she has honed a specialist set of knowledge and skills that help her identify and understand vintage clothes in a way that is truly admirable. For Trendlistr she sources from various locations, mainly Brussels and France, picking every piece by hand from house sales, vide greniers and a variety of other sources. She specifically picks items that are unique and interesting, often selling a mix of pieces that are designer, quirky, and unlike anything else you’ll have seen before. And because Louisa’s knowledge of this world is so thorough, through our discussions I was able to discern where some shady antics may be hiding too.

So first, a little background.

Wearing: 80’s Oliver Grant Paris Shirt, c/o Trendlistr; Yellow 80s Shorts, Trendlistr (but bought myself!)

What is vintage?

The term vintage fashion is usually applied to clothing from the 1920s-1980s. Clothes from before this time aren’t generally circulating, and are mostly not in wearable condition, so are seen as antique. At the same time clothes from after this time can be seen as vintage if they’re from a specific designer, as they can be classified by the seasons within the brand’s history. For example, vintage Marc Jacobs could be from Spring Summer 2012. Vintage fashion has always been a staple of identity building and expression; being adopted by subcultures as far back as people protesting mass production in a post Second World War world, and regularly used by groups as varied as beatniks, hippies, punks and those protesting subsequent wars such as Vietnam and Korea.

Today vintage fashion is enjoying a surge of popularity. Despite the growth in fast fashion, vintage has experienced a resurgence from around 2008 onwards, as social media and the internet has allowed for a vintage economy to flourish. Unlike editorial fashion, where models are often dressed head to toe in one designer, the rise of influencers, Instagram and blogging have shown how vintage can be styled in real life, as true street style is often a mix of many sources. While fast fashion is more accessible than it’s ever been vintage is also more popular, as people have more inspiration for how to incorporate it into their styling, and more ability to access the clothes themselves. Although shopping vintage is sustainable, social responsibility doesn’t solely motivate many vintage buyers. Instead, vintage often offers a much more fun, interesting and rewarding shopping experience than looking through mass produced fast fashion, as well as some sense of freedom from restrictive fashion norms and sizing. Vintage sizing is a product of its time, so people often don’t have to feel guilty if they don’t fit something that was made for a body bred on post-war rationing, instead they just rework the size and enjoy their find.

But vintage fashion, as we know it now, won’t continue forever. Many vintage clothes were hand tailored and made of durable materials, resulting in better products that last a long time. Due to the changes in clothes manufacturing in recent decades, vintage is now a finite resource. As the creation of unsustainable, throwaway, cheaply-made items that quickly fall apart has risen, it’s unlikely that most of the clothes produced today could live to become vintage.

Where are the problems?

The main issues in vintage fashion are caused by a lack of understanding, and a lack of value around the clothes. For vintage sellers a lot of work goes into selling an individual item which then can’t be sold again, whilst at the same time sellers are in the difficult position of a demand for lower price, due to our skewed modern perspective on how much clothes should cost. This means that margins are extremely slim and, faced with increased pressure, vintage retailers may turn to fast fashion practice to bolster their profit.

This is where the multiples come in. I remember finding myself in a well known London vintage shop maybe two years ago, completely baffled as to how I was seeing twenty different shirts, all the same design, in various colours and sizes. I knew that many large vintage sellers bought from wholesalers in order to sell at lower prices, but surely it wasn’t possible to find so many of the same item. I spoke to Louisa, who confirmed what I thought. If you see multiple of the same item (more than maybe one or two that could have been found together, but instead seem as though they wouldn’t be out of place in a normal clothes shop) at a similar price point to what the vintage is being sold for, there’s no way the stores aren’t using fast fashion methods to create at a low cost.

Now there’s currently no more information or official sources out there for me to link to to back up my claims, and maybe where you are you haven’t seen this happen at all, which is great. But if you’re at all unsure I’d argue that this is where the phrasing ‘vintage style’ comes in. It’s a subtle turn that I’ve seen sneak into traditional vintage selling, where shops will describe themselves as selling ‘vintage and vintage style clothing’. Vintage style does not have to equal true vintage, it can simply be fast fashion produced to emulate the vintage aesthetic. There is always a chance that this can occasionally be a mistake, as the high street sometimes produces clothes that imitate vintage style. Some items are legitimately hard to date, and Louisa herself has even sold one piece that turned out to be modern. However she explained that the margin for this type of error is so low that it doesn’t add up with the amount of clothing that’s being kind-of-greenwashed and sold as vintage.

‘Often people fall for it, thinking it’s true vintage, when sadly it was probably made in the last five years’

Is there a solution?

As a consumer there are a few things you can do.

– Firstly, avoid multiples. If it looks like one or two pieces that could have been donated or sourced together that’s probably ok, if it’s a lot of the same style with varying colours or sizes leave it alone. If you’re not sure whether an item is definitely vintage here are some quick tells for checking:

  • Look at fastenings and zips. Are they hook and eye or poppers? If the zip pull is small and thin, like the ones you’d see on a normal pair of jeans, then it’s more likely to be modern
  • Look at linings and stitching, if there are small irregularities you can see it was handmade rather than mass produced
  • If the labels are cut out, be suspicious as something is probably going on. Potentially the seller is buying new clothes, cutting out the label and selling them as ‘vintage’

– Check that the store you’re going to is actually selling vintage, and not ‘vintage style’ clothing. You should be able to tell fairly easily, as the latter often sells a lot of multiples.

– Try to buy from and donate to local, smaller vintage dealers. If you’re selling clothes they’ll probably give you a better price, due to having specialist knowledge and fully understanding the value of the pieces. If you’re buying from them you can usually be assured that they’re buying from their immediate surroundings, hand sourcing items, and only selling one of each piece. For example for Trendlistr Louisa sources from Brussels and France when she goes home to see her family, whilst her dad also picks things up when he sees something he thinks may sell well! Everything is picked by hand, and she often goes live on Instagram to talk through the newest pieces she’s sourced.

– If you are in larger vintage stores, try to buy pieces that are actually vintage, and work to change your perspective on the value of clothes. If dealers could charge higher prices they wouldn’t necessarily feel the pressure to supplement, so if we boycott shops selling these vintage style clothes alongside true vintage, we’ll just increase the pressure and result in it happening more. Instead, we want to make sure our investment in vintage fashion is going into the actual vintage clothes, and alleviating the pressures these stores feel. If the market shifted and people were willing to pay a little bit more, we could work to eradicate these subtle fast fashion tactics.

– From a business model point of view, an excellent solution would be for vintage stores to house ethical brands within their space as concessions. Many ethical brands can’t afford an entire shop space, and selling these clothes would be mutually beneficial as the vintage sellers wouldn’t feel pressure to mass produce vintage knock offs. Of course this also depends on a perspective change, as ethical fashion brands often have higher price points, but it’s also an achievable goal to work towards in time.

It’s not the simplest, most obvious problem, and it’s not the easiest set of solutions either. But it’s definitely something to be aware of, and an area to aim to see improvement in. I hope this helps you next time you want to buy vintage.