Should Every Fashion Brand Start Selling Pre-Loved Clothes?

Image: Eileen Fisher Renew

Whether you call it pre-owned, pre-loved, vintage or resale, the second-hand fashion market is booming. Industry insider Rebecca Thomson takes a look at how the experts do it, and whether fashion brands should be launching their own resale channels. 

There are several ways fashion shoppers can reduce the ecological and ethical impact of their purchases, but one choice increasingly stands out from the pack – buying second hand. Whether bought via high end vintage boutiques, Gen Z favourite Depop or the local charity shop, sales of pre-loved clothes are soaring. According to Thred Up’s 2019 report on the market, resale will grow to 1.5 times the size of fast fashion by 2028. 

In response, retailers and brands are starting to explore launching their own resale sites. Their customers are already buying pre-loved items from each other on sites including Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Depop, meaning resale is not only one of the most sustainable strategies to adopt, it also means providing the service that customers want.

But launching a resale channel isn’t easy when most retailers have spent decades designing supply chains around raw materials. One of the first brands to dabble in it – who isn’t either a specialist sustainable brand or luxury retailer – is Never Fully Dressed, a UK-based young fashion brand that has partnered with Depop to resell pre-owned items. Shoppers can apply to be sellers via the Never Fully Dressed site and earn loyalty points for doing so.

Image: Never Fully Dressed

The logistics of resale are a major barrier for most brands – collecting old stock, checking quality, repairing as needed and sending it out again needs a totally separate operation to traditional fulfilment systems. Never Fully Dressed founder Lucy Aylen says the partnership has helped them overcome some of these challenges because Depop doesn’t accept refunds, which makes the operation easier to handle.

Never Fully Dressed also fulfils pre-owned orders from its office, not via its usual logistics partner. “We dispatch from our office, rather than a logistics warehouse,” Aylen says. “This makes things manageable and personal. Otherwise this kind of set up would not be possible with a large fulfilment facility, which a lot of ecommerce businesses (including ourselves) use.” The response from customers has been ‘amazing’, Aylen says, with lifetime order value and increased customer loyalty meaning the project is worth it despite the operation not yet making a profit – although she adds that all costs are covered.

US womenswear brand Eileen Fisher is an expert in resale, having started its takeback programme in 2009. Gently worn clothes are sold on its Renew site, while items that are damaged beyond repair are being turned into art works, pillows and wall hangings. Cynthia Power, director of Renew, said it has been a great way for the brand to bring in a new customer who is price conscious or doesn’t believe in buying new items. “Resale, and circularity in general, is one of the foundations of the future of sustainability,” she says. She adds logistics is the biggest hurdle. “Something we struggle with is the fact that take-back can be quite messy operationally. Sorting is an ever-growing headache! But there are more companies specializing in this type of work.”

Images: Clean Cities New York, Eileen Fisher Renew

Steven Bethell is creative director at UK vintage chain Beyond Retro, which sells menswear and womenswear. He agrees brands should look into the growing number of platforms available to help with setting up a resale operation. “There are many challenges in the world of resale. Brands have to consider grading and pricing to make the product desirable to their customers, as well as the logistical and promotional changes their business might need to make to be able to handle the processes. It might be a long process, or it might not be feasible for all brands to be able to do, but there are also plenty of platforms, companies and experts willing to consult and support to help more brands make the move to add resale into their business model.”

Power adds she is happy to give advice to retailers exploring resale. “We love to share what we do with anyone who wants to visit or hop on a call. We are passionate about anyone and everyone taking back and reusing their clothes and other goods – our doors are open.” She points out that for high-quality brands, it’s a good way to underline the value proposition. Celenie Seidel, senior womenswear editor at luxury ecommerce platform Farfetch, agrees. Farfetch has sold pre-owned items since its launch in 2007, and Seidel says: “The pre-owned model is particularly well-suited to the luxury market, in that designer items begin to take on a collectible nature as they age – if you’re a fan of a brand, there’s something particularly nice about owning a piece from their ‘archive’.”

For a young or mid-market fashion brand, however, there are different reasons to do it – for Aylen, the appeal lies in enabling shoppers to get hold of items that sold out quickly, building loyalty and resisting the creep into irrelevance as consumer attitudes evolve. 

Image: Fillippa K Second Hand

Swedish womenswear brand Filippa K is another long-time pre-owned expert. Jodi Everding, fabric, trim and sustainability manager, says resale makes producing higher quality items a better business decision, because they’ll hold their value and make higher profit margins. 

She says resale is part of a wider sustainable mindset at the brand: “We’ve had a second-hand shop since 2008, and it was profitable since day one. Now we have a new retail store (our FK Studio) in Stockholm where we resell, repair, and remake the old garments that we collect from our Filippa K customers. It’s not just about prolonging the life of our garments and getting them back into circulation, but in this space we will also support our customers to care for and repair their Filippa K clothes.”

The resale market is thriving; for brands and retailers who really want to impress with their sustainability credentials, it’s a great thing to dip a toe into now. And in a few years’ time, as attitudes and buying habits continue to shift and circularity becomes the norm, it is likely to be a non-negotiable part of the fashion business model. 

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