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Don’t be snooty! Wearing “old” used clothing is very cool. According to a CNBC report of retail analytics by the GlobalData firm, pre-owned clothing sales are currently $24 billion and may scoot up to $64 billion by 2028 — outpacing even fast fashion. While scrounging around consignment shops, thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales in person has a certain appeal, shopping online resale sites (some with apps) is a whole new adventure. How to navigate this secret fashion world? Here are my top reality tips.
1. Take a look at high-end resale sites
Don’t be intimidated by luxury sites like The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective. Yes, they sell clothes and accessories for thousands of dollars, but if a little research turns up affordable vintage wins, it’s more fun than Pinterest. I found a classic vintage Gucci leather hobo bag for $270 and a vintage Yves Saint Laurent trench coat for $189. Take my pro advice and look for timeless classic pieces that will upgrade your basic everyday wardrobe.
2. Check out all-inclusive sites, too
Some pre-owned fashion sites like Tradesy and thredUP offer popular contemporary brands like Ann Taylor, Loft and MICHAEL Michael Kors along with big labels like Escada and Giorgio Armani. They’re a surprisingly great source for affordable work dresses like those from Banana Republic, Diane Von Furstenberg or Eloquii, and cocktail/evening-out dresses from designers like Carmen Marc Valvo, Aidan Mattox and David Meister. ThredUP has a “choose your neckline” feature that makes finding your favorite cold shoulder, V-neck, boatneck or cowl-neck easy, in addition to the usual dress shape, length, color and size checklist.
3. Scour for signs of quality
If you usually shop new, going pre-owned means scoring older but better-made clothes for the same price as fast fashion (think H&M), mass retailers or mall chains. Clues include natural fabrics (like cotton, silk, cashmere and leather), expert tailoring (well-made covered seams; fine; even stitching; a full silk lining; finished buttonholes) and upscale hardware (metal — not plastic — zippers, elegant buckles and closures). On printed blouses and dresses, the patterns will always line up perfectly at the seams so there are no stripes or askew matchups at the sides, back or sleeves — a dead giveaway to cheap.
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4. Realize gently worn items are fine to a point.
While “new with tags” or “new without tags” or even “like new” are obviously first choice, don’t ignore clothes or accessories that show some wear and are labeled as such. They will just look like super-stylish pieces you’ve worn for years. Minor fading or wear — especially on the inside lining or at elbows, for example — is OK; fraying at hems or sleeve edges and pilling on knits or sweaters are not. That goes for bags, too. Slight scuff or scratch marks on leather bags (especially on the edges or bottom) can often be minimized further by a good shoe repair shop, but they suggest a life well lived.
5. Consider the bags.
If you’ve always coveted a Chanel bag (and why not celebrate a big birthday or add confidence to job hunting?), there are plenty for sale, but they still cost a couple thousand dollars even marked down 40 to 70 percent. Why not grab a more realistic luxury bag for considerable cachet? Pre-owned nylon or coated canvas shopper or crossbody bags like those by Fendi, Gucci or Prada are good buys, as are leather bags by Tory Burch, Tod’s or Michael Kors — and all sell for $400 or less. Some sites like Vestiaire Collective, Reba and Tradesy do offer installment plans, so if you’re stuck on Chanel or a big label, think of it as a diet: The payoff takes time but is worth it in the end.
6. Look for thick, soft cashmere sweaters
No one else does, and it’s a mistake. What passes for “cashmere” in fast fashion and even department store private-label brands is often a single-ply blend that pills easily and quickly after a few wearings. And yet throwing on an amazing, soft cashmere sweater makes a pair of jeans and sandals feel like the chicest outfit possible. I found a white V-neck Theory cashmere sweater on Tradesy for $98 (originally priced at $499) and another ivory one by Vince for $98 (marked down from $348), as well as a black Jil Sander cashmere for $75 (marked down from $650) on Poshmark. Stick to a sophisticated palette of neutrals like cream, gray, black, navy and camel that keep their versatility and work with everything in V-neck and boatnecks, and cardigans of every length.
7. Explore sell-and-buy sites
Think of it as sustainable recycling and guilt-free shopping in one go. Some sites like Poshmark and Rebag let you upload your own photos and set your price before they send you a prepaid mailing package for authentication before posting. Others like Tradesy and thredUP send you a free postage-paid shipping kit, which you mail back USPS or FedEx. Whatever items thredUP sells (and they have to be name brands; less than five years old; washed; and free of rips, tears or stains) earns you cash or credit for those accepted. It’s time for anything that’s too short, too tight, too big or too “not my life anymore” to pay you back.
8. Know your “ick” limit
Some of us (secretly intrigued by pre-owned fashion) are anxious about cast-offs with BO or the possibility of getting scabies, bed bugs, foot fungus and lice. And yes, there is some justification. Big mass thrift enterprises and small shops simply do not have the time or resources to sniff, wash, dry, press or dry-clean items and detox shoes. You have to assume that responsibility before wearing whatever you purchase. Always skip swimsuits and undies — even if you buy from a fancy site.
9. Find the real deal
Sites do what consignment stores do not: They authenticate. If you are into designer labels and logos (sometimes a major birthday or event may deserve a splurge), know what you’re paying for is the real thing. This is especially true when buying vintage items — from years past — where regulations and inspections may have been sketchy. Your neighborhood thrift or consignment shop may just be unknowingly passing along counterfeit merchandise. By employing experts who know the real McCoy from a counterfeit item, authentic sites make sure what you’re buying has a provenance.
10. Be wary of sizing and fit
Sizing standards have changed. Pay attention to measurements and look at as many photos as possible for hints of clothes proportions and fit. The rise, length and width of pants matter, so do jacket shoulders and sleeve widths, skirt lengths and dress silhouettes. The size may say 14, but if the jacket is cut small it may be more like a 12. It’s easy to get seduced by a designer label and price. Be wary of clothes that may require a trip to the tailor. The plus-size market has finally and recently bloomed with trendy looks and stylish clothes, so you will find fewer vintage or pre-owned clothing if you wear size 16 and over. You can still load up on accessories — amazing belts, scarves and those bags.
Last word: Discount arms of department stores are kind of like resale
Let’s be realistic. After all, how many women tried on, bought (maybe even wore), sweated in and returned this stuff? Lots of pre-owned merchandise does still have the original tags in place. Saks Off 5th, Nordstrom Rack and Neiman Marcus Last Call do heavy promotions and sell clearance closeouts. So, you are getting leftovers of the same luxury department store’s brands online. You can swoop up deep discounts if you move fast when getting an alert to a flash sale.
For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50 by Lois Joy Johnson