Ahhh, the thrill of the hunt. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, selling vintage clothing online might not be for you. That’s okay—you can peddle pretty much anything on Shopify, from underwear and pet sweaters to photography courses and event tickets.
But if you live for the high of scoring a really sweet vintage dress at your local thrift store, and bragging about how little you paid, you might be able to turn that drug into a business. Having an eye—and the patience—for sourcing and curating vintage is a skill that could pay off beyond your really awesome wardrobe.
Fashion has always been inspired by history. Denim cuts from the 70s, dress silhouettes from the 40s, and 80s day-glo colour palettes have all moved in and out of fashion trends more than once each since their inception. While fast fashion outlets are quick to pick up on vintage-style trends on the runways, pumping out $20 versions of those corduroy overalls you loved in the 90s, there’s something special about finding the real deal. In your size.
Consumers rely on vintage merchants to do the tedious sifting, curating a painless shopping experience of only the best items, in the best condition.
eBay and marketplaces are where many sellers had their start when the demand for vintage started to pick up. Eco-consciousness gave secondhand an additional cool-boost and resale clothing is now a $4 billion dollar industry in the US alone.
Translation: that’s a lot of competition.
If you’re thinking of getting into the vintage game, there’s no reason that you can’t create a unique brand to define your particular taste, away from the crowded marketplaces. Several Shopify merchants, like COAL N TERRY, have developed a strong, consistent aesthetic through curation and photography that have helped them grow massive long-standing businesses.
Meet COAL N TERRY
Azeezat Owokoniran-Jimoh and her husband Damilare (Dare) Jimoh thrifted together when they were both College students. While the appeal at the time may have been their small student budgets, they realized they had a knack for it. In 2008 they started selling their finds on eBay, which earned them some modest side income, says Dare.
“I wouldn't say we had a lot of success on eBay. Once we got a feel for the presence, for that market, we just decided to move on to making our website and fortunately, Instagram was really taking off at that time.”
As they were carving out their online space and building a social following, they both graduated from college and pursued careers in their respective fields, Azeezat tells me.
"Dare and I worked at a hospital. I did a lot of professional jobs but they just weren't working out. It was just so many hours. I had to work over 60 hours a week and I wasn't getting paid what I thought I would. I just wasn't happy doing it at all. My husband liked working and helping people in the healthcare industry, but it was just taking so much of our time. We didn't have time for the kids, we didn't have time for ourselves. We decided if we just did what we loved, we knew it would work out for the best.”
We decided if we just did what we loved, we knew it would work out for the best.
The couple transitioned away from their jobs to focus on COAL N TERRY full-time. Before moving to Shopify in 2013, they built their website on another platform. They found that the needs of their company exceeded the platform’s capabilities. Traffic was crashing the site and support wasn’t 24 hours.
Since they launched their brand in 2010, COAL N TERRY has amassed a devout following, including many celebrity customers. They carved out a niche in the vintage market with an unmistakable look of their own that mixes vintage finds with their own designs, and one-of-a-kind “updated” denim. The brand has moved from Azeezat and Dare’s home to a warehouse space, with extra hires.
So, how did they do it?
How to Sell Vintage Clothing Online
From sourcing garments, to cleaning, storing, and pricing them, selling vintage clothing online comes with its own unique challenges.
I consulted full-time merchants Azeezat and Dare, as well as Emilie Martin, who runs her business In Past Times as a side hustle. I asked them to talk about their experiences and their advice for would-be vintage resellers.
Let’s get started!
What’s Your Angle?
While you may just elect to pick and sell what you like, consider choosing a niche to help your business stand out. Focusing on items from a specific decade (20s, 80s), style (evening wear, athletic wear), price point (designer, couture), or even item (vintage band tees) will give your store and collections a more consistent feel.
A focused offering makes it easier to find and speak to your audience, and simplifies the shopping experience for customers. COAL N TERRY experimented before they found their groove:
"When we first started, we just tried different things. We tried to do the whole vintage glam thing and it was pretty effective. But then it seemed like everyone that was selling vintage was starting to do exactly that. We wanted to give this a cool, hip, modern day flare with a mix of vintage. We take a vintage item, make it look cooler and present it in a better way. We give people ideas on how they could wear it without it looking old or like something that their mom or dad wore.”
We take a vintage item, make it look cooler and present it in a better way.
Consider the following:
What’s your style? You’ll naturally find sourcing easier when you play up your own aesthetic. You’re already familiar with the brands, and your eye will naturally spot good finds among messy thrift racks.
Is your niche too limited? If you choose a too-specific slice of vintage (1930s evening wear), you may have difficulty sourcing enough inventory. Be sure you can establish reliable sources for your niche.
Conversely, is it too saturated? Are there already too many shops doing the very same thing? How can you stand out?
Follow trends. What’s happening on the runway any given season, or celebrity and influencer trends can help dictate your direction. While vintage may be desirable, it still fares better if it translates to a modern style or lifestyle.
Sourcing Vintage Clothing
While COAL N TERRY started their business by scouring the thrift racks, they’ve expanded to wholesale relationships to free up their time and expand the business.
“We have a lot of corporate suppliers that ship us first grade items. Once a week we get the shipment or pallets from local non-profits, Salvation Army stores, and family dealer stores. They already know what kinds of things we are looking for. Sometimes we get high fashion brands in there. Whatever designs we're looking for, we just place an order in for it and it's selected. Usually they charge by weight, so sometimes you have to have your fingers crossed that you get the right thing.”
Usually they charge by weight, so sometimes you have to have your fingers crossed that you get the right thing.
When you’re starting out, however, thrift shops can be excellent sources of vintage finds. Thrifting ? TIPS:
Go often, and on the right days. Many stores get shipments or put new items on the floor on specific days. Plan your thrifting around those days.
Have a plan. Save time and money by clearly defining the items you’re looking for before you starting sourcing.
Carefully inspect items before purchasing. Thrift stores often don’t have the same quality standards at curated vintage, and items may have stains or other damage.
Know your stuff, says Emilie Martin:
“I always look for some telltale signs of vintage garments, such as a union label, the fabric used, zipper placement and of course the style of the piece. I have studied countless old Vogue magazines, Eaton’s catalogs and old movies too. They are great for referencing when certain styles were popular.”
Other sources for buying vintage clothing:
Auctions: Sign up to receive notification of auctions in your area. Try US-specific sites like Auction Zip (or equivalents in Canada and the UK)
Estate sales: These can be a goldmine for a lot of vintage items in one place. Stay on top of upcoming sales by signing up to get notified
Craigslist: classified sites like Craigslist might turn up some treasures, garage sales, moving sales, or upcoming estate sales. ? TIP: set up automated notifications through Zapier or IFTTT to alert you when Craigslist listings contain specific keywords
Pickers: Once you’ve built up your business, consider outsourcing your sourcing by hiring a picker
Wholesalers: Sign up as a trade customer with businesses like Glass Onion Vintage or The Vintage Wholesale Company to gain access to vintage in bulk and at wholesale pricing
Consignment or buy & sell programs: Set up a program to buy or consign vintage items from your customers or site visitors. Consignment is a low-risk arrangement that involves paying the seller only if you sell the item. Example: Shopify store Beacon’s Closet, Cheeky Vintage
Flea or outdoor markets: Showing up early means first dibs, but you’ll get the best deals at the end of the day and the end of flea market season, when dealers are looking to unload stock.