When attorney Charity Kenyon appeared before the California Supreme Court a few years ago, she was fashionably dressed in serious lawyer attire. Yet from head to toe, her courtroom ensemble — heels, black skirt and a high-end Ralph Lauren jacket — was purchased from secondhand stores. Total cost: no more than $125.
Likewise, Alison Merrilees, a longtime California Capitol staffer, works in a world of designer-clad lobbyists and legislators. On a recent summer workday, she sported a stylish striped skirt and a polka-dot silk sweater.
Both came from a thrift shop. Total cost: $6.
Both women are committed thrifters, a category of shoppers who buy most of their casual and workday wardrobes from “gently used” clothing stores. Their motivations are partly environmental, partly frugal, partly thrill-of-the-hunt fun.
Kenyon, who started shopping secondhand about 15 years ago, said it’s a way to be both economical and “feel as though I’m contributing less to environmental impacts. It’s 100 percent recycling.”
Thrift-store clothing is also a way to sidestep so-called “fast fashion,” the inexpensive, trendy clothes churned out cheaply in overseas factories. The recent garment factory tragedies in Bangladesh, where more than 1,200 low-paid workers were killed in fires and a building collapse, have raised awareness of the dangers of a buy-cheap, buy-more clothing culture.
“I don’t like the idea of buying cheap, disposable clothes. Secondhand shopping breaks that cycle,” said Merrilees, who got hooked on buying used a decade ago, initially for her kids’ clothes.
Certainly, buying secondhand isn’t a new concept. Consignment stores and charity-backed stores have survived for years on donated goods and loyal shoppers. Not to mention mainstays like Goodwill and Salvation Army.
And online, eBay has plenty of competitors with trendy names like Tradesy, Rehash and Threadflip.
The recent recession had a huge impact on the thrift shop industry, said Michael Gold, founder of TheThriftShopper.com, a Vero Beach, Fla.-based directory of charity-based secondhand stores. He said his listings have jumped past 11,000 in recent years.
“People are thrifting more than ever,” he said. “There was a stigma that’s been disappearing as thrift shops become more boutique-y.”
In 2012, the “used merchandise” industry, which includes sellers of apparel, furniture, books and jewelry, racked up $13 billion in annual revenue, according to First Research, which profiles U.S. industries.
Saving money is a big appeal of thrifting. Lots of budget-conscious moms like buying used baby and children’s clothes, because they’re quickly outgrown.
The resale market “is blossoming thanks to value-conscious consumers,” according to the national Association of Resale Professionals, which projects 7 percent annual growth in the number of consignment and secondhand stores, currently estimated at 25,000.
For many veteran thrifters, though, it’s just plain fun.
“It lets me take risks, buying things I would never do if I were paying full price,” said Merrilees, like her eye-popping turquoise-and-teal brocade coat that always draws compliments.
Does she ever feel self-conscious about where her designer labels come from?
At the Capitol, she sometimes has to “bite my tongue” rather than reveal she paid only $10 for a skirt or is wearing someone else’s castoffs.
Indeed, 80 percent of consumers surveyed in recent years by America’s Research Group said they’d “never buy” someone else’s worn clothing.
“A lot of people don’t want to buy something used because of health concerns,” said Chairman/CEO Britt Beemer.
Yet the troubled economy drives consumers to hunt for used clothing bargains.
In a back-to-school shopping survey in July, America’s Research Group reported that 18.9 percent of U.S. adults said they had shopped in a secondhand store during the last year.
Another avenue for secondhand clothes is “refashion,” where creative, seamstress-savvy artists buy used apparel that’s snipped and resewn into “new” garments.
Olivia Coelho, co-owner of Bows & Arrows resale boutique in Sacramento, whose wardrobe is mostly recycled clothing, says she hunts for period pieces from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s at vintage stores, estate sales and flea markets. She looks for geometric and bohemian fabrics that can be recrafted into crop tops, tunics or shirts, often thumbing through “plus-size” racks because there’s more yardage to work with.
“It’s the ‘greenness’ of it, but I also like the fashion history,” said Coelho. “It’s taking a fabric that’s already lived its own life and cutting it up and making it into new shapes and styles.”
Thrifting also appeals to teens who want to express themselves.
Merrilees’ son Andrew Paiva, 17, and friends from his Sacramento high school are regular thrift shop hounds, frequenting Thrift Town outlets.
It often entails picking through “a lot of crappy shirts” or those with “funny sayings that really aren’t that funny,” notes Paiva.
When he was 13, Paiva thought thrift-shopping was “kind of gross,” but in high school it caught on among his friends. “It’s a fun way to express yourself cheaply,” said the senior, who said he’s bought plenty of $1 T-shirts and $4 pairs of jeans, as well as dress shirts, khakis and shoes.
“You can find original clothes that you couldn’t find anywhere else. It’s a surprise every time.”
Among his favorites: a pair of Vans slip-on shoes with a dark-plaid pattern that “no one had ever seen before.”
Both Merrilees and Kenyon always wash or dry-clean their secondhand buys before wearing. And Kenyon said she never buys used athletic wear, running shoes or underwear.
Indeed, some resale stores decline to take lingerie, swimsuits or hats for sanitary reasons.
When traveling, Kenyon makes a point to seek out upscale consignment shops in U.S. cities, as well as secondhand stores in foreign countries. One of her favorite finds was an all-felt designer jacket picked up at a Denmark consignment store — for $5.
Kenyon, who retired last year from practicing law, says there’s another virtue to secondhand shopping. Years ago, at a League of Women Voters conference, she heard activist Gloria Steinem ask the audience to open their checkbooks and see where their financial priorities lay. Her message: If you can afford $100 designer jeans, you can afford a $100 donation.
“I’ve sort of turned that on its head,” said Kenyon, who sits on a number of nonprofit boards. “I would never spend $300 on any item of clothing, but it’s easy to give that same amount to a nonprofit. And it’s far more satisfying.”