Upcycling and the New ReTailor

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As retail resale has evolved from Goodwill and the neighborhood thrift store to the myriad of recommerce websites, we have witnessed a watershed moment in fashion. Secondhand goods have become highly sought after by an increasingly demographically diverse group of consumers. And at the apex of this movement are Next Gen buyers. However, the duality of Gen Z’s sustainability mindset alongside their obsession with fast fashion is one of today’s major “squaring the circle” quandaries.

Getting on the Brand Wagon

With the growth of secondhand marketplaces like The RealReal, ThredUp, Poshmark, and Vestiaire Collective, many leading fashion brands have begun folding their own recycled items into their offerings. The “vintage” label surely helps in the positioning, and customers coveting a Chanel bag, even preowned, is a goldmine opportunity for luxury brands.

From luxe brands Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Gucci and Coach to mid-level makers Madewell, Levi’s, and J. Crew, these fashion nameplates recognize the halo-effect of touting their brands’ “circularity” along with the nice margins that they offer. Additionally, the increasing consumer consciousness around the circular economy and sustainability has given secondhand shopping first-rate cachet, even bragging rights.

When a trending phenomenon has both top-down and bottom-up movement, it really gets my attention. The emergence and growth of upcycling, particularly among grass-roots resellers, is transformative.

Certainly, the Gen Z focused resale app Depop has been a transformative cultural and marketplace force in resale retail’s rise. The marketplace’s tsunami-like growth prompted Etsy to fork over $1.62 billion to purchase Depop 2021.

With its 30 million members across 150 countries, and its 1.8 million active sellers, Depop has driven both the buy-side and sell-side of secondhand goods, and in the process helped elevate recommerce to its current cachet of cool, particularly among Next Gen consumers. The website proudly boasts that 90 percent of its users are under 26 years old, and they represent the soon-to-be dominant mainstream consumer.

Tipping a Very Trendy Hat

Besides its groundswell of young fashionistas, Depop distinguishes itself by attracting many fashion-elites, including the “internet’s best dressed person” and international supermodel Bella Hadid. Ms. Hadid, with her Instagram audience of nearly 60M followers, celebrates the appeal of affordable, sustainable fashion by incorporating Depop finds into her own wardrobe.

Tommy Hilfiger recently announced a collaborative partnership with Depop. They are offering a curated collection consisting of “pre-loved” Tommy Hilfiger and Tommy Jeans pieces from their take back program and partially damaged pieces from their retail stores.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up Trending

A high-volume Depop seller Timeless Wear speaks to the essence of the recommerce movement. “The coolness or scarcity of a particular item makes it highbrow, but that doesn’t equate to high prices. Instead, this youth-owned fashion ethos is about a bigger economic and eco-conscious reality check which is currently reframing how – and what – we buy.” I for one buy that!

But when a trending phenomenon has both top-down and bottom-up movement, it really gets my attention. Besides the ginormous growth of resale websites, the rush of retail brands into the space, and Gen Z entrepreneurs buying and reselling secondhand garments at a fever pace, there is another macro movement that is noteworthy. I believe that the emergence and growth of upcycling, particularly among grass-roots resellers, is transformative.

Recommerce has also opened the doors for tech startups like Trove to support the transaction process with solutions that scale. Andy Ruben Founder and CEO of Trove says, “The most beloved brands have an incredible sustainability opportunity right now, given the quality items they design, produce, and sell. Brands such as Patagoina, Levis, lululemon and Canada Goose are staying in touch with their most loyal customers, making it easy for them to trade items in and then resell their products. In doing so they are taking advantage of the massive resale market, creating sustainable business model change and elevating their brand. If there was ever a silver bullet for brands and sustainability, it would be called branded resale.”

Recommerce is no longer a cottage business. We are only in the first innings of secondhand selling, with Morningstar projecting retail resale to grow to $300 billion by 2031. Now, with upcycling becoming retail resale’s latest iteration, comes a promise that recommerce may be making new inroads in the relevance of fashion sustainability. It is certainly getting much Gen Z love.

Upcycling and the “New Re-Tailor”

Next Gens’ striving for individuality, their hunt for a deal and the importance of building a “personal brand” is fostering this new subset of the recommerce movement. Upcycling clothing is believed to be the next big thing in the world of apparel. Fashionistas love to give old fashions a new lease on life.

Whether altering the design of a thrift-find or literally repurposing its fabric to create an entirely new fashion, upcycling checks all the sustainability boxes. It results in trendy, eco-friendly, often one-of-a-kind fashions. It also fuels its makers’ social media metrics. One needn’t search too long on TikTok or YouTube to find examples of this movement.

The Practitioners

Self-taught seamstress Caitlin Trantham @Caitconquers has one million TikTok followers and 24.7 million likes. She diligently shops thrift stores for vintage fashions and then restyles them. “I look for pieces that are unique and have design features I might not be able to find in fast-fashion at my price point” Trantham told Insider.

Sarah Tyau @SarahTyau has 84,000 YouTube subscribers and 287,000 Instagram followers. The “refashioning” of a single $5 thrift shop dress has received 416,000 views. And Troy Cooke is a stay-at-home mom, an online fashion reseller, and is responsible for the online fashion blog Thriftanista in the City. Its tagline is “inspiration and ideas for a fabulously frugal lifestyle.”

These entrepreneurs are a combination of fashion stylist, seamstress, recycler, and influencer, and they represent changing values, and a creative renaissance of sorts. This macro trend incorporates many cultural, economic, and psycho-social elements. I think of these new creatives as the “New Re-Tailors.”

Taking A Brand Stand

Brand marketing has never been as expensive and complex as it is now; brands are selling on more channels, creating content on others, and advertising on still more. The time is right for major fashion brands to recognize the potential power of this grassroots upcycling phenomenon and get behind it. Showcasing these Re-Tailors could have big upsides for both.

Brands need to demonstrate authentic skin-in-the-game participation in the circular economy, besides their ESG initiatives that they boast about in their annual reports. Moreover, brands need to tell relatable stories. What could be more relatable than scrappy entrepreneurs taking a brand’s “once-loved” garments and upcycling them into one-of-a-kind fashion statements?

Immersive Retail Theater

Another great challenge for today’s retailers is creating a higher level of experience and customer engagement in the store. A simple way to up the experiential ante would be for fashion brands to create in-store mini studios to feature rotating demonstrations by star Re-Tailors. This lends itself to livestreaming, and promotion by nano-influencers on social media.

Taken a step further, retailers could offer their loyal customers a chance to participate in an instore fashion restyling. Enabling the customer to engage with the Re-Tailor around bringing new attitude to a “back-of-the-closet” fashion would be great retail theater. It would create an immersive experience for both the customer, onlookers, and a livestream audience. It’s retail theater meets content marketing and brand building, all in circular fashion. Win, win, win!



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