For centuries, high fashion has been fueled by exclusivity. Owning expensive items from high-end brands has always been interpreted as a status symbol, something only possible for a financially specific group of people — until now. Recently, as a response to consumers’ growing concern for the environment, and catalyzed by COVID-19’s effect on consumer spending, luxury brands are stepping into secondhand fashion.

Historically, luxury fashion brands have wanted nothing to do with resale. Many brands believed that making their coveted couture more accessible would tarnish their brand image. Selling luxury items secondhand was seen as a cannibalization of future sales because top-tier brands like Gucci and Prada feared it would dilute the exclusivity of their products. However, recent data is proving the opposite to be true. Consumers are actively looking for ways to buy big brands for less, and in more sustainable ways; and luxury reselling is a timely combination of these two things.

What Brands Are Doing

According to ThredUp’s 2020 Resale Report, the resale industry is expected to grow over 400% over the next five years — while traditional retail continues to shrink. Online resale, in particular, has exploded this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many consumers to avoid shopping in stores. Sharp spikes in sales from reselling platforms like ThredUp and The RealReal — who both advertise their ability to offer secondhand luxury items at discounted prices — have inspired some big-name brands to expand into the realm of reselling. 

One example is Gucci. Last month, the luxury giant announced their collaboration with consignment site The RealReal to open a resale shop, offering secondhand items from authenticated sellers and directly from Gucci. The shop offers hundreds of Gucci products including apparel, handbags, and accessories, all significantly below full price. Gucci & The RealReal have also promised to plant a tree for every purchase from the shop, and consumers can see the sustainable impact of their purchases through The RealReal’s calculation of the carbon emissions & water usage saved by buying secondhand instead of new (hint: it’s a lot!). Gucci is just one of several luxury brand collaborations on The RealReal: Stella McCartney and Burberry also have shops on the site, and both brands offer incentives like vouchers and exclusive shopping events for buying their secondhand items.

Another brand making big moves in the reselling industry is Levi’s. The brand recently announced “Levi’s SecondHand”, a marketplace and buy-back program for pre-loved Levi’s denim jeans & jackets. Not only is Levi’s selling these items at a hefty discount, but their new buy-back program also gives customers money for bringing in or mailing in their used denim: Customers will receive a $15-$25 credit for Levi’s denim in resellable condition, a $30-$35 credit for vintage Levi’s denim, and $5 for denim too worn to be resold — which Levi’s then responsibly recycles. This is just one of the many ways in which Levi’s is moving towards a more circular supply chain, by making sure that more garments remain in use instead of in landfills.

Making Waves

Creating a more circular supply chain is also the motivation behind Tommy Hilfiger’s “Tommy For Life”, a new business model that focuses on upcycling pre-worn Tommy Hilfiger items. Although “Tommy For Life” is still in its beginning stages, the brand has already announced that this initiative is based on a trade-in system (similar to Levi’s) where customers bring in their pre-loved TF apparel in exchange for store credit. Tommy Hilfiger is even taking this idea a step further, by selling their updated apparel in three different categories in order to reuse as many items as possible. The “reloved” category will include pre-owned items traded in by customers, while the “refreshed” category will include refurbished/repaired trade-ins & returns, as well as inventory deemed unsaleable or defective. The third category, “remixed”, will include pieces that are unable to be totally cleaned or repaired — so instead, Tommy Hilfiger will completely deconstruct these items to make totally new designs. 

As someone currently studying in fashion, I can say with confidence that this “trend” of transforming old into new isn’t going anywhere. Motivated by consumers like myself, who demand that the fashion industry take responsibility for its detrimental environmental impact, brands are finally making foundational changes to combat wastefulness.

Why Choose Used?

By reselling and repurposing used items, these brands (and more) are tackling the fashion industry’s waste crisis while also appealing to a wider range of consumers. Business Insider estimates that every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill — In contrast, ThredUp estimates that if we all bought just one item used instead of new this year, it would eliminate almost 19,000 garbage trucks full of fashion waste! To me, this incredible comparison is motivation to continue shopping secondhand, because it shows that the resale industry has the potential to significantly counteract the extensive environmental damage caused by the fashion industry. This potential impact is why more consumers are choosing used over buying new; and research even predicts that by 2029, the secondhand market will grow to almost twice the size of fast fashion.

The fact is, people were already selling luxury items secondhand; but now that high-end brands are finally realizing the potential value of reselling —  for themselves and for their customers — more and more brands are getting on board. Not only does the secondhand strategy bring in more profits for brands, but it also allows them to gain more control over counterfeiting; and brands who participate in secondhand selling are seen as more sustainable/eco-friendly, which is important to the modern consumer.

Fashion for All

As a fashion student, I believe that the phenomenon of luxury brands emerging into reselling is more than just a response to the current climate of retail. To me, this marks a transformational shift in the fashion industry, and it is a huge step in the democratization of fashion: Making fashion more accessible to everyone. Fashion is something that every person on the planet takes part in, intentionally or not; we all wear clothing, and for many of us it is an important part of how we express ourselves. That being said, why should entire categories of fashion be inaccessible (financially or otherwise) to so many consumers? By selling luxury items secondhand, at discounted prices, more people are able to afford and enjoy them. It also provides an important avenue for consumers to support the brands they love in a more sustainable way, by purchasing items that already exist. 

There is a common misconception that in order to participate in fashion sustainably, we must only buy from “sustainable” brands; but many sustainable brands have high price points (sometimes even prices comparable to luxury brands), and misleading marketing makes it difficult to tell which brands are truly sustainable. Shopping secondhand is a much cheaper, more accessible, and overall more effective way for anyone to decrease their environmental impact — so we should all choose used, whenever we can! The potential impact of the resale industry is far-reaching, and it only continues to grow as more brands start prioritizing making use of the things we already have; and since luxury brands represent the top of the food chain in fashion, their adoption of resale represents the beginning of a more sustainable and less wasteful industry overall.