Part of The Schools Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
In the age of meticulously manufactured pop acts like NSYNC and tween sitcoms like Lizzie McGuire, the mall was a youth mecca.
Too underage for the club and too broke to dine at swanky restaurants a grade above Chili’s, for young people of the ’90s and aughts, the fluorescent lights and endless retail opportunities became an entry point into the worlds of romantic relationships and personal style. On weekends, the cement floors were a proverbial red carpet primed to show off logo-emblazoned Aeropostale polos, freshly bought Skechers, and other relics of the Y2K zeitgeist.
Fast-forward two decades, and malls are on life support. According to a 2020 report by Coresight Research, the indoor retail model is facing a grim prospect: 25 percent of the country’s malls are set to close within the next five years — a decline accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. Iconic department store names continually inch closer toward the brink of bankruptcy, if they haven’t met that fate already. Amazon and the proliferation of online shopping are likely causes, but there’s another, less discussed culprit lurking in the background: the rise of the thrift.
In contrast to the dwindling mall business, the secondhand apparel market is set to make serious gains. A recent study conducted by online consignment company Thredup and GlobalData, projects the secondhand market to more than double from an estimated $36 billion in five years — making vintage a powerful force even compared to the more than $300 billion traditional US retail fashion sector.
Once a shopping resource thought of as for ladies who played bingo on Saturdays, pretentious art kids, and those without the means to buy into the brand new consumer cycle, flea markets are now big business for much of Gen Z. In the past several years, this younger generation has continually outpaced boomers and Gen X in the growth of people buying secondhand. Browsing through the heavily perfumed stores of Abercrombie and Hollister has made way for obsessively picking through scores of pre-owned garments.
Sex in the City premiered before Gen Z was even born, but it hasn’t stopped the proliferation of fashion memes and TikTok videos co-opting Carrie Bradshaw’s clingy cropped halter tops. Rainbow crochet — the type grandmas would buy patterns for in bulk — is a hot vintage commodity among teens on TikTok. And ultra low-rise jeans have ushered in a Y2K fashion renaissance that has exploded on secondhand clothing resale apps like Depop. These seemingly opposing trends have been plucked out of their respective obscurity, time-traveling at warp speed into the closets of teenagers and young adults all over the globe.
“I think vintage clothes are just better,” says Miza Ahamadi, a 19-year-old thrifting enthusiast. I met Miza, who was home on summer break from Spelman College, at one of LA’s numerous outdoor flea markets with fellow Spelman student and friend Gabby Archibald. Their afternoon of thrift therapy was spent straggling along a trail of professional resellers working booths of curated vintage fashion. Underneath a cramped tent filled to the brim with hanging slip dresses and faded biker jackets, the two women scan a row of baby tees and jeans. “I really like Carhartt and Harley Davidson,” Gabby mentions. “I’m looking for heavier jackets since it’s a lot colder in New York.”
Most of what they wear has already been owned or worn by someone else, which only adds to the allure. “With fast fashion it just disintegrates after a few washes — it’s just nice to know that it was pre-loved by another person,” says Miza. More than just choosing what’s cute, the act of shopping vintage has become part of their sartorial identities. “I just feel like vintage clothes are going to be more like my aesthetic, more so than like fast fashion, because trends just keep going and coming,” she adds.
This democratization of trends, enabled by the internet, has allowed even those with limited disposable incomes to take part in the rapid fashion cycle on e-commerce giants like Shein and Amazon. But this widespread accessibility comes at a cost. By now, it’s common knowledge that fast fashion has a devastating impact on the earth, due to the cycle of consuming and disposing of cheaply made clothing. While many companies are pledging to do better through renewable initiatives, buying pre-owned is likely more sustainable. Teenagers and twenty-somethings, who are keenly aware of the dangers of climate change, are taking notice.
Buying secondhand has become a sort of a rebellion against the rapid rise of fast fashion, mass consumption, and homogenous fads. Instead of looking to brands to provide the narrative of how to dress, thrifting provides another option that isn’t frozen in a particular genre or style. Stringent brand loyalty — the type where buying a shirt of every color is normal practice — is largely an unfamiliar concept to a generation that likes to be choosy about when and where they shop. Instead, the bustling resale market has ensured an eclectic mosaic of remixed and recycled trends from decades past: There’s room to fawn over ’90s nylon Prada bags as well as midcentury Emilio Pucci prints.
The defining Gen Z style is that there isn’t one.
Melrose Trading Post is a flea market held every Sunday at LA’s Fairfax High School, a diverse public school bordering the scene-y, celebrity hangouts of West Hollywood. With the streetwear-lined blocks of Fairfax Avenue to the west and the luxury boutiques on Melrose Avenue to the north, the market feeds in a continuous crowd of kids who grab oat milk lattes, wearing limited-edition Jordan 1s. Despite the school being virtually next door to this bubble of exclusivity, according to US News & World Report, 80 percent of Fairfax High’s students are economically disadvantaged.
The Post, which started 24 years ago as a fundraiser for a community arts program, feels like an Etsy page come to life. For a modest admission fee, shoppers can peruse roughly 200 vendors spanning veteran clothing resellers to full-time independent artists. Everything from neon-bright handcrafted furniture to quirky boob candles and psychedelic jewelry have a place in its ecosystem of sellers. But it’s the tents selling vintage that get the most foot traffic.
These open markets hold racks of nostalgic names like Von Dutch and Bebe, with walls of patchwork leather racing jackets and Hawaiian shirts. It’s perfect for teenagers like Aiveen Gleeson and her group of Orange County friends. “Vintage shopping … honestly it just looks way better than a really expensive outfit. When I get really rich and famous, I’m still going to do a lot of thrift shopping,” she says. Wearing ripped fishnet tights and thick black boots, with her long dark hair parted in the middle, her look feels reminiscent of Stevie Nicks with a sprinkling of Joan Jett. When I spot her, she and her friends Presley Farzam and Rimea Kasprzak are scanning a tray of metal rings. It’s only her second time visiting Melrose Trading Post, but despite her age, she and her friends are already experienced at sifting through bundles of collectibles.
“Everything I’m wearing is thrifted — I get all my stuff from thrift stores,” Rimea says. “I tend to wear like anything, like I find a lot of men’s clothes too. We just found this one store where everything outside goes for a dollar!”
Gen Z-ers making up the bulk of their wardrobe with secondhand items isn’t uncommon. Before catching a film across the street, Mackenzie Dobias and her boyfriend decided to kill some time checking out the vendors. She estimates that 60 percent of her closet is a mix-match assortment of thrifted items, including the pants and top she’s wearing. “My jeans, I got on Depop,” Mackenzie says before motioning to her blouse, which she got at a shop in Long Beach that she calls “selective.”
Later that bright and blistering Sunday — which also happened to be the 4th of July — I run into a group of teens and young adults shopping in a tent full of pastel-colored crop tops and tiny bodycon dresses. Visiting from Texas, Hannah Ruch made a pilgrimage to the Post with her boyfriend, Mason Cook and his sister, Georgia Cook. “It’s our anniversary, so I’m looking for a dress for dinner,” she says. “I’m from Texas, so the style there is a lot different. I usually just wear sweatpants and a shirt. I’m trying to change it up.”
However geographically or aesthetically boundless this generation’s style might seem, today’s youth fashion is still not without its key influences. While past generations might have looked to Vogue or MTV for inspiration, today’s youth draw from the kinetic network of social media.
“I used to go to a school where people were just extremely judgmental, so I kind of just wore whatever,” says Georgia Cook. “Once I started homeschooling, that’s when I discovered a style that I actually liked, like Emma Chamberlain’s style, and those kinds of people. After I figured that out, then I started to really get into thrifting.” Emma Chamberlain is a 20-year-old YouTuber whose eclectic fashion sense and expansive catalogue of diary entry-esque videos have propelled her into a stratosphere that most social media stars aspire to. Among her uploaded content includes videos titled “Epic Thrift Haul” and “How To Look Cute on Your Period,” along with baggy jeans-clad outfit pics complete with Doc Martens and ’90s-era claw clips.
While the early aughts and the 1990s reign as the two primary eras young fashion lovers have embraced, earlier decades have their fair share of fans. Mason, an actor originally from Oklahoma, was looking to add a pair of bell-bottoms to his closet: “It gives me vibes of the Beatles, like early ’70s. Bell-bottom jeans with Chelsea boots and maybe a blazer.” It’s in stark contrast to the Golf Wang trucker jacket, beaded necklace, and Doc Martens he’s wearing while we talk. “Most of the time I’m wearing streetwear, but if I’m feeling like I want to get dressed up a little bit, I might go for bell-bottoms and Chelsea boots.”
Blaine is a college student from Pomona, but he’s also a student of the internet. From his bucket hat to his loose-fitting Dickies cargo pants, each component of his outfit represents a pointed choice — much of which was sourced from vintage stores. He’s also hyper-specific about his inspirations, many of them ’90s heatthrobs, with Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and resident internet zaddy Jeff Goldblum among his top three fashion icons.
But it’s the SoCal-meets-gangster-infused stylings of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 revival of Romeo and Juliet that gets him, specifically: “I watched it during my freshman year of high school and ever since then I was like, I want to dress like that.” The influence is apparent in Blaine’s choice of an oversized short-sleeved button down, styled ever so slightly to reveal a white shirt underneath. “I like to mix preppy but make it more comfortable with sneakers instead of dress shoes.”
Like a lot of the young people I meet at Melrose Trading Post, one key segue into shopping vintage for Blaine was through his parents. “I listened to a lot of old hip hop and R&B that my parents listened to,” he said. “So I watched the music videos, and saw all the styles, and decided that’s what I like to emulate; a lot of social media I follow revolves around clothes.”
Launched as a companion social network to Simon Beckerman’s Pig magazine — an independent glossy dedicated to the happenings of youth subculture — in 2011, Depop now occupies a substantial chunk of the resale market. This summer, its craftier e-rival Etsy bought the company for a whopping $1.6 billion, and Depop’s 2020 revenues exceeded $70 million, with gross merchandise sales reportedly hitting $650 million.
Chloe Levine, a 16-year-old seasoned thrifter, uses Depop to gauge which hot items are worth hunting for. It’s where she follows social media personality and model Devon Lee Carlson, the inspiration behind her bedazzled trucker hat and baggy shorts. “I love ’90s movies, and TikTok is huge for fashion,” she tells me.
With approximately 90 percent of Depop’s 30 million users age 26 and under, e-commerce-first bazaars are integral instruments for which the resale market thrives. But as Mason, the young actor I met at the Post, points out, there are advantages to getting in the trenches to source clothing on the ground. “Sometimes you can’t tell from the picture because everything’s different. Coming in person is a lot better because you get a better idea and feel if you like it, and see it in person. Sometimes colors are brighter. So I would definitely choose this or that.”
The secondhand clothing market addresses the needs of an opinionated and tech-savvy generation in a way that corporate sellers and the mall ecosystem have yet to capture. The issue of sustainability as a linchpin for favoring secondhand was a topic that bubbled up several times when speaking with young shoppers at the market. They’re well informed and full of thoughts on the threat the rapid fashion cycle poses to our planet — more so than the average middle-aged adult.
The frenzy for colossal retail space and flashy architectural flagships is now making way for small-scale communal pop-ups with marketing language like “curated” and “vintage.” It’s becoming apparent that the veneer of brand new has lost its luster; kids like their clothes broken in and aged like a full-bodied glass of cabernet sauvignon.
Before Mason took up sourcing 10-year-old Dickies and secondhand work boots, he admits, “I was not happy with my style. I felt like it was lacking. I enjoyed expressing myself through what I wore and I wasn’t really doing that.” He likes the mythology attached to each piece of pre-worn finds that fill places like Melrose Trading Post.
“It’s kind of funny that I can come here and find something that I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else; something that would probably be one of a kind and has meaning to it. You get a little bit more appreciation for it.”
Indya Brown is a fashion writer, stylist, and market editor at Who What Wear. She was fashion editor at New York magazine’s The Cut.