How Vintage Stores Are Reinventing Themselves For a New Generation of Shoppers

As shoppers are increasingly more fashion-conscious and digitally savvy, the traditional vintage store is getting a modern-day update.
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Spark Pretty vintage store in New York City. Photo: John Muggenborg

Spark Pretty vintage store in New York City. Photo: John Muggenborg

Walking into Spark Pretty, a new vintage shop that opened in New York City's East Village this fall, is like walking into a teenager's bedroom from the '80s — a neon-tinted haven covered in pink, with floor-to-ceiling décor made up of music and movie posters, comfy bean bags and troll dolls. Best friends and stylists Amanda Dolan and Meagan Colby are the brains behind the store, which initially launched in 2012 as an online vintage retailer specializing in nostalgia-heavy garments from the '80s and '90s, most of which were acquired from flea markets and road trips while working for Betsey Johnson.

One space in the store is dedicated to soft vintage T-shirts emblazoned pop culture references, like Vanilla Ice, "The Mask," "Beavis and Butt-Head" and a yellow smiley face with the phrase "Fuck You" scrawled underneath it. There are jumpsuits, chunky statement sweaters and handbags shaped like more yellow smiley faces, an actual clock (Flavor Flav-inspired, perhaps?) and a backpack that resembles a Game Boy. Outerwear is Spark Pretty's specialty: Dolan and Colby have acquired rare items by Lisa Frank, Too Cute and Tony Alamo — a designer (and fugitive cult leader) who covered denim jackets in airbrush paint and rhinestones, which can go for $450 through $1,200. (And yes, you can buy the trolls, too, for $2 a pop.)

Spark Pretty vintage store in New York City. Photo: John Muggenborg

Spark Pretty vintage store in New York City. Photo: John Muggenborg

"We took a big leap when we opened a brick-and-mortar," says Dolan. Indeed, the current state of physical retail stores is certainly dwindling, particularly among department stores and malls, as well as traditional secondhand chains, but resale shopping as a whole is still thriving, especially online. A ThredUp report from earlier this year notes that the U.S. secondhand apparel industry, which includes both offline and online businesses, is currently worth $18 billion and is expected to be expand to $33 billion by 2021. 

And while online resale is growing at a 35 percent CAGR (compound annual growth rate), offline resale is far behind, with only an 8 percent rate. So how can brick-and-mortar vintage stores keep up? According to co-founder Gerard Maione of What Goes Around Comes Around, a luxury vintage store that has been in business for more than two decades, it all boils down to curation. "It's not just a secondhand store or a bunch of designer stuff on the racks," Maione tells Fashionista from his Soho-based location while Florence Welch passes off dresses from her fitting room. "Every single piece is selected as the best of the best in the world."

With some of the most coveted collections of pre-owned Chanel, Hermès and Louis Vuitton handbags and jewelry in stock, What Goes Around Comes Around didn't focus on its most driving category — luxury accessories — until about five years ago. When the company opened its doors in 1993, the first 15 years were spent evolving from carrying various pieces of vintage that spanned decades to more designer-name, secondhand inventory. (Maione also mentions a nearly seven-year-stint of an in-house clothing line, as well as being a major source of inspiration for designers and stylists in the early aughts, which later led to avid celebrity clientele.) 

What Goes Around Come Around vintage store in New York City. Photo: Courtesy

What Goes Around Come Around vintage store in New York City. Photo: Courtesy

"When people talk about vintage, there's one old-school world, which is old period stuff, to what is now looked at as resale," says Maione. "There's also confusion because there's a lot of consignment. What's vintage? Does vintage have to be 25 years old? Can vintage be a few years old? This Chanel bag is discontinued, it's now a vintage bag. I think for us, it's just elevating to a level and curating a selection down to a deeper place." Maione hopes that What Goes Around Comes Around portrays a retail space that’s akin to a Colette in Paris or The Webster in Miami.

Curation, a distinct point of view and an experiential atmosphere appear to be a winning combination among brick-and-mortars, which, luckily, apply to both Spark Pretty and What Goes Around Comes Around. But resale shoppers are growing among Gen Z and millennials, specifically. In fact, Gen Z shoppers are The RealReal's fastest-growing customer base, outpacing millennials by 35 percent. 

"The younger generations are starting to shop in a much more conscious way and also, they increasingly want individuality and to own unique pieces that nobody else will have," says Sara Maggioni, Director Retail & Buying at WGSN, noting that nostalgia, old-school sportswear brands going through a renaissance, designers diving into archives for reissued pieces or the selling power of Gucci's signature maximalism as factors. "This has brought a taste of the retro aesthetic and therefore, more young millennials are getting more interested in vintage looks, as well as true vintage."

With a younger, more digitally savvy and fashion-conscious consumer, Maggioni believes secondhand and vintage shops can tap into their new relevance via online. "By predominantly harnessing the power of social media, [retailers can] target new audiences and build a following, partnerships and collaborations," she says. For successful online resale sites, it's the other way around: Both ThredUp and The RealReal will open their own brick-and-mortar stores this year.

Before Hannah Richtman opened her Brooklyn-based vintage shop The Break last December, she had been building a loyal online following of #BreakBabes since 2014. "I wanted to start small," she says."I was very adamant about that before I tried to open a brick-and-mortar and shove my ideas down anyone's throat and potentially lose a lot of money and credibility." She initially launched e-commerce, styling her offerings in editorials with an overarching sartorial goal that each affordable piece — rarely does The Break sell items that cost more than $100 — "look wildly expensive."

The Break vintage store in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: @hannah.richtman/Instagram

The Break vintage store in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: @hannah.richtman/Instagram

Soon after, Richtman was throwing trunk show parties for friends and family at her apartment, then opening it up to her followers, who traveled from New Jersey or Philadelphia to shop The Break. She garnered her own studio space, hosted more parties and pop-up shops and finally, landed on a permanent location in Greenpoint. "The original goal was to not necessarily focus on vintage but really focus on creating a community and a brand based on these ideals of inclusivity and accessibility," says Richtman.

When translating The Break's online presence to a physical store, Richtman wanted a contemporary aesthetic within the large, airy, well-lit space. "When you immediately think of vintage, there's this image in your head where it's really packed and there's ton of stuff and knick knacks everywhere and it smells a certain way," she says. "It has this connotation to it that I wanted to completely break down. I wanted the store to surprise people and encourage those who would not normally shop vintage to take the risk." So far, she's succeeded: The Break is retail Instabait, minimally decorated with sculptural furniture and abstract floral arrangements, and stocked with a steady inventory of 300 new pieces every week. Her dedication to fostering a community continues with plenty of art shows, parties and zine launches — even a tattoo pop-up.

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