How to Find the Best Vintage Pieces, According to the Secondhand Experts

Vintage and secondhand clothing is a market which, for decades, has allowed many to express themselves in ways they perhaps didn’t even know they were capable of. Who knew that a grey schoolboy’s wool blazer was the item I’d been missing (I somehow made it fit but lost full flexibility in my arms whilst wearing it) or that a floral floor-length housecoat would be my knockout summer staple? (This was my peak, if you ask me.) With this month marking Secondhand September, I’m here to show you how to integrate it into your day-to-day life—not just this month but every other month. 

Chloe has sworn a #nonewclothes2023 oath.

The idea of secondhand has often been dismissed by many due to the ease and certainty of the fast-fashion market. With the allure of free returns, the chance to shop multiple pieces (often in the dozens) and all-in-one delivery, many are put off by the thought of rifling through a rail or aimlessly scrolling on a resale app.

But today’s technology has rendered secondhand shopping a walk in the park, and now, with the click of a few buttons, you can have a unique piece arrive at your door within a few days thanks to the likes of VintedVestiaire and Depop to name a few. These apps allow you to shop from the comfort of your own home and, in turn, allow you to do the same with your own unwanted pieces. Whilst I still encourage you to rifle through the rails of your local charity shop and support small businesses within the market stalls and shops, keep reading for tips, information and guidance from experts followed by beautiful pieces available to give a new life to your wardrobe.

My own relationship with vintage and secondhand roller-coasters up and down in waves. With a little patience, some absolute gems can be found amongst the heaving rails, and if you’re lucky, you can find personalised details from previous owners stitched into the fabrics too. I was the self-proclaimed champion of taking a pair of scissors to my own newly acquired pieces. I’d remove sleeves, shorten the hemlines and cinch in the waists of multiple dresses. One part-time job in a vintage shop had me tucked away with a sewing machine shortening every dress that came through their doors, thus maintaining Liverpool’s reputation as a micro-mini-loving city! I was a minimum wage–earning teenager with much to say in regards to print clashes and experimental scarf tying, and the more affordable prices allowed me to express myself without having to borrow money from my mum.

As the widespread push for more sustainability within brands, households and businesses escalates, more are turning to vintage and secondhand clothing and accessories over fast-fashion alternatives. A spokesperson for Depop says, “Since our inception, our community has helped make circular fashion desirable and accessible to more people by making secondhand cool, lifting the stigma it was once attached to. A simple way to reduce the overall environmental impact of fashion is to reuse what already exists—displacing brand-new purchases with secondhand ones. Research shows that if, on average, a garment was worn twice as much, then lifecycle GHG emissions of the garment could be 44% lower.” A report conducted by the app last year discovered that nine in 10 purchases made on Depop prevent the purchase of a brand-new item elsewhere.

Bella Hadid is a huge vintage fan and flaunts her finds regularly. Jackets are her forte.

Over the last few years, the major apps have gained momentum. Vinted has seen its 1.2 million registered users in the UK in 2021 rise to eight million today. Natacha Blanchard, the consumer lead at Vinted says, “Our recently published Climate Impact Report showed that shopping secondhand on Vinted really is a better choice for the climate than buying new. Secondhand actually is the first choice for many people, as the report also found that a fifth of Vinted members would still choose to buy a secondhand item over new, even at a similar price. Therefore, we believe that secondhand, as part of the circular economy model, can be one part of the solution to the challenges faced by the fashion industry in terms of impact on the climate, even if it’s not the whole or only solution.”

According to 1 Million Women, “If one million women bought their next item of clothing secondhand instead of new, we would save six million kilograms of carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere.”

Of the above, Clare Lewis, founder Retold Vintage, tells us, “This quote from 1Million Women back in 2018 was the kick-starter to me turning my passion for vintage clothing into a business. I had just finished a 15-year job with a high-street brand, and I was becoming more aware of the damaging effects of the fashion industry. The immediate connection of how a small change in behaviour can have such a positive consequence really inspired me to start encouraging more people to love vintage and pre-owned fashion like I did. What started out as a market stall then went on to me having my own website and studio. Retold’s offering now includes bridal, consignment, rental and jewellery collaborations. I’m proud to have built a loyal customer base spanning 20 countries.”

Clarissa Bowman, founder of Amo Vintage, has also been heavily involved in vintage fashion for many years, for both work and personal wardrobes. “Having originally started my career as a stylist, I always found so much character in vintage and secondhand pieces I had found along the way that I would always incorporate them into shoots. Vintage and secondhand pieces bring such character and history to an outfit, and I loved to be able to show that in contemporary fashion. From that, I knew from an early point of my career that these pieces deserved as much attention as current-day pieces. It was just a matter of time!” 

From simply glancing at the brand’s Instagram, you can easily note that the folks at Amo are experts in sourcing great footwear, especially cowboy boots. Well-made shoes often possess a well-matched higher price tag, so for a more accessible choice, secondhand is often the best option. “You can always try to buy what’s on-trend, but then you’re forever chasing, and you can’t focus on really special items. At Amo, we source pieces that we believe in and would wear ourselves, and then it’s a bonus when it becomes ‘trendy,'” Bowman says.  

Vintage lover and expert, stylist and editor Rosie Williams—founder of The Daisy Chain Shop UK (launching Jan 2024)—has been seeking out the best pieces for over two decades and knows the ins and outs of all of the apps and websites like the back of her hand. “I started working with vintage and secondhand when I was 12 years old. I opened an eBay account because I was desperate for a Juicy Couture velour hoodie, which I couldn’t afford full price, so I used my pocket money to hunt down a secondhand one. It stayed in my wardrobe for 20 years until I sold it last summer!” she says. “I’ve always had taste which was far more expensive than my income, so I needed to be smart with shopping secondhand and vintage so that I could stretch my budget as far as possible. I really got into vintage shopping post-university when I was on an intern wage and wanted unique pieces that no one else was likely to have. I founded The Daisy Chain Shop in order to create a chain of circular fashion to enable each piece to be passed on to the next person and create a new story. That and my daughter’s name is Daisy!”

This is one of the first things I look for when it comes to shopping for warmer items, especially coats. Often, a high-wool-percentage coat can be a cheaper or price-matched alternative to its high-street counterpart, which often bears a much lower wool percentage and isn’t nearly as warm. The same goes for knitwear—look for a high percentage to reduce the need for further layers beneath. 

Sizing can prove tricky with the older pieces, especially with waist sizes. Most sellers should include a thorough measurement breakdown of their garments, enabling you to make sure that a size 10 from the ’60s is, in fact, close to the size 10 of today. This is especially true with jeans. I find that the waist number can sometimes feel way off the size you usually buy. Whilst I’m on the subject of jeans, most of my favourite and most worn pairs have been sourced secondhand! 

Sellers should also include any damage in the description and imagery, so be sure to check through everything, and feel free to ask them questions if you feel you need further clarification. 

With over 30 million pieces available and 140,000 new listings every day on Depop alone, it can seem a little overwhelming to start searching. Many secondhand platforms have filters and the feature to add hashtags, specifically Depop and Vinted. “You can shop vintage easily on Vinted simply by using filters to narrow down your choices—just choose “Vintage” in the Brand filter. You can then filter by colour, material, condition, etc. to really hone in on specifics. You can also shop by searching the most relevant hashtags, so searching #vintage would work well too,” advisesBlanchard.

The spokesperson for Depop tells us, “Y2K, streetwear, one-of-a-kind and vintage are some of the most prevailingly popular categories, search terms, hashtags and aesthetics we’ve seen on Depop over the past few years. Trends tend to start emerging earlier on Depop, but we’ve seen this crossover at mass scale in the last six months.” 

Vinted and Depop alongside Vestiaire, Etsy and eBay allow you to follow sellers, which can be particularly useful when you find that you and the seller share a similar aesthetic or size. I regularly click on the seller’s name to spy on their other items in case I get lucky!

One more thing is alerts! Set a notification on apps such as Vestiaire to notify you if something gets listed, such as a particular brand or style that you’ve been lusting after. Getting used to all of these features allows the apps to feel a little less daunting in filtering out all of the unnecessaries. 

There’s a lot out there, and some of it might seem a little too much for some of us, so why not dip your toe in and experiment with fun accessories? Add a belt with an intricate buckle perhaps or wild boots to punctuate a neutral outfit. Just one key note can really strike up a conversation with a stranger.

The irony of a fashion editor advising you to buy vintage when they usually create shopping edits of ready-to-wear is not lost on me, but I truly believe in the power and beauty of a look which is comprised of both new and old pieces. Some pieces tell a story—perhaps how you managed to source the item and how long it took you to find it. Perhaps it reminds you of the time you wandered into a small market on holiday and found this amazing and unique piece of jewellery. So get out there (or get online) and see what treasures you can find.

Next Up: The Autumn/Winter 2023 Fashion Trends That Really Matter