Vintage is chic by default.
How much more alluring does it sound to state that your much admired jacket was sourced from a vintage store as opposed to being bought “second-hand”? Similarly, there is a romanticism associated with the US term “Thrift Store” or “Good Will” that can never be attributed to the UK version: “Charity Shop”. Thrift Store immediately conjures images of Ms Bradshaw trawling through piles of unwanted cashmere & tulle. Charity Shop screams “your Gran’s unwanted M&S coat”. But as a designer with a conscience, keen to incorporate recycling, up-cycling and vintage elements into my brand, I’m struggling to make sense of the customer’s perception of these terms. Charity shops are often my first port of call when sourcing fabrics for my designs but is the honesty with which I label my clothing getting in the way of sales?
Being a teenager in the 1980s, the good old charity shop was the place to put together your look. Whichever tribe you belonged to: the early 80’s remnants of the Punk Movement, the New Romantics, the Goths, Smiths devotee or Wham-ette, the quest was to make your look stand out as much as possible and express your individuality. It was also about economics. To the cash-strapped teenager of the 80’s, charity shops were awash with one-off pieces at a bargain price. There was far more style-kudos attributed to a duster-coat sourced from Oxfam than the same garment from Chelsea Girl could ever hope to have.
Moving into the 90’s, Grunge gave us the perfect opportunity to stop washing our hair and continue raiding the charity shops and army surplus stores for our “just got out of bed and can’t be arsed” look.
But something has happened between then and now to mean that charity shops and recycled garments are viewed with a kind of disdain unless they are (often incorrectly) labelled as “vintage”.
The tail-end of the 90s certainly didn’t help matters, when the term “recycled” became synonymous with the New Age Traveller look, usually sported by festival-goers, or those that liked to pretend they went to festivals: bright patchwork, extremely itchy chunky knitwear and rather questionable shoes.
But surely the single most important factor has been the evolution of “fast fashion”. What motivation do we have to go and seek out charity store bargains when we can buy new at often cheaper prices from the fast fashion high street stores? What do we care about the exploited garment workers when we “need” to be able to purchase the “must-have” bargain pieces?
There are plenty of ethical labels – People Tree, Tara Starlet, MADE to name but a few, who are able to get the message across that recycling, upcycling and ethical practice don’t have to result in clothing devoid of style & individuality and which don’t cost a fortune nor the lives & dignity of others. But how does the small, independent designer with zero marketing/advertising budget convince potential customers to buy into their ethical practice? Is using the term “recycled” in a garment description a positive thing? Or does it deter potential customers? I can’t help but think that the term has way too many negative connotations. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph of “vintage” vs “second-hand”. Fashion is awash with hyperbole and it’s own special language and I love it (although don’t get me started on the use of the singular in fashion-speak…). But should I compromise my own beliefs in order to get a sale? Should I be re-labelling my designs as incorporating vintage rather than recycled fabrics? (even where I cannot be certain of the age of a fabric but just know that it isn’t brand new?) Sure, it may get me a sale but will my conscience allow me to contradict my belief that if the materials aren’t at least 20 years old, then it isn’t vintage? It can be second-hand, used, recycled, upcycled, even vintage-inspired. But it ain’t vintage.
So, I’m genuinely interested…does seeing the word “recycled” put you off buying? Does it prevent you from clicking on a link to a garment? What does it mean to you? Does it bother you that you might buy an item that is labelled as “vintage” or “made with vintage materials” when it isn’t true vintage? What does vintage mean to you?