Ahhh, the thrill of the hunt. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, selling vintage clothing online might not be for you. That’s okay—you can peddle pretty much anything on Shopify, from underwear and pet sweaters to photography courses and event tickets.
But if you live for the high of scoring a really sweet vintage dress at your local thrift store, and bragging about how little you paid, you might be able to turn that drug into a business. Having an eye—and the patience—for sourcing and curating vintage is a skill that could pay off beyond your really awesome wardrobe.
Fashion has always been inspired by history. Denim cuts from the 70s, dress silhouettes from the 40s, and 80s day-glo colour palettes have all moved in and out of fashion trends more than once each since their inception. While fast fashion outlets are quick to pick up on vintage-style trends on the runways, pumping out $20 versions of those corduroy overalls you loved in the 90s, there’s something special about finding the real deal. In your size.
Consumers rely on vintage merchants to do the tedious sifting, curating a painless shopping experience of only the best items, in the best condition.
photo: In Past Times
eBay and marketplaces are where many sellers had their start when the demand for vintage started to pick up. Eco-consciousness gave secondhand an additional cool-boost and resale clothing is now a $4 billion dollar industry in the US alone.
Translation: that’s a lot of competition.
If you’re thinking of getting into the vintage game, there’s no reason that you can’t create a unique brand to define your particular taste, away from the crowded marketplaces. Several Shopify merchants, like COAL N TERRY, have developed a strong, consistent aesthetic through curation and photography that have helped them grow massive long-standing businesses.
Meet COAL N TERRY
Azeezat Owokoniran-Jimoh and her husband Damilare (Dare) Jimoh thrifted together when they were both college students. While the appeal at the time may have been their small student budgets, they realized they had a knack for it. In 2008 they started selling their finds on eBay, which earned them some modest side income, says Dare.
“I wouldn't say we had a lot of success on eBay. Once we got a feel for the presence, for that market, we just decided to move on to making our website and fortunately, Instagram was really taking off at that time.”
photo: COAL N TERRY
As they were carving out their online space and building a social following, they both graduated from college and pursued careers in their respective fields, Azeezat tells me.
"Dare and I worked at a hospital. I did a lot of professional jobs but they just weren't working out. It was just so many hours. I had to work over 60 hours a week and I wasn't getting paid what I thought I would. I just wasn't happy doing it at all. My husband liked working and helping people in the healthcare industry, but it was just taking so much of our time. We didn't have time for the kids, we didn't have time for ourselves. We decided if we just did what we loved, we knew it would work out for the best.”
We decided if we just did what we loved, we knew it would work out for the best.
The couple transitioned away from their jobs to focus on COAL N TERRY full-time. Before moving to Shopify in 2013, they built their website on another platform. They found that the needs of their company exceeded the platform’s capabilities. Traffic was crashing the site and support wasn’t 24 hours.
Since they launched their brand in 2010, COAL N TERRY has amassed a devout following, including many celebrity customers. They carved out a niche in the vintage market with an unmistakable look of their own that mixes vintage finds with their own designs, and one-of-a-kind “updated” denim. The brand has moved from Azeezat and Dare’s home to a warehouse space, with extra hires.
So, how did they do it?
How to sell vintage clothing online
From sourcing garments, to cleaning, storing, and pricing them, selling vintage clothing online comes with its own unique challenges.
I consulted full-time merchants Azeezat and Dare, as well as Emilie Martin, who runs her business In Past Times as a side hustle. I asked them to talk about their experiences and their advice for would-be vintage resellers.
photo: In Past Times
Let’s get started!
What’s your angle?
While you may just elect to pick and sell what you like, consider choosing a niche to help your business stand out. Focusing on items from a specific decade (20s, 80s), style (evening wear, athletic wear), pricing strategies (designer, couture), or even item (vintage band tees) will give your store and collections a more consistent feel.
A focused offering makes it easier to find and speak to your audience, and simplifies the shopping experience for customers. COAL N TERRY experimented before they found their groove:
"When we first started, we just tried different things. We tried to do the whole vintage glam thing and it was pretty effective. But then it seemed like everyone that was selling vintage was starting to do exactly that. We wanted to give this a cool, hip, modern day flare with a mix of vintage. We take a vintage item, make it look cooler and present it in a better way. We give people ideas on how they could wear it without it looking old or like something that their mom or dad wore.”
We take a vintage item, make it look cooler and present it in a better way.
photo: COAL N TERRY
Consider the following:
- What’s your style? You’ll naturally find sourcing easier when you play up your own aesthetic. You’re already familiar with the brands, and your eye will naturally spot good finds among messy thrift racks.
- Is your niche too limited? If you choose a too-specific slice of vintage (1930s evening wear), you may have difficulty sourcing enough inventory. Be sure you can establish reliable sources for your niche.
- Conversely, is it too saturated? Are there already too many shops doing the very same thing? How can you stand out?
- Follow trends. What’s happening on the runway any given season, or celebrity and influencer trends can help dictate your direction. While vintage may be desirable, it still fares better if it translates to a modern style or lifestyle.
Sourcing vintage clothing
While COAL N TERRY started their business by scouring the thrift racks, they’ve expanded to wholesale relationships to free up their time and expand the business.
“We have a lot of corporate suppliers that ship us first grade items. Once a week we get the shipment or pallets from local non-profits, Salvation Army stores, and family dealer stores. They already know what kinds of things we are looking for. Sometimes we get high fashion brands in there. Whatever designs we're looking for, we just place an order in for it and it's selected. Usually they charge by weight, so sometimes you have to have your fingers crossed that you get the right thing.”
Usually they charge by weight, so sometimes you have to have your fingers crossed that you get the right thing.
When you’re starting out, however, thrift shops can be excellent sources of vintage finds. Thrifting 💡 TIPS:
- Go often, and on the right days. Many stores get shipments or put new items on the floor on specific days. Plan your thrifting around those days.
- Have a plan. Save time and money by clearly defining the items you’re looking for before you starting sourcing.
- Carefully inspect items before purchasing. Thrift stores often don’t have the same quality standards at curated vintage, and items may have stains or other damage.
- Know your stuff, says Emilie Martin:
“I always look for some telltale signs of vintage garments, such as a union label, the fabric used, zipper placement and of course the style of the piece. I have studied countless old Vogue magazines, Eaton’s catalogs and old movies too. They are great for referencing when certain styles were popular.”
Other sources for buying vintage clothing:
- Auctions: Sign up to receive notification of auctions in your area. Try US-specific sites like Auction Zip (or equivalents in Canada and the UK)
- Estate sales: These can be a goldmine for a lot of vintage items in one place. Stay on top of upcoming sales by signing up to get notified
- Craigslist: classified sites like Craigslist might turn up some treasures, garage sales, moving sales, or upcoming estate sales. 💡 TIP: set up automated notifications through Zapier or IFTTT to alert you when Craigslist listings contain specific keywords
- Pickers: Once you’ve built up your business, consider outsourcing your sourcing by hiring a picker
- Wholesalers: Sign up as a trade customer with businesses like Glass Onion Vintage or The Vintage Wholesale Company to gain access to vintage in bulk and at wholesale pricing
- Consignment or buy & sell programs: Set up a program to buy or consign vintage items from your customers or site visitors. Consignment is a low-risk arrangement that involves paying the seller only if you sell the item. Example: Shopify store Beacon’s Closet, Cheeky Vintage
- Flea or outdoor markets: Showing up early means first dibs, but you’ll get the best deals at the end of the day and the end of flea market season, when dealers are looking to unload stock.
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Storage and inventory for your vintage clothing
Without a plan, vintage inventory can start to feel like a disorganized thrift store. Unlike stores with limited product listings (and multiple units within each), vintage items are each one of a kind.
Develop a system to help sort, store, and identify items to simplify your shipping and fulfillment.
- Store vintage items in temperature and humidity controlled environments (not musty basements), protected by moths and other fabric pests
- Keep vintage items out of natural light—sun can fade colours
- Use clear bins for accessories and open racks for clothing so that everything is visible and accessible (never store vintage apparel in plastic bags or cardboard boxes)
- Be mindful of sequins or embellishments that can catch on the delicate fabrics of other garments
- Stay organized. COAL N TERRY sorts their racks by type–pants, tops, denim—and then by colour so any of their staff can easily locate items
- In small spaces, get creative. Emilie runs her vintage business from her small apartment:
“I’ve found that the best way to store all my clothes is in vintage suitcases. Not only do they hold a lot, they also look great. They are usually brightly colored and stackable. This utilizes vertical space which is important when you live in Toronto, since square footage is usually limited.”
I’ve found that the best way to store all my clothes is in vintage suitcases. Not only do they hold a lot, they also look great.
Cleaning and repair for vintage clothing
Even though you’re selling a used product, customers will expect that your items arrive clean and in the condition described.
How to clean and repair vintage clothing for resale:
- Check the label, and follow care instructions. Commonly, care instruction labels will be missing. In this case, assess the item’s fabric composition, soil level, and condition to determine the best method for cleaning.
- If the item is relatively clean, a clothes steamer can remove odors and wrinkles, and is preferable to ironing
- Handwash and remove stains the Smithsonian way
- Find a good dry cleaner who has experience with vintage textiles, or specializes in delicate fabrics. Note: some items may be too fragile for the dry cleaning process.
- Find a reputable tailor or learn basic sewing techniques to repair simple damage like loose buttons or fallen hems
Product photography for vintage clothing
Photography in a vintage business is an ongoing task. Unlike other clothing stores who may schedule shoots once per season or as new collections are released, vintage merchants have a steady intake of inventory, all of which needs to be individually shot.
To get items onto the site as quickly as possible, COAL N TERRY shoots each item immediately after it arrives and is cleaned.
To be nimble, all of their photography is done in house with a basic fixed studio setup including a DSLR, tripod, simple lighting kit and white seamless. The setup is permanent, which means that the photography looks consistent on collection pages, even though the items may have been shot weeks apart.
Consistency across product shots, by COAL N TERRY
Azeezat gets items even more quickly to her fans and customers by shooting and posting candid behind-the-scenes shots on her iPhone for the store’s Instagram. The process has helped them hone their photography style.
"We noticed that our customers tend to respond better to pictures taken with our phones as opposed to professionally done photo shoots. When we do the whole white backdrop at the studio and then post those on social media, they don't really respond. If it's something that I just take with my phone, everything is positive. More likes, more engagement, more sales. We're actually in the process of leaning towards less professional shoots and more of just a laid back, sort of selfie style.”
We're actually in the process of leaning towards less professional shoots and more of just a laid back, sort of selfie style.
Shooting lookbook-style lifestyle photos may be more unrealistic for vintage businesses, but you can still inject fun and inspiration into basic product shoots, says Emilie:
“I put a lot of effort into photographing the clothing up close and on a model. I think it’s important to show how the garment fits and how it can be styled.”
A variety of product shots, by In Past Times
💡 TIP: remember to capture images of the full garment on a model or mannequin, details like stitching or buttons, the original label, and any noted flaws.
Setting up your store
This might actually be the easiest part of running your vintage clothing business. But I may be a little biassed. There’s no risk in setting up a free trial on Shopify (the first two weeks are on us!) and it could be the incentive to ramp up your sourcing and get this thing started. Next, come up with some ideas for a domain name and you're ready to go!
Product pages, collections, and FAQs
Product page copy is incredibly important for setting customer expectations, improving SEO and minimizing returns. It’s especially important for vintage items, which require more specific information like measurements and condition.
Collections will be your best friend. They will help organize your online store and keep it from looking hodge-podge. Consider organizing inventory into collections by era, colour, occasion, item type, or season.
Collection page, COAL N TERRY
On your product page for each item, be sure to explain the item in detail, including label details, brand, size, damages, condition, and rough manufacture date.
Product page 💡 TIPS:
- If the label is missing, search for similar items online to learn more information about the garment. Research vintage brands through the Vintage Fashion Guild’s label resource
- Develop a consistent system for sizing, as vintage sizing can be very inconsistent (a size 8 in 1940 is not the same at a modern day size 8). Include waist, hip, and bust measurements in inches/centimeters, as well and sleeve length and neck opening measurements
Product page, Cheeky Vintage
- Define a list of terms to describe the condition of vintage items, and use terminology consistently throughout the site. Link to your condition chart from the product pages.
- Use the duplicate item option in Shopify to help simplify adding products—use the same basic template for all skirts, for example.
"Most of our tops and bottoms, they're similar. Even some of the vintage windbreakers or sweaters are similar. I'll take one product and create a duplicate product. Then you simply edit the size or other details. Maybe the description might be like ‘yellow bomber jacket’, you could just switch it up to ‘red’. That's it.”
Your FAQ page should clearly indicate that items are used/worn and are one of a kind. This is a great place to educate your customer on sizing, garment care, and your condition ratings.
Vintage condition chart by Lovely Daughters Vintage
“Some people aren't really familiar with the idea of vintage,” says Azeezat, “When they see an item, they just assume there are multiples of it or it's never been worn.”
Pricing Vintage Clothing
Price vintage according to rarity, age, wearability, demand, trend, and brand. For rare or couture items, consider an appraisal service.
💡 TIP: consult the market to accurately price your items, Azeezat suggests:
“We go through different processes for pricing. First, we go to our competitors to see how they're pricing the same items. We then go on eBay to see how those people are pricing it. We then look at the condition of the item, see how rare it is, and how much people want it.”
We look at the condition of the item, see how rare it is, and how much people want it.
Marketing your vintage clothing business
The beauty of one-of-a-kind is the availability of content. With new items arriving constantly, COAL N TERRY uses Instagram to quickly get iPhone snaps in front of their loyal customers right away.
Azeezat and Dare have grown the account (and the business) without spending money on any formal advertising. They rely on shoutouts from celeb or influencer partners, and user-generated content in the form of customer photos.
"We actively ask customers to share their photos. As soon as they get their purchase confirmation there's also a note in there saying, ‘Hey, this is our Instagram. Make sure to tag us. We'll post you. We can't wait to see you.’ Things like that.”
COAL N TERRY influencer post on Instagram
Instagram is their number one driver of sales.
"Instagram for us is 70 percent a selling tool. When we post customer pictures, it gives other customers an idea of how they could style their clothes. They can also see that we are a reputable business and we've had real people buy from us. At the same time, we do a lot of behind the scenes to let people know what's coming next. It looks cool and pretty but really, it's a huge selling tool for us.”
It looks cool and pretty but really, it's a huge selling tool for us.
Social marketing and selling are both ideal for vintage businesses because of the low maintenance nature of sharing and shopping for the products. Seasoned vintage hunters have been trained to shop in this no-fuss way through marketplaces and classified ads.
Instagram call out, Luna Wolf Vintage
So you still want to sell vintage clothing online? The key to success, it seems, is a healthy balance of born-with-it good taste and a viable niche, mixed with great curation, presentation, and branding.