While second-hand platforms like The RealReal, ThredUp and Depop have taken off in the West, helping shoppers reduce their carbon footprint, the Chinese resale market been somewhat stunted by fears over counterfeiting, the ongoing social status attached to new goods and even superstitions around wearing other people’s clothes.
This could be a matter of positioning, according to fashion influencer Xie Xinyan, who has over a million followers on Weibo where she posts about makeup and vintage clothing, among much else. Low-end thrift stores may be rare in China, but the 24-year-old has witnessed a significant jump in the number of higher-end outlets marketing themselves as “vintage.”
5 ways you can change your fashion habits to help the planet
When Xie began taking an interest in vintage clothing as a student in Nanjing, there were “barely any” vintage stores outside megacities like Beijing and Guangzhou, she said in a phone interview. In the past seven or eight years, however, they have become increasingly popular she said, adding that “in every major Chinese town there are at least one or two vintage clothing shops.”
Xie attributes some of this growing interest to the influence of Japanese vintage culture. “The Japanese started to embrace the concept of vintage clothing ahead of the Chinese,” she said. “China learned about it from them and through gradual cultural exchange. Some people started bringing items from Japan to China, and then more and more people started to adopt the style.”
Instead, Xie said, people are now “mostly worried about hygiene.”
“My parents always questioned why I bought vintage clothes, because they’re not cheap at all — you could buy something new with the money you spend on a vintage piece,” she said. My mom would always ask why I didn’t buy new items that were more ‘clean and hygienic.'”
Taste for luxury
Louis Vuitton luxury bags sit on shelves in the live-streaming room at Ponhu Luxury, one of a growing number of second-hand luxury goods platforms in China. Credit: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Hoping to change that is Austin Zhu, who co-founded the consignment platform Zhi Er (which translates to “Only Two”) in 2016. Billing itself as China’s equivalent to The RealReal, the company photographs luxury items at its Shanghai warehouse before listing them on its platform and taking a 15% cut on each sale.
“Italian brands are the most popular on our platform,” Zhu said on a video call. “But US brands like Coach and Michael Kors are also very popular because the price is much lower than European brands.”
A still from a promotional video by luxury resale platform, Zhi Er, shows an authenticator examining a consigned handbag. Credit: Zhi Er
Being able to trust expensive and high-quality goods is the “first step in Chinese people accepting the idea of buying second-hand,” said Zhu. “It may be that, later, we have (cheaper) clothing categories, like how ThredUp in the United States also has Zara and H&M, but that’s the second step in China.
“In our first year, we also tried focusing on those fast-fashion brands, but we changed (direction),” he added, saying that there simply wasn’t enough demand for low-priced goods to make the strategy viable.
Motivations for change
Just as resale platforms in the West are powered by Generation-Z and millennial consumers, China’s upwardly mobile “balinghou” and “jiulinghou” (the post-80s and -90s generations) appear to be driving the luxury resale market. The clothing rental sector is also targeting these younger consumers, said Liu Mengyuan, founder and CEO of Beijing-based subscription service YCloset.
Founded in 2015 and now reporting more than 15 million users, YCloset, allows subscribers to rent up to five items of clothing or accessories a month. After trying them out, users — who pay a flat subscription charge of 499 yuan ($72) a month — then have the opportunity to buy the items outright or simply return them.
A scene from YCloset’s facility where luxury items are cleaned and prepared for rental. Credit: YCloset
As well as helping reduce the consumption of new items, Liu said that YCloset uses canvas bags, not plastic ones, to send and receive clothing — and that 80% of the water used to clean its garments is recycled. But environmental concerns are not among her customers’ top priorities.
“I think there are three reasons why our users choose to rent,” Liu said in a phone interview. “One, increasing the diversity of their clothing choices; two, sparing them from the trouble of packing clothes (when moving or traveling); and three, freeing up space in their wardrobes.”
While Zhu does not have comparative data for Zhi Er, he is candid about his customers’ main incentive: affordability. Items typically sell on the platform for 10% to 30% cheaper than their original retail price.
“I think people have concerns about the environment, but I don’t think it’s the main reason people use resale apps or look to the second-hand market,” he said.
“Coronavirus means that it’s not that easy for people to get what they want,” Zhu said, adding: “It’s getting harder and harder to buy branded stuff overseas, so people are trying to find a way (to do so) in mainland China — and the second-hand market is one of the best options for those people.”
Shoppers’ incentives for buying second-hand items is, arguably, immaterial, if the net result is the reduced production and demand for new clothing. Nonetheless, fashion influencer Xie is more upbeat about vintage shoppers’ — and her own — motivations.
“One of the key reasons why people wear vintage clothing is because it’s recycled and environmentally friendly,” she said. “When I was younger, I would never think about a clothing’s longevity. It was only about style. But now I think of how much wear I can get out of a piece before buying it.”
Top image: Luxury garments pictured at the storage facility of Chinese luxury rental service, YCloset.