Viva vintage!

Hannah Betts is addicted to Vestiaire Collective

Back when I was a teenager, before the Great War, I used to frequent a vintage clothing emporium named Houghton’s. The Big H boasted all the Birmingham essentials: dancing shoes, frock after fabulous frock, feathered confections for masked balls. In it, I fell upon the dress of my young life: wasp-waisted, Fifties emerald brocade, ice-cream cone tits. It fitted like the proverbial: all curves reset at angles, the geometry of girlish sin.

 In it, I had the power to make everyone fall in love with me, a skill I possessed neither before nor after. I wore it during my first term at Oxford, and it sent the world slavish. Men, women and children fell at my feet. Alas, as in a fairytale, it lasted one night only before disintegrating about me. Still, what a time to be alive. If I’d had the sense, I’d have saved relics to be replicated. Even now, I don’t believe I can have disposed of it. It must have simply vanished to haunt my waking dreams.

With a few notable exceptions — the black-lace number I wore for my college ball, the men’s safari boots I sported by way of post-Finals meltdown — I gave up vintage. Not only was I heartbroken, a general mankiness prevailed of festering armpits and mangy furs. Where second-hand wares had made teen me look madly brilliant, adult me looked merely mad. Besides, goth that I am, I appeared costume-drama enough without the Merchant Ivory rig-out.

Three decades on, my vintage obsession has been rekindled, because, frankly, everybody’s at it. The British second-hand clothing market is predicted to be 1.5 times bigger than the fast-fashion sector by 2028. The stigma attached to non-new garb has been replaced by a sense of kudos. And no purveyor has more kudos than Vestiaire Collective, the global buying and selling platform for “desirable” pre-owned style (read: “Checked for authenticity — no eBay knock-offs”).

Vestiaire was set up ten years ago when founder Fanny Moizant flogged her own Gucci bag. Today, it boasts a community of more than nine million members in 50-plus countries. These members submit an average of 40,000 items from 3,500 brands for sale every week. Its most active acolyte has snapped up 3,563 “pieces,” sold 582. The largest purchase made has been a £70,411 Hermès Birkin bag. This year’s most viewed objet was the Dior Saddle bag, with the Fendi Baguette and Gucci Marmont bringing up the rear. 


It is also staggeringly, ruinously addictive, which is to say, if you want me I’ll be on Vestiaire. Women make up 80 per cent of active members, most logging on before or after work, which I take to be a euphemism for “every waking hour”. Such is its success that experts speculate that the Big V’s mode of “circular fashion” may save the department store. Selfridge’s — never backward about coming forward in the innovation stakes — trialled a Vestiaire pop-up in 2018, making the arrangement permanent this autumn. 

Vestiaire’s CEO attributes its success to “the uberisation of everything,” that is, the millennial renunciation of ownership in favour of objects “constantly passing through in some sort of way” à la Uber and Airbnb. Its sustainability arguments are much touted. For, lo, one is not shopping so much as cutting carbon, saving the planet, socially engaging, conscious consuming, and the like. Compare early modern Venice, where garments were sold on down the social scale so that the rich bitch’s velvet gown became the middle-class bint’s Sunday best, before being adapted as the washerwoman’s workwear.

Does this mark the end of fashion, or its purest form? Certainly, Vestiaire is keen to create the impression that it is an asset to designer brands, providing some sort of entry level for those Who could not otherwise indulge. This is my experience of it. All my life I have longed for a pair of Roger Vivier’s buckled, block heels, donned by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour. Now I own a pair at a fifth of the (£475) price. Miu Miu’s glitter shoes were previously beyond my means, now I coruscate. There is a picture of Miuccia Prada backstage with Linda Evangelista, the latter clad in a pair of pointed Mary Janes. It is possible I can now claim the very pair. 

So often these flights of fancy will be some slice of fashion history dredged from my subconscious at 4am: the jewel-hued Lanvin cocktail frock, patent Valentino t-bars, or Yves Saint Laurent rose bag. “So it’s a sort of Gen X dementia therapy?” asks a millennial pal. That plus an Aladdin’s cave of a million possible desires, meaning one can conjure up one’s wildest sartorial fantasy. I write this as a woman clad in an emerald fur gilet, if not — yet — an emerald brocade dress.

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