Think of vintage or secondhand clothing and you are likely to picture wacky prints, T-shirts advertising long-ago band tours, and floral tea dresses. All of which are great, if retro is your thing, but what if you like a more understated look? With campaigns such as Oxfam’s Second Hand September urging us to buy only secondhand clothes for 30 days, is it possible to use such purchases as the building blocks for a capsule wardrobe?
“People are driven to secondhand for many different reasons,” says Fanny Moizant, co-founder of the resale site Vestiaire Collective. “Building a unique wardrobe is one of them,” she says. “It’s exciting to hunt for stand-out pieces that you won’t find anywhere else.” Another reason, she says, is the wish to be more eco-friendly. “As we’re seeing a shift towards consuming more consciously, I think the concept of investing in quality pieces that will last you for years and building a secondhand capsule wardrobe is becoming more appealing.”
The items in your capsule wardrobe will vary, depending on lifestyle and taste, but these are the clothes you wear again and again, and don’t have to fret about. Among the experts, common themes emerge.
Moizant’s “uniform” is generally made up of “a pair of jeans or high-waisted trousers, a T-shirt or a piece of knitwear and then, depending on the day, I’ll wear sneakers, loafers or heels”. For Bay Garnett, a stylist and vocal proponent of “thrifting” – shopping for fashion in secondhand shops – it means “a long black skirt, a shirt, a grey T-shirt, a denim shirt, a lovely cashmere sweater and a blazer”.
For Holly Watkins, who has been selling secondhand clothes for decades, starting on market stalls and now selling via her shop One Scoop Store, it would include “a couple of good pairs of jeans … a couple of good shirts – I like a white shirt and a striped shirt, a denim jacket and blazer.” Sophy Grattidge and Dexter Burgess-Hunt, who run Sylk Store, on online resale site Depop, think that “every wardrobe needs a classic pair of high-waisted trousers” as well as a basic T-shirt, some vintage denim jeans and “a minimal relaxed shirt.” All of them buy most of their wardrobes secondhand – and here is how they do it.
Knowing whether a pair of jeans will be comfy enough to wear during lockdown or will end up being supremely uncomfortable can be hard. Watkins goes for secondhand men’s Levi’s 501s, which she has been wearing since she was a teenager. “For me, vintage denim is really good,” she says. “In the 20 years I’ve been selling, there’s still a massive demand.”
For all jeans, she says: “You’ve got to try them.” If it is your first time buying jeans of a certain brand, this might involve a bit of work. “Either buy them online somewhere you know does returns or go to a vintage shop. Set aside a bit of time,” she says.
If you are at a car boot sale or in another situation where trying on is tricky, Watkins has a tip from her time working on a market stall: “Put the waistband around your neck. If it fits, it will supposedly go round your waist.” It might sound a bit hocus-pocus but, she is adamant: “It does work.”
An alternative is to “hold the waistband from your middle finger to your elbow. If that fits as well, it should fit round your waist.” It does not mean they are going to fit perfectly, but they will do up. “It’s a good trick if you’re out and about,” she says.
Once you have found a pair of vintage jeans that fits well, use them as a template if you want to buy jeans online in the future. “Know the brands that work for you and also your sizing and preferred fit,” says Moizant. If you have a clear idea of what works, set alerts or wish list items on resale sites. “That way, you won’t miss out,” she says.
“Shirts are a bit tricky because they can often be a bit knackered,” says Watkins. She recommends looking at the menswear section in charity shops. “A small man’s shirt can look really nice, or oversized.” And she suggests opting for fabrics such as silk and cotton rather than synthetic fibres.
That illusive classic, the perfect white shirt is, she concedes, hard to find secondhand, because they are often a bit stained. But while she has had a few over-bleaching accidents, she says a little cup of bleach, or Vanish for whites “is brilliant if you soak it”. The manufacturer suggests soaking for half an hour, but Watkins recommends soaking overnight: “You’ll be amazed what comes out.” She also recommends using white vinegar on underarm stains.
Whether you are looking for something neat for the office, or oversized and Flock of Seagulls-esque, there will be a secondhand blazer out there for you.
“Take the time to identify what you are looking for,” says Moizant. If you are searching online: “Make sure you refine your search and do a bit of research. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller more questions or details on specific measurements.”
If a blazer arrives that, despite your diligent measuring, does not fit, don’t be afraid to play around with it, says Watkins, who often unpicks linings and takes out shoulder pads to soften the shape and make it sit a little closer to the body. Unless you or a friend sew, it is worth getting to know your local dry cleaner. “Most will have pretty skilled seamstresses working there who can take a blazer in for £12-15. You can try it on and they’ll fit it to you,” she says.
Garnett recommends being a bit gung-ho about blazers: “If it looks a bit manky, just try it on, because sometimes slightly manky jackets can look so stylish – ones that are a bit rough around the edges or look too big. “Give it a go, see how it feels. You will sometimes be surprised.”
Ebay is full of old cashmere jumpers that are worth a look. Garnett also recommends going to a charity shop and looking in the men’s section for an old V-neck. Moizant is a big fan of oversized turtlenecks, which “never really go out of style”. She advises: “Go for brands you are familiar with and classic silhouettes that you know are timeless and can go with any occasion.”
But there is one word on everyone’s lips: moths. “I find loads of great knitwear, but it’s damaged,” says Watkins. “The moths will get any decent fabrics, sadly.”
When you are shopping for vintage, hold jumpers up to the light, put your arms through the sleeves and stretch them out to take a proper look for moth damage. “You don’t want to be bringing something back into your house that might have moths’ eggs,” says Watkins.
If you do get something home and it has more holes than than you thought, Watkins recommends invisible mending: “Unless it’s completely ravaged, I’ll take it on.” If you don’t have those skills, they can easily be learned. Here, too, says Watkins, the dry cleaner’s seamstresses can be a valuable resource.
Of course, there is always contemporary secondhand. “You can definitely find modern cashmere secondhand,” says Watkins. She recommends eBay and says that, as long as people are honest about the condition of what they are selling, you should be OK.
Grattidge and Burgess-Hunt recommend having cloth bags in your wardrobe: “These will protect your clothes from moths … and keep items from losing their shape due to hanging.”
A good pair of trousers
A pair of smart trousers will be in many people’s capsule wardrobe. “If I look for black trousers, I look for brands such as Comme des Garcons, Yohji, Yves Saint Laurent … the shapes stand the test of time,” says Watkins. “In terms of modern secondhand, I always think brands such as Joseph are good – brands like that are fairly easy to pick up.” Look for good fabrics like wool and know your measurements.
If sellers do not provide measurements online then, Watkins says, don’t be afraid to ask them – she doesn’t put them as standard on her site, but is always happy to send them to someone if they ask. “It only takes a second,” she says.
As with jeans, once you have found a pair of trousers that works for you, study the measurements and seek other trousers with a similar fit.
While they may not have always been considered a staple, tracksuit bottoms are now at the top of many people’s lists.
“I love a good tracky,” says Watkins. She is still searching for a replacement for the greatest pair she ever owned – a pair by Sweaty Betty, made from pure merino wool, “that didn’t get baggy knees”, and which she picked up in a charity shop. Brands such as Joseph, Acne and Ganni, pricey firsthand, are worth looking out for secondhand.
The old vintage tracksuits are quite different from what people are looking for now, in this era of upscale loungewear, says Watkins. Having said that, she is a fan of Fruit of the Loom, items from which come up regularly on eBay or Depop.
A plain white T-shirt
“White T-shirts and vests and underwear are the only things where you have to think: ‘Maybe there’s not a secondhand way around this,’” says Watkins. Garnett agrees that plain white T-shirts are hard to find secondhand: “People wear those out.” For Moizant, whose wardrobe is made up of 80% secondhand garments, an organic cotton T-shirt is one of the few simple basics she might buy new.
Before giving in and buying them new, you could look for items listed on reseller websites as “new with tags” and you might get lucky with someone who has bought a T-shirt from Gap or Cos, but wants to sell it on unworn for whatever reason. “It is quite rare, but very occasionally you’ll find that sort of thing,” says Watkins.
For Garnett, it is about thinking outside the box. “Maybe you can’t get a white T-shirt secondhand … [but] what you can do is find a great grey T-shirt,” she says. She is not, she says, thinking about vintage rock T-shirts of the kind many people associate with Camden or Manchester vintage basements, but she is also not talking about a pristine white brand new Sunspel T-shirt either. She cites the plainish grey 1986 Nike T-shirt that she got from Oxfam and is wearing when we speak. “It does exactly the same job as a white T-shirt,” she says.
Any other tips?
“Classics are out there,” says Garnett. It is “about having a really open mind and trying stuff on”. While there is definitely something to be said for having a reference point in mind for what you are after – which will, not least, help to avoid those random impulse buys – Garnett also advises not setting your parameters too rigidly in a charity shop. “It’s about being realistic. You can’t do the same wishlist as if you were on a fashion website.”
She has another piece of advice for the sometimes long search for good secondhand clothes online: “It’s a bit like deciding to go for a leisurely walk as opposed to a run around. It’s about wanting to do it.” Also, she says: “Always have a look in the men’s section.”
In a tip that will probably appeal to many people’s sense of a capsule wardrobe, Watkins recommends black. “You can fix a hole and make a right mess of it and you won’t be able to see it,” she says.
If budget is an issue, think topsy turvy with your seasons – it might feel counterintuitive to look for a winter coat in the heat of July and a summer frock during the frosts of winter, but you will find more bargains. She often gets to winter having forgotten about an amazing Joseph coat she picked up cheaply because she bought it in August.
It is about knowing a few brands you like for the things you consider the basics, but perhaps can’t afford firsthand, and then setting alerts online, from eBay to Vestiaire. “This means you will be notified when they go live,” says Moizant, “which I find super useful.”
For my two cents, I suggest finding some secondhand private sellers online who seem to be roughly your size and whose style you like. I came across one seller on Instagram recently who, like me, seems to be tiny and often sells items from her small to extra-small wardrobe that are up my street. The secondhand Max Mara silk shirt I bought from her recently is already a firm favourite.
It can be hard if you have found a shirt that is perfect in every way, but has a tiny splodge of who knows what on it, but Garnett is adamant: “I never buy stuff that’s stained.” Would she ever recommend buying it anyway in the hope of getting the stain out? “I’d have to really love it.”