It’s three P.M. on a Sunday afternoon and I can’t take my eyes off my phone.
The buffering circle chases its tail. I refresh, switch networks, but the page doesn’t load any faster. When it does, the item is already up – a little green skirt I’d been eyeing since this particular thrift store announced its “drop.”
In 23 seconds, seven people have commented underneath, per instructions – “book,” “bok,” “bojk.” In frenzied internet free-for-alls, there is little time for spelling. I settle back, defeated. Too slow, once again.
Thrift stores are currently ubiquitous in the Indian Instagram marketplace – that space where internet-hustling twenty-somethings and fashion meet. Once dominated by models and street style posts, it now houses an array of thrift store finds, sales, and Reels.
What started out as a trickle near the end of the 2010s has swelled into a deluge in the recent past, with casual consumers turning influencers, putting their thrift “hauls” out for mass consumption. And the hype to buy only grows, spurred on by the most enduring five-word mantra of the pandemic: when all this is over...
Who can resist a good old-fashioned daydream?
Muanpui H started Lusthrift last summer when India was still grappling with the first wave of the virus. “The idea to start our store came very spontaneously,” she told VICE. “We were amazed by how beautifully second-hand clothes were received by everyone. It didn’t take long, we just had to do it.”
Aleena Shibu, who runs Thrift India, notes a similar inception in May 2020. “One day I came across a thrift store on Instagram and thought to myself that I can start one, too, just to clear out my closet.” Both these stores now have a little over 35,000 followers, most of their drops furiously commented upon by eager shoppers hoping to snag it before someone else does.
The hashtag #thriftindia brings up 271,441 hits on Instagram at the time of writing. “While Instagram shops and garage sales existed pre-2020, the pandemic brought increased on-screen time luxuries to people and the thrift market on Instagram boomed,” Namrata Iyer, founder of The Local Thrift, told The Times of India.
The massive spike in the amount of time spent on our phone also coincided with the Indian government’s ban on Chinese apps last year, after border tensions between the two countries grew. One of those apps was Chinese fast fashion giant, Shein. “The sudden popularity of thrift stores in my belief is [due to] the ban of Shein,” Thrift India’s founder told The News Minute. Young shoppers started looking elsewhere for their fashionable fix, and finding it on Instagram in a kind of fastest-finger-first game – through timed “drops” – made thrifting suddenly thrilling.
This astronomical rise in popularity coincides with trends worldwide. A 2021 Fashion Resale Report on popular thrifting platform, ThredUp, details how the global secondhand market is expected to “double in the next five years, reaching $77B.” Gen Zers and millennials seem to be the driving forces behind this growth, a trend consistent in India as well.
On my first browse, it seemed as though these thrift stores were selling almost everything – corsets, scarves, crossbodies. Summer 2021's Instagram fashion trends are, however, consistent across the board in India: baggy pants, baguette bags, cropped tops. Not surprisingly, all of these are trends currently dominating the fast fashion hemisphere. And thrift stores offer these same items – accessible, seemingly ethical, and most importantly of all, in vogue.
The shift to thrift
So what is it that makes a customer seek out a thrift store instead of just heading to the mall?
“Four years ago, I sort of stopped shopping like I used to. My closet became non-existent, so recently I started thrifting since it seemed like a greener option compared to going to malls,” said Shubangi Ojha, a student who lives in Karnataka.
The fact that malls have largely stayed shut over the past several months may have moved people to discover this form of online shopping, too.
An ethical thrift store provides a plethora of benefits that the local mall doesn’t: re-using promotes sustainability and provides access to products that might be unaffordable off the shelf. Notably, the thrift trend also supports smaller, often local and female-led operations.
Another factor concerns the price point. Conversations about ethical fashion are frequently dominated by the financially privileged, leaving out lower-income communities that turn to fast fashion as a budget-friendly way to shop. Many of the consumers I spoke to for this story were young, and while relatively financially privileged, they lived on student budgets unfriendly to expensive ethical fashion. It’s a key concern: a dress I’d been looking at on slow-fashion store Nicobar cost over Rs 6,000 ($80), while similar styles on thrift stores could be found in the Rs 800-1,000 ($10-$14) range.
The average Indian consumer for thrift stores remains, as I’ve seen it, predominantly middle class or higher, female, and concentrated in metropolitan areas. The owner of Thrift India confirms that “a major percentage of customers are based out of metropolitan cities and are financially privileged,” but notes how this is a consequence of pricing being higher due to the investment and human effort required to facilitate the thrifting process. At a glance, I see these consumers are the same demographic that pioneered the astronomical social media rise of thrift stores – through hauls, Reels and posts that I’d consumed voraciously over the past few months.
Conscious or Consumerist?
But here’s the million dollar question: What does thrifting actually mean for the fashion cycle? The ThredUp report notes that two in five thrifters say they are replacing fast fashion purchases with secondhand clothing.
Creative consultant and stylist Ekta Rajani told VICE, “New consumer values like re-wearing clothes much more before throwing them away, understanding what’s in them and their footprint, understanding who makes them and the kind of work conditions etc. are beginning to be spoken of parallel to, say, good design or cool trends.”
The idea is simple. Thrifting keeps clothes in circulation for longer, which means there are fewer people buying fresh items, leading to a drop in sales and consumption. “That drop in sales will hopefully send a signal to big companies about the change in consumer behaviour and values,” said Rajani.
What about putting clothes back in the circuit? While stores including Lusthrift and Thrift India both source items from “secondhand stores” and “vendors” respectively, very few thrift stores utilise closet-cleanses, or source items directly from the users who owned them first.
A thrift store called Curated Findings, run by Tamanna Chawla and Mushfiqah Alam, is one that offers clothes cycled through straight from closets. “We also provide our platform as a means to resell excess clothing and fashion accessories,” Chawla told VICE over email. “This is done under The Re-Love Project through which we help our audience to clear out their closets with us in return for a small service fee.”
Some stores have also recently begun to customise older items, considerably lengthening their cycle of use, a process popularly termed “upcycling.” Ira Bhasin, a student who’s sworn off mall shopping, said, “I look for stuff that is handmade, and shop from a store that upscales nightgowns to make pretty skirts.”
Stores like these are growing; Lusthrift, too, offers a small selection of up-cycled items, while Flipitt.in focuses on customising and “upcycling” materials, giving them new life.
“Our products are made in extremely small batches,” says Flipitt founder Arunima Gupta who, as a student and Gen Z person herself, understands why their generation loves vintage, secondhand and repurposed shopping. “We do drops occasionally, but we love to make our garments to order.”
The store has a unique twist: they offer co-ord sets and cropped tops made from sarees and kurtas, which are closet staples in India. Local tailors and artisans also offer one of the most accessible ways to upcycle, providing the added benefit of supporting small businesses – with limited access to social media marketing – located right outside the door.
But the biggest problem facing ethical fashion consumption is, ironically, consumption itself. The e-commerce fashion sector is billed at a global market value of $752 billion in 2021 – a staggering figure, growing by the year. While consumers may take a step back from fast fashion, the rise of alternative options means they’re still buying, and doing so in copious amounts. And the drive to consume is dizzying.
Thrift stores often use timed “drops” to put out products, encouraging immediate, almost reflexive purchasing, lest the item be “booked” by somebody else. Influencer promotion “hauls” that blur the lines between review and advertisement also impact shopping choices, and contribute to the very basic sentiment that many – myself included – find themselves most vulnerable to: If it’s secondhand, shouldn’t I be able to have a lot of it?
Trends, too, favour this pattern of impulse, as shoppers find. “The styles are very Y2K or stuff that is trending nowadays and I just feel that it’s marketed right,” said Bhasin. Ojha has an interesting take: “The creators and curators of these businesses, to thrive, depend on their ability to source in-demand pieces.” It’s a tireless cycle then – consume, promote, consume.
“At the end of the day, the most sustainable clothes I can wear are the ones I already own,” said Gowri Krishna, a chemistry graduate based in Kerala, noting this was a dictum she followed religiously. It makes sense. The most environmentally-friendly choice available to young consumers might just be more considered purchasing.
“Wastage and easy disposability hide the true cost of any garment,” said Rajani. “It is only in expanding our idea of conscious consumerism to be about reducing how much we use, reusing what we have and recycling what is possible, that we begin to change our patterns.” It may be less Instagrammable than a thrift store haul, but it just might be the trend the world needs.
As I finish this story, I find myself cleaning my closet out for what feels like the first time in a decade, and find a skirt almost identical to the one I’d wanted so desperately online. It finds a new home on a hanger, and I walk away, vowing to wear it out whenever it is that restrictions ease up. It’s a tiny – but first – step on the path to more responsible fashion consumption.
Follow Karthyayani on Instagram.