Fashion is cyclical but not yet circular. Trends cycle through, making what was once old new again, and as this happens, brands continue producing clothes at breakneck speed. While many designers have adopted sustainable initiatives to curb the industry’s waste, the truth is that true sustainability is circularity. Being sustainable isn’t just about buying eco-friendly clothes, but rather actively creating a consumer culture based on the reuse of goods to reduce overall consumption.
Historically, local thrift stores and now companies like Depop and The Real Real facilitate the consumer-to-consumer transfer of clothing. However, as the vintage luxury market grows—it’s estimated to be valued at $64 billion by 2025—designers themselves are stepping in to build their own consumer-to-consumer retail infrastructures.
Dries Van Noten spent much of quarantine asking himself one question: “how can we slow down fashion?” The Belgian designer started a Zoom working group to discuss industry practices and spearheaded a subsequent open letter calling on the industry to slow down. At the same time, he also designed, and eventually opened, his first store in America. This new store houses a piano, a vinyl room, murals, and, perhaps most notable, two archive rooms, one for menswear and one for womenswear.
Though Van Noten’s brand will retain its full runway archive, the label will sell excess never-worn items from the ‘90s, 2000s, the 2010s, and, in large part due to the pandemic, even 2020. Once COVID is less of a danger, Van Noten also looks forward to selling pre-worn pieces too. People with vintage and worn Van Noten pieces will be able to bring them into the store, where Van Noten’s team will clean and give them, as the designer said on the Business of Fashion podcast, “a second life.”
Van Noten is not the only designer pushing for a circular consumption chain. On July 10, Alaïa reopened its Petite Boutique, which, like Van Noten’s new store, sells both archival and pre-worn pieces. The Petite Boutique, according to curator Anouschka, allows fashion fans to “rediscover signature ‘Azzedine’ pieces.” Plus, Christopher Kane, Ganni, and The Kooples also launched archive sales during lockdown.
Archive sales themselves are not a new practice. Acne Studios, for example, has held semi-regular archive sales since 2016. Meanwhile, other designers have long punted excess clothing to sample sales or outlet malls when it can’t sell. However, Dries Van Noten’s and Alaïa’s brand-affiliated retail spaces are a celebration of archival clothing. These pieces do not just need to be sold, but they are special opportunities to engage with a brand’s heritage. This new practice, along with the brands selling pre-owned items, indicates a shift towards celebrating clothing that may have otherwise reached the end of its life. Just because something is “old,” Van Noten himself said, does not mean it has any less value.
Other brands have partnered with existing companies to sell archive and pre-worn items. In October, Gucci and The Real Real announced a new partnership in which Gucci gave the site a number of archival garments. The Real Real also encouraged consignors to sell Gucci by donating a tree for each Gucci product consigned. The luxury resale site announced a similar partnership with Proenza Schouler this fall to benefit Fashion Our Future 2020, a group dedicated to helping turn out the youth vote for the 2020 election. The Real Real also worked with Stella McCartney and The Vampire’s Wife earlier this year. “Partnering and collaborating directly with brands, as we are with Gucci, is a meaningful way for us to harness their influence to increase exposure to the importance of circular fashion,” CEO Julie Wainwright said.
Other brands have opted to create clothes that they know will be worn again and again. Earlier this year, Ganni and Levi's launched a collaborative capsule collection available through a rental-only platform, Ganni Repeat. Meanwhile a number of designers, including Derek Lam, Prabal Gurung, and Jason Wu, partnered with Rent the Runway to offer exclusive pieces made specifically for the luxury rental site.
Though we are a long way from truly bending supply chains into circles, luxury brands’ increasing eagerness to facilitate the sale of pre-worn and archival clothing reflects a cultural shift. As our collective consciousness about environmental issues grows, the demand for reworn clothing will continue to increase. What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which labels hope to facilitate purchasing these items.