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Vintage appeal: Can second-hand shops weather the storm?

As Oxfam launches its September drive, retailers in the 'pre-loved' fashion market face unprecedented challenges. Rose Mary Roche looks at how stores are adapting

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Ella de Guzmann

Ella de Guzmann

Ella looks through clothes at her second-hand store Siopaella. PHOTOS: MARK CONDREN

Ella looks through clothes at her second-hand store Siopaella. PHOTOS: MARK CONDREN

Michaela Coel fronts Oxfam’s Second Hand September campaign

Michaela Coel fronts Oxfam’s Second Hand September campaign

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Ella de Guzmann

September marks not only the long-awaited return to school, but also the second year of Oxfam's Second Hand September campaign, an initiative that asks the public to abandon their compulsive fast-fashion habit for a month and explore the second-hand marketplace as an alternative.

A shocking 225,000 tonnes of textiles are dumped in Ireland each year - some of which can take up to 200 years to decompose. Landfills are being fuelled by a global culture of throwaway fashion that is recognised as one of the biggest polluters globally.

During lockdown, many embarked on epic clear-outs and were faced with the stark evidence of modern consumption habits - too much stuff bought without consideration or care for the environment. A global reassessment of our patterns of consumption was underway prior to Covid-19, but the disease has highlighted the destruction that the old linear model of continuous growth has wreaked on the environment and poorer societies.

Shopping second-hand pre-pandemic enjoyed increasing popularity as sustainability was adopted by consumers anxious to opt out of the relentless cycle of trends pushed by a rapacious fashion industry. The endorsement by celebrity fans, including Stella Tennant and Michaela Coel (who have both fronted the Oxfam campaign), Kate Moss, Amal Clooney and Princess Beatrice has given second-hand style both a new desirability and visibility.

But how are second-hand clothing retailers faring in a world focused on hygiene and cleanliness?

Will sales of so-called 'pre-loved' clothes and accessories stall in light of anxiety about the Covid-19? With hygiene anxiety and pre-occupations about cleanliness to the fore as schools, creches and business premises reopen amidst masks, sanitisers and recommendations about frequent clothes washing, how are vintage and second-hand retailers coping in this new normal?

Alice Dawson Lyons, Oxfam's head of communications and campaigns, explains how the charity (which was forced to close all its shops during lockdown) has done its best to turn adversity into opportunity.

"We quickly became aware through social media that lots of people were decluttering and clearing out and so we ran a campaign asking people to declutter for us and to save the donations for us," she says.

On reopening in June, she recalls: "We were absolutely overwhelmed and incredibly grateful for the high volume of quality, pre-loved clothes, accessories, shoes, handbags, bric-a-brac, books, DVDs, everything that our shops sell."

All clothing stock received was sorted, steamed and quarantined for 72 hours, while all Oxfam stores now have hand sanitisers, Perspex screens, social distancing signage, and observe limited customers-in-store guidelines.

Now, prompted by the loss of revenue during lockdown, the charity is currently exploring launching an e-commerce platform.

"We're looking at it right now... and I hope that we'd be able to realise it before Christmas 2020 for our network of shops," says Lyons.

She's confident of a strong future for Oxfam's 42 retail outlets.

"After 22 weeks of being reopened right now, we're trading at 88pc based on the same period in the previous year. Our footfall is good, our trading is good," she adds.

At the other end of the market is Ella de Guzmann, founder of Siopaella, Ireland's largest consignment retailer who specialises in pre-loved, luxury bags.

Ella opened her business during the last recession, so is no stranger to adversity, but the pandemic has been challenging on both a professional and personal level.

Ella and her husband Stephen Ryan have closed three of their five retail outlets and are currently quarantining in their cottage in Wexford. Ella is asthmatic and therefore high risk. "We basically packed up four shops and brought it to the cottage when Covid hit in March," she says.

Since then, the couple have pivoted their business to sell pre-loved designer bags online, via twice weekly Instagram Live slots.

During these presentations, where De Guzmann's engaging personality is a key driver, they showcase weekly arrivals, which have been picked up by DHL from clients consigning to the business.

At the end of the show, viewers are directed to the website to buy what they have just seen. It's a move they say has cushioned their business from the dramatic decrease in footfall to their remaining Wicklow Street outlets.

"Our in-store sales have dropped drastically... I think they're down 97pc for in-store, but our online has been keeping the business afloat, so that's up 253pc."

By adapting out of necessity, they have survived. The majority of Siopaella's revenue is now derived from those two nights where up to 1,000 viewers can dip in over a broadcast. Despite working 18-hour days, Ella is positive about the future.

"Our online community has been so supportive... so positive, I think it's tripled in the past three months. I see the digital side of our business getting stronger over the next couple of years and the bricks and mortar stores will act more like satellite 'show' stores."

To this end, she has employed two new team members to build up the clothing side of the business online. She foresees a trend: "It's the micro versus the macro - I think people are starting to respond to smaller businesses as opposed to huge conglomerates."

While Ella plans to pursue a blended digital and physical model, for Yvonne Fitzgerald, owner of consignment shop The Wardrobe in Kilkenny, the pandemic has prompted a move entirely online. "We closed last Saturday and we closed because of Covid," she says.

Having reopened for July and August on Patrick Street, Kilkenny, and experienced reduced footfalls and revenues, she has now decided that online is the future.

Prompted by sales from her social media during lockdown and concerns about her own health (she is 68 and a breast cancer survivor), she is about to launch a new website and will trade exclusively from it.

The Wardrobe will be a totally virtual business - a courier service will collect consigned goods and deliver purchases to clients.

Having weathered two recessions previously, she is keen to act swiftly: "If you don't move, you'll be left behind, so I'm moving very quickly really. To go online is cutting your costs dramatically."

She has observed a "slight pull back because of Covid-19, about handbags in particular. People are going, 'Oh, I don't know if I'd want someone else's bag now', but that's beyond my control".

Like many mature consumers, Yvonne was not familiar with e-commerce prior to the pandemic. "I was never much of an online shopper until lockdown and then I turned into a real expert, really quickly. She believes reinvention is vital now. "A key of any business if there's a problem - make sure you move fast because by the time you move slowly, you run out of cash."

Second-hand retailing will not be extinguished by Covid-19. Rather like the virus, it will mutate and change to adapt to new environments and circumstances. It is still possible to shop second-hand in a smart, stylish and sanitary way, both in-store and online.

With increasing concerns about financial security, the sector may actually receive a boost from the pandemic. Research by Global Data and Thred Up (the largest online thrift shop in the world) claims the industry will be worth more than $41bn by 2022.

De Guzmann says: "I think what this virus has done - it's been brilliant for the sustainable fashion community. It's nature's way of controlling what's happening right now. We were at an unstoppable pace before."

Irish Independent