‘Wearing a Piece of History’: Vintage Clothing Stores Find a Growing Market

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Manan Luthra, an intern with the Australia bureau.

Until recently, I had never realized how drab my wardrobe is. I do a bit of acting in my spare time and was booked for a project that required me to source my own outfit. I didn’t think too much about the request — low-budget films often ask actors to wear what they have — but the instruction to find something “bright, colorful and unbranded” was proving difficult.

Looking through my closet, I realized that most of my stuff was monochromatic, faded or emblazoned with a logo. I couldn’t find anything suitable that I liked in the stores near me. In an act of semi-desperation, I decided that what I needed wasn’t something new. It was something old.

And so I traveled to Newtown, a suburb of Sydney known for its quirky retail outlets and abundance of thrift shops, in search of vibrant, brand-free and vintage fashion.

In Newtown, there are too many clothing stores to count. The suburb’s main road is dominated by a plethora of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them vintage fashion outlets. Those outlets sell just about everything, from 1960s-era military jackets to spurred cowboy boots to dusty Mexican ponchos. Offbeat stores have been a part of Newtown’s cultural identity for decades, so I knew I could find the outfit I was looking for there.

Stepping into the first shop I saw, Fabrique Vintage, I was overwhelmed. The single-story space was small, but every conceivable surface had an item for sale. Customers are effectively boxed in by the colorful pants and T-shirts on each rack, the off-white shoes on the store’s floor, and the flamboyant jackets hanging on the walls.

I asked some of the other shoppers in Fabrique why vintage fashion appealed to them. Some said they were shopping for vintage because they liked learning about a garment’s history. Others liked that an item might be rare, or they appreciated nostalgia. Many simply said they liked older clothes “because they look good.”

While “op shops” that sell donated or charitable goods have been around in Australia for decades, commercial stores dedicated to vintage goods only started becoming popular about 10 years ago, primarily in the cultural hubs of state capitals. Vintage shops first catered to older European expatriates, but the shops today sell to a far more diverse customer base.

Most of the clothes come from outside Australia. Ruth Hannan, who co-founded the Sydney-based vintage wholesale company French Fripe with her husband, Jon Orblin, said they got their stock from Eureka Fripe, a partner company based in Normandy in France. Eureka Fripe, in turn, gets its clothes from suppliers around the globe who receive pants, shirts and other items as charitable donations.

“We regularly receive up to 600 kilograms of stock, which we repair, clean, and price before sending on to our clients,” Hannan said. “A lot of work is done to produce something sellable. Only about 10 to 15 percent of what we source are those good-quality, hard-to-find items.

“We still sell the rest of the stock, but it might need to be transformed,” she said. “A hoodie with holes at the bottom can easily become a crop top, for example.”

Hannan and Orblin also operate two vintage retail outlets in Newtown, with plans to open two more in Melbourne later this year.

“Since 2012, our operations have grown between 25 and 50 percent every year,” Hannan said. “Generally speaking, we now do at least 50 times more business than what we were doing 10 years ago.”

Demand continued during the pandemic, she said, both on the retail and wholesale sides. “When we reopened our doors after lockdown, the amount of people who wanted to buy something when they came in to one of our stores was double the pre-lockdown number.”

Australia’s vintage fashion scene is driven by two factors: what wholesalers can source from other markets, and what is trending in Australian fashion at the moment. Hannan said that branded clothing — particularly Nike and Adidas jackets and shirts with a Harley-Davidson logo — have always sold strongly in Australia, unlike in much of Europe, where specific brands quickly go in and out of fashion.

Melody Zeng, area manager for Hannan’s retail stores, believes the charm of vintage fashion lies in its sustainability and history.

“Awareness of the environment has definitely played a part in the appeal of vintage clothing,” Zeng said. “People now ask themselves why they’re spending money on harmful and cheap-quality fast fashion, especially when other better-quality options exist.

“It’s also about wearing a piece of history. It’s not hard to find out when a certain item was produced, or the general area it comes from. When you add that kind of soul to something, it comes alive.”

Australia’s vintage market is too young and niche to have its own look or identity yet, Hannan and Zeng said, but they did say that jackets were trending. That guidance was enough for me.

Seeing a purple and blue tracksuit jacket — the type of thing a ’90s N.B.A. star or a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”-era Will Smith would have worn — I recognized the “soul” that Zeng spoke about. The jacket is heavily creased and has some well-disguised stains, but it grabs attention. You know it has a tale to tell.

Even though the film I was supposed to wear it for was abandoned after it lost funding, it led me to a jacket and an interesting story to tell. I’m looking forward to giving it a proper debut for friends and family.

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