Loretta Bryant, manager of Haberdashery Resale Clothing Co. on Congress Street in Portland, said selling clothes through the store's Instagram account, which has more than 12,000 followers, has helped buoy the business during the coronavirus pandemic. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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As the coronavirus pandemic has dragged on, dressing up in business casual attire and heading to the office has for many become a distant memory.

But despite fewer people shopping for clothes now than this time last year, Portland’s thrift stores, part of an industry that has exploded in popularity in recent years, have found new ways to survive and see new trends emerging.

“What I’ve noticed most is there is a lot more of an urge to get rid of things,” said Jennifer Rockwell, co-owner of Material Objects on Congress Street. “Everybody and their brother thinks, ‘oh, of course, I’ve had the last 10 months to clean my closet out.’”

Material Objects, which sells consigned, new, and vintage goods, has been in business on Congress Street in Portland since 1979. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Material Objects has been in business since 1979, and offers a mix of new, vintage, and consigned clothing and goods. Rockwell said though she has seen more consignment during the pandemic, there has been less foot traffic outside the store. Consignment has always been conducted by appointment only, but items are not selling as quickly right now.

The fashion resale market has soared in recent years and grew 21 times faster than the general retail market from 2016-2019, according to the 2019 Resale Report by online thrift retailer ThredUp.

In addition to shopping second-hand being more eco-friendly than buying new clothes, the practice of thrifting has surged in popularity with Gen Z and millennials thanks to a resurgence of ’90s fashion trends and influencers showing off their thrifted clothes on social media.

Resale is usually defined as a more curated version of secondhand shopping, and websites like ThredUp and the app Poshmark, which allows users to resell their own clothing to other people, are two of the most popular ways to resell clothes online.

The same report credited the industry growth to thrifted goods being more affordable than new items and being more environmentally friendly. ThredUp’s 2020 Resale Report said the coronavirus pandemic has pushed more people to shop online than in years past. 

The report also corroborates what it calls “the quarantine clean-out frenzy” that Rockwell has seen, and predicts resale will grow by five times over the next five years, while retail is poised to shrink.

Thrifting at stores like Material Objects on Congress Street in Portland has increased in recent years, especially among young people. Shopping second-hand is more environmentally friendly than traditional retail and can offer shoppers authentic vintage finds like ’90s jeans, which are back in style. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Loretta Bryant, manager of Haberdashery Resale Clothing Co. on Congress Street, said she does not worry too much about the popularity of ThredUp or Poshmark eating into sales at her business, where customers tend to be in the 25- to 40-year-old range.

Bryant has listed items on Poshmark herself, so she knows how much effort goes into it: the app requires users to post pictures of their items, and takes a percentage of the revenue. Additionally, if a buyer is not satisfied, the seller must take the clothing back.

“I feel like people are sometimes like, ‘I don’t want to deal with all that,’” she said.

Bryant said digital selling over Instagram, however, is what “saved” Haberdashery during the pandemic. The store has more than 12,000 followers and lists new items on its page with sizing and price details, allowing people to ask for items to be held until they can pick them up at the store.

The store also changed how it displays items on its Instagram; Bryant said they used to just lay clothing or other items on the ground to photograph, but now employees of the store model each item before it’s posted.

Being able to see a piece of clothing “on a body,” she said, is helpful to customers, and Haberdashery especially wants people to be happy with purchases since many have reduced disposable income.

Haberdashery also upgraded its website, Bryant said, and now buys by appointment only due to the small size of the store. The store is following state guidelines, which include setting aside any items that have been tried on for 24 hours before putting them out on the sales floor again.

Bryant also said Haberdashery is “extremely picky” about the items it buys from people, which is a big shift from when the store opened several years ago and bought “anything and everything.”

Erin Kiley, co-owner of Portland Flea For All, also on Congress Street, said as a shop that sells home furnishings, her store has benefited from the fact that most people were stuck at home during the pandemic. As a result, she said, many have tried to “expand the functionality of their homes” by using furniture creatively.

“So the Flea has benefitted, probably, from those trends, (like people) suddenly needing a home office, (or) suddenly needing a dining room table that can do double duty,” Kiley said. 

Like Haberdashery, Flea for All has redesigned its website and buys by appointment only, with a capacity of 15 people despite its 11,000 square feet of space.

The secondhand market has not only grown in popularity with younger people in the last seven years, Kiley said, but also with older people due to a comeback of what she called “mid-century trends” in home design.

“Suddenly it’s become very fashionable to have secondhand pieces in people’s homes,” she said. “It’s not just a matter of thrifting, it’s a matter of design trends.”

Kiley said she has also heard from other vintage and antique stores around the state that sales are “through the roof” right now. Her store has done “well throughout the crisis,” she said, although clothing and jewelry sales have taken a hit.

She thinks a drop in clothing sales can be attributed to people being reluctant to leave their houses and feeling less comfortable shopping in person, and opting for casual clothing and sweats rather than jewelry and dressier fashions.

Rockwell, of Material Objects, agreed with that and said she has seen more customers purchase items like leggings and fleeces this year and has sold more winter parkas than ever before.

“(I’m) squirreling away my sparkly things for later,” she said. “Next year, maybe, when people are celebrating that we can go outside without masks on.”

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