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Can Your Closet Make You Money? Here’s How To Sell Vintage Clothing (2024)

Can Your Closet Make You Money? Here’s How To Sell Vintage Clothing (2024)

If you live for the thrill of scoring a 1970s-era dress at your local thrift store for next to nothing, selling vintage clothing online might be right for you. Having an eye for sourcing and curating vintage is a skill—and it could have benefits beyond your unique wardrobe. 

Vintage shoppers rely on store owners to do the tedious sifting, curating a painless browsing experience of only the best items, in the best condition. And, with rapidly shifting consumer consciousness about where clothes come from, selling vintage clothing is a sustainable business opportunity with a growing market. 

This guide will walk you through each step to building your own brand, and teach you how to sell vintage clothing online—and everywhere else. You’ll learn where to source products, photography tips, pricing strategies, and more, with industry advice from successful vintage sellers.

The vintage clothing market

In the US, the secondhand market is projected to more than double by 2027, reaching $350 billion. The demand has contributed to the success of brands like ThredUp and the growing number of vintage clothing sellers popping up on Etsy and eBay

While there is a lot of competition, there’s no reason you can’t create a unique vintage brand to define your particular taste, away from the crowded marketplaces. But before you get started selling vintage clothing, be sure you understand the terminology.

Vintage vs. antique vs. retro

An antique dress on a mannequin
Clothing more than 100 years old is considered antique, not vintage. Retro clothing refers to anything produced in vintage style in the past 20 years. Pexels

There are a few terms you need to understand as you consider starting a business selling vintage clothing online. 

  • Vintage clothing. Vintage clothing is widely described as anything produced between 20 and 100 years ago. 
  • Antique clothing. Clothing can be considered antique if it’s more than 100 years old. These pieces are more rare and often found in museums or personal collections. 
  • Retro (or repro) clothing. Any item produced today or within the past 20 years in a vintage style cannot be considered vintage. Typically, these items would be referred to as retro or repro (short for reproduction).

How to sell vintage clothing online in 11 steps

  1. Find your angle
  2. Build your vintage clothing brand
  3. Fund your business idea
  4. Source vintage clothes to sell
  5. Manage vintage clothing inventory
  6. Photograph your vintage products
  7. Develop a pricing strategy
  8. Set up your online store
  9. Sell vintage clothing on other channels
  10. Market your vintage clothing business
  11. Set up a shipping and returns strategy

In this guide, you’ll learn how to sell vintage clothes with help from founders of four successful vintage clothing businesses. Through their stories, glean best practices for sourcing vintage items and setting up your own business.

1. Find your angle

Every successful business starts in the same place: with a great small business idea. While you may just elect to pick and sell what you like, consider choosing a niche within the vintage clothing world to help your business stand apart. 

Two vintage looks styles on dressforms

You may choose to sell vintage clothing within one of the following niches:

  • A decade or decades, say the 1920s or the 1980s 
  • A specific purpose or occasion, like evening wear or athletic wear
  • High-end vintage designer clothing
  • A niche item, like vintage band tees
  • Reworked or reclaimed styles (adapting vintage clothing into new pieces) 
  • New retro clothing in a vintage style (read our guide on starting a clothing line)
  • Trending styles, like ’90s revival

Dayna Atkinson, founder of FYRE VINTAGE, found her groove in reimagining vintage pieces by cutting them apart and stitching them back together in new ways. “I have a good mix of regular vintage and reworked vintage, which makes my shop unique,” she says.

Once you’ve landed on a niche, run it through a series of tests before you commit: 

  • What’s your style? You’ll naturally find sourcing vintage clothing easier when you play up your own aesthetic. You’re already familiar with the brands, and your eye will naturally spot good finds among crowded thrift racks.
  • Is your niche too limited? If you choose a slice of vintage that’s too specific, you may have difficulty sourcing enough inventory. Be sure you can establish reliable sources for your niche.
  • Is it too saturated? Are there already too many shops that sell vintage clothing in the same niche? If so, how can you differentiate your offering?
  • Should you follow a trend or start a new one? What’s happening on the runways any given season, as well as influencer trends, can help dictate your direction. Vintage clothing sells better if it translates to a modern style or lifestyle.

2. Build your vintage clothing brand

Portrait of vintage store owner Dayna Atkinson
FYRE VINTAGE’s brand is based on reimagined vintage clothing including cropped cardigans, like this one pictured on owner Dayna Atkinson. FYRE

Building a solid brand for your vintage business will help you find a relevant audience, create a guide for future hires as you expand, and keep your focus consistent.

It’s important that you define your vintage clothing brand at this early stage. Answering a few questions will help you tell your brand story, carve out your visual aesthetic (or brand identity), capture your mission, and more clearly envision your ideal customer. 

You will continue to reference your brand guidelines as you design your site and curate your collection. And, as you scale and hire staff, these guidelines will also help keep your messaging consistent. 

3. Fund your business idea

Today’s tools and technology mean you can launch your vintage business from your home with very little initial investment. 

This is, however, a business model that requires you to buy inventory upfront—unless you opt for a consignment model (paying for the items after they are sold). You can also bootstrap and sell vintage clothing piece by piece on an online marketplace, using sales to buy more inventory.

As you scale, consider how long your living space will be able to handle your storage needs, and plan ahead for when you may need to upgrade to a dedicated office or warehouse space.

Seán Domican and Oisín Manning started Durt Co. Vintage with personal savings and bootstrapped as they grew. They are careful to closely manage cash flow. Due to the nature of the business, having cash on hand is essential for buying one-of-a-kind stock as it becomes available. 

💰Other funding sources for your vintage business include:small business loans, VC and angel funding, crowdfunding, and bootstrapping. Once your Shopify store is up and running, you may also qualify for Shopify’s financial products.

4. Source vintage clothes to sell

A three pan image showing different vintage looks on one model
COAL N TERRY sources vintage clothing items within a specific niche. COAL N TERRY

There are a few ways to source inventory when you are looking to sell vintage clothing. These include thrift stores, auctions, and wholesalers. Let’s explore the number of ways to buy vintage clothing items.

Vintage thrifting

When you’re starting out in the world of selling vintage clothes, local thrift shops can be excellent sources of vintage finds. If you have the patience and eye for scouring racks and don’t need a ton of inventory, start there. There are a few best practices for finding vintage clothes to sell online. 

  • Go often and on the right days. Many stores get shipments on specific days. Ask the store staff for that information and plan your visits around those days.
  • Have a plan. Save time and money by clearly defining the items you’re looking for before you start. If you have help, create a clear style guide with helpful identifiers.
  • Carefully inspect items before purchasing. Thrift stores often don’t have the same quality standards as curated vintage stores, and items may have stains or other damage. “Take the time at the end of your shopping trip to analyze everything in your cart for any imperfections,” says Dayna.
  • Know your stuff. Study old fashion magazines to look for telltale signs from specific eras, such as tags, zipper placements, and cuts.
  • Keep large bags and cash on hand. You never know when you might stumble upon a vintage clothing sale.
A business owner walks along the street carrying IKEA bags full of vintage clothing
“Always carry extra IKEA bags in your car and have cash,” says OMNIA founder Naomi Bergknoff. OMNIA

OMNIA founder Naomi Bergknoff still hits thrift stores whenever she travels, and her clothing is picked from a number of sources, including collectors and her customers. Regardless of the source, she says she’s always selective: “I’m always thinking about what I’m attracted to and what I know my customers will like to see.”

Other sources for finding vintage clothing

Don’t stop at thrift shopping. There are many places to find treasures if you’re willing to dig. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Auctions. Sign up to receive notifications for auctions in your area. Some of these take place in person, but there are several online auction sites, like eBay and MaxSold.
  • Estate sales. These can be a goldmine for a lot of vintage clothes in one place. Stay on top of upcoming sales by getting on the email list of local estate sale management companies. 
  • Online marketplaces and classifieds. Sites like Craigslist might turn up some treasures, as well as listings for garage sales, moving sales, or estate sales. 
  • Pickers. Once you’ve built up your business, consider outsourcing by hiring a picker. This could be a person who simply makes the rounds to thrift shops on a regular basis.
  • Wholesalers. Sign up as a trade customer with wholesalers to gain access to vintage in bulk and at wholesale pricing.
  • Consignment programs. Set up a program to buy or consign vintage items from your customers or site visitors. Consignment is a low-risk arrangement that involves paying the owner only if you sell the item.
  • Flea markets. Showing up early means first dibs, but you’ll get the best deals at the end of the day and the end of flea market season, when dealers are looking to unload stock.
  • Collectors. Private collectors may be interested in working with you to unload some of their stock. 

Working with wholesalers

Vintage clothing wholesalers generally get their stock by picking from thrift store cast offs that end up in overseas rag houses. Pickers then cull any items that can be sold to vintage shops through wholesalers. 

In Ireland where Seán says vintage hasn’t quite caught on the way it has in other parts of the world, the options were slim for Durt. Finding a wholesaler gave them access to bulk vintage clothing—and they can review the stock virtually. “Someone has a tripod with a camera and they just go through clothes and pick for you,” Seán says.

The team behind COAL N TERRY also built wholesale relationships to free up their time and expand the business. “They already know what kinds of things we are looking for,” co-founder Azeezat Owokoniran-Jimoh says. “Sometimes we get high-fashion brands.” 

5. Manage vintage clothing inventory

A clothing rack filled with vintage clothing in a boutique

Without a plan, vintage inventory can start to feel like a disorganized thrift store. Unlike stores with limited product listings (and multiple units within each), vintage clothes are usually one of a kind. Once you start scaling selling vintage clothes, a messy system can be detrimental to efficiency.

Develop a system to help sort, store, and identify items to simplify shipping and fulfillment. Processing incoming vintage clothing in batches, Durt stores items using a numerical system—each new piece is tagged, numbered, and placed on racks in order. “Now we know where it is if someone orders it,” says Seán. 

Vintage inventory tips

  • Consider air quality. Store vintage items in temperature- and humidity-controlled environments (not musty basements), protected from moths and other fabric pests. 
  • Use garment bags. These can help keep dust from settling on items and protect them during handling, but avoid plastic—it can trap moisture.
  • Use padded hangers only. Wire hangers can cause unwanted rips, creases, or even stains if they rust. Some wood hangers can also cause damage, depending on the finish.
  • Avoid sun. Keep vintage clothes out of natural light—sun can fade colors.
  • Use the right storage. Use plastic bins (never cardboard boxes) for accessories and open racks for clothing so that everything is visible and accessible. 
  • Protect clothing. Be mindful of sequins or embellishments that can catch on the delicate fabrics of other garments.
  • Stay organized. COAL N TERRY sorts its racks by type—pants, tops, denim—and then by color, so any of its staff can easily locate items. 

Cleaning and repairing vintage clothing

An array of sewing supplies arranged in a flatlayEven though you’re selling vintage clothing—essentially a used product—customers will expect that your items arrive clean and in the condition described. If there are permanent stains, rips, or other damage, they may still have value and be desired by a customer. But be sure to clearly describe and photograph the damaged areas to avoid surprises—and returns.

Tips for cleaning and repairing vintage clothing

  • Check the label, and follow care instructions. If labels are missing, assess the item’s fabric composition, soil level, and condition, and research the best method for cleaning. 
  • Use a steamer. If the item is relatively clean, a clothes steamer can remove odors and wrinkles, and is preferable to ironing.
  • Hand wash. Use this method for delicate pieces and remove stains the Smithsonian way.
  • Find a reliable dry cleaner. Look for a cleaner that has experience with vintage textiles or specializes in delicate fabrics. 
  • Find a reputable tailor. You can also learn basic sewing techniques to repair simple damage like missing buttons or fallen hems. 
  • Separate your colors. Durt discovered this the hard way when a red item turned an entire load of clothes pink.
  • Consider upcycling. This is a great way to use pieces of vintage clothing that are too damaged or soiled to sell as is. 

6. Photograph your vintage products

Product photography in a vintage business is an ongoing task. Unlike other clothing stores that may schedule shoots once per season or as new collections are released, vintage merchants have a steady intake of inventory, all of which needs to be individually shot. 

Building an in-house photo studio

COAL N TERRY’s owners do all of their clothing photography in-house with a basic fixed studio setup, including a DSLR, tripod, simple lighting kit, and white seamless background. The setup is permanent, which means that the photography looks consistent on collection pages, even though the items may have been shot weeks apart. 

Shooting in tiny spaces

A basic photo studio setup for clothing brands
Durt’s photography setup. Durt

If you’re planning to sell vintage clothing from home or in a small space like an apartment, a permanent studio setup may be unrealistic. In this case be sure to keep your equipment stored in one place for easy setup and tear down.

Take note of tripod placement, camera settings, and lighting conditions so you can recreate the look each time you shoot. And, shoot in batches (say, weekly or biweekly) rather than item by item. 

Outsourcing photography

You may decide that your photo skills aren’t up to scratch and you’d rather work with an existing studio. Do some upfront prep to maximize your studio time. “I plan out the outfits a day or two before the shoot and put them on the rack in the order I want to shoot them in,” says Dayna.

DIY vintage clothing photography guidelines

A two pane image of the same model wearing a dress in two different poses
A variety of shots that capture the piece styled on a model, or even in motion, can help your customers visualize how to wear the garment or how the fabric might flow. OMNIA

Follow these guideline to help you get the most out of your photo shoots:

  • Replicate the in-store experience. When you sell vintage clothing, it’s important that you recreate the personalized shopping experience of an in-store purchase, as customers will not be able to touch, feel, or try on your clothing. 
  • Capture every angle. Shoot a variety of images: the full garment on a model or mannequin, zoomed-in details like stitching or buttons, a close-up of the original label, and any noted flaws or damage.
  • Supply inspo. Inject fun and inspiration into basic product shoots. If possible, show the items on a model (even if that’s just you and a camera timer) and with accessories to show how each item can be styled.
  • Shoot in batches. “Dividing the stock into weekly collections makes it easier to manage as a batch process,” Naomi says. She does weekly “drops” on her site after measuring, prepping, and shooting a batch of vintage clothes at once. 
  • Work with the resources you have. When Naomi can’t shoot on models, she finds other ways to be creative, like styling vintage clothing on a dress form. “If styled with care, it can look really great,” she says. 
  • Forget about expensive equipment. “We noticed that our customers tend to respond better to pictures taken with our phones as opposed to photos from professional shoots,” says Azeezat. 
  • Don’t skimp on lighting. “I like using natural light, but that can be fickle,” says Naomi. Basic lighting kits and off-camera flashes can be relatively inexpensive and are a key component of your photography toolkit.

7. Develop a pricing strategy 

When you sell vintage clothes, follow the same basic rules for pricing products for ecommerce—be sure to factor in the cost of the item and other overhead and expenses. But forget standard pricing formulas (multiplying wholesale cost by X), because you also need to factor in vintage clothing value. 

Each piece will need to be considered independently, but you may want to stick within a specific range, depending on your ideal customer. “I make an effort to keep my pricing consistent so my customers know what to expect,” says Dayna.

Price vintage clothes according to:

  • Rarity
  • Age
  • Wearability
  • Demand
  • Condition
  • Trend (is the style of the garment currently in fashion)
  • Label (is it a luxury brand or fast fashion) 

The best way to determine selling price is to search for similar vintage items on vintage marketplaces like eBay or Etsy. Are there a ton of the same? Your selling price decreases. Is your item in better condition than others like it? Your selling price increases. 

For very old, rare, or couture items, consider an appraisal service or consult experts in the vintage community. “It’s rare that we have a piece that requires appraisal,” says Naomi. “But once in a while I’ll ask fellow vintage dealers for their expertise.” You don’t want to miss a rare gem and sell vintage clothes far below their value.

💡Tip: Check Google trends and keyword search volume to see if there is actually demand for the item. Your piece may be rare, but if there’s not much demand, that could affect your pricing.

8. Set up your online store

Ecommerce store homepage for Omnia vintage clothing

You’re now ready to set up a basic website on a platform like Shopify to start selling vintage clothes online. Most ecommerce platforms have a free trial so you can play around before committing. Let’s dig into some of the steps to building your website.

Store design

When setting up your first Shopify store, you can easily customize the design with your own branding without needing to code. There are several standard Shopify themes to choose from—some free and some paid—that you can tweak with colors, fonts, and custom navigation.

As you grow, you may choose to customize your site even more. If you need help with code or design, consider hiring a Shopify Expert.

Critical ecommerce pages

Don’t forget to invest in your About page. This is the place where your brand story lives; it tells your customers what you’re about (decades you focus on, your inspiration, etc.), and it could share information about your mission, your sustainability statement, and links to your FAQ and Contact pages. 

Your FAQ page should clearly indicate that vintage items are used/worn and one of a kind. This is a great place to educate your customers on sizing, garment care, and your condition ratings. You may also use this page as a one-stop shop for shipping and customer service information, such as postal rates per country and your return policy.

Product pages and collections

Product page copy is incredibly important for setting customer expectations when you sell vintage clothing. It also can improve SEO (search engine optimization), and minimize returns. Vintage clothes require more specific information than new clothing, like measurements, history, and condition. “Every item and body is unique, so finding ways to effectively communicate what a garment is through a website is key,” says Naomi. 

Collection pages will help organize your online store and keep it from looking like a rummage sale. Consider organizing vintage clothing inventory into collections by era, color, occasion, item type, or season. “We do specialty collections around seasons, holidays, and various themes,” says Naomi. This exercise will also help with SEO and navigation.

An ecommerce product page for vintage clothing store OMNIA
Your product page should contain as much information about each item as possible, including measurements and condition, as well as a mix of full body and detailed photos. OMNIA
Product page tips for vintage clothing sellers
  • If the label is missing, search for similar items online to learn more information about the garment. In some cases, it will be an educated guess—do your best. 
  • Develop a consistent system for sizing. Include waist, hip, sleeve, and chest measurements in both inches and centimeters.
  • Define a list of terms to describe the condition of vintage items, and use terminology consistently throughout the site. Create a condition chart or glossary like this one, and link to it from product pages.
  • If known, add fabric composition and care instructions to the description. 
  • Tell a story. If the item has a known history, share it on the product page. Maybe you sourced it from the estate sale of someone famous, or it’s similar to something worn on a bygone red carpet. 

Getting ready to launch

When you launch, be sure your website is ready to receive traffic. Seán and Oisín generated hype around their business by building social audiences prior to launch, and they weren’t ready for the impact. “After one of our TikTok videos took off, a stream of people were visiting the unfinished site,” says Seán. 

9. Sell vintage clothing on other channels

“Something that helped me over the years was diversifying where I sold,” says Naomi. “Mixing online with in-person events and vintage markets was a great way to bridge the gap with local customers, move product, and make new connections.”

Online marketplaces and social selling channels

There are multiple online selling sites for vintage clothing brands, and the good news is that you don’t have to pick just one. Having your own dedicated website gives you full control over design, is helpful for reaching customers through organic search, and acts as a hub for your brand. 

With Shopify, you can integrate with marketplaces like Etsy that have audiences seeking vintage items. Apps for clothing stores help sync your inventory across multiple sales channels. 

Reach customers everywhere they are with Shopify

Shopify comes with powerful tools that help you promote and sell products on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Google, and YouTube from one back office. Make sales on multiple channels and manage everything from Shopify.

Explore Shopify’s sales channels

Selling locally and in-person

Durt opted to sell only to customers in Ireland, where the founders say competition for vintage is low. If you don’t have a dedicated retail space, look for other opportunities to sell in person, like a local clothing and vintage market or a pop-up booth at festivals.

10. Market your vintage clothing business

There are several ways to get the word out and attract customers to your store—some paid, some organic. 

Social marketing for vintage businesses

The beauty of one-of-a-kind is the availability of content. With new items arriving constantly, COAL N TERRY uses Instagram to quickly get iPhone snaps in front of its loyal customers right away.

Azeezat and Dare grew their business on social media without spending money on any formal advertising. They rely on shoutouts from celeb or influencer partners, and user-generated content in the form of customer photos. “We actively ask customers to share their photos,” says Azeezat. Durt sends vintage clothing to influencers in Ireland. “We never really ask people to post,” says Seán. “But 90% of the time they post anyway.”

Dayna similarly has had success with Instagram, using the platform to announce product drops.

Depending on your audience and personality, you may have success marketing your products on video-based platforms like TikTok or YouTube. Try showcasing new products or taking fans behind the scenes.

Email marketing

“The weekly newsletter is successful in driving traffic to our new arrivals,” says Naomi, who uses email marketing as a way to communicate when new batches have dropped. Email marketing is a great tactic for rewarding repeat customers, giving them advance access to new vintage clothing items or other loyalty rewards. 

Organic search and content marketing

When building your site, invest time in organic marketing strategies. Understanding SEO and how to use it to send organic traffic to your site is a great way to grow your business when you’re on a budget. That means considering the keywords and search terms your customer might be using to find you.

You can also drive traffic through your site with content marketing. Use blogs or short video and create content that answers questions, weighs in on a relevant topic, or cashes in on a popular meme. Relevant, consistent, and timely content can help you build an audience and gather email leads.

Loyalty and repeat customers

You’re in a great position as a vintage clothing reseller to have a revolving door of new and unique items constantly hitting the site. Investing in your existing customers is key because there will always be something new to help bring them back. Consider setting up customer accounts, reward programs, and discounts.

Little extras tucked in your unboxing experience can inspire delight in your customers and get them sharing their experiences with friends and online.

11. Set up a shipping and returns strategy

View inside an ecommerce studio full of shipping packages

Setting up a shipping strategy means deciding where you’ll ship, the carriers you’ll work with, the rates and options you’ll offer to customers, and how you’ll handle returns for your vintage clothing business. 

Sustainability is something more and more consumers are considering as they shop. If you’re attracting customers based on the sustainable nature of vintage, you can take it a step further by using sustainable packaging for your shipping.

Sell internationally in minutes with Shopify Markets

Shopify Markets helps you sell to multiple countries and scale your business internationally—all from a single Shopify store. Manage store localization, shipping, duties, and compliance all in one place.

Discover Shopify Markets

Build a future with looks from the past

Now that you’re armed with everything there is to know about selling vintage clothes online, is it still the right business for you? The key to success is a healthy balance of born-with-it good taste and a viable niche, mixed with great curation, presentation, and branding. If that’s you, it’s time to count down to your grand opening.

“Be one with the hustle!” says Naomi. “It’s truly a labor of love and requires a lot of attention and energy, as well as a genuine affinity for customer service.”

Feature image by Pete Ryan

Selling vintage clothing FAQ

How do I sell vintage clothing?

Selling vintage clothing is easier than ever, with multiple ways to get old finds into the hands of new customers. Source vintage clothes from thrift stores, auctions, or wholesalers. Then, set up your own online store and market to your target audience.

What is the best place to sell vintage clothes?

You can sell vintage clothing online through your own dedicated ecommerce store. This is the best way to reach customers directly and build lasting relationships. Selling online through marketplaces is also beneficial as a secondary channel. Consider in-person sales opportunities as a way to network locally and find new customers.

Is it worth selling vintage clothes?

If you are looking to sell vintage clothes online or in a vintage clothing store, it can be a profitable business. Invest time in building a solid brand, finding a niche with a healthy market, and using all the marketing tools at your disposal. Also be sure to price your clothing items in a way that accounts for your expenses and profit margin.

This originally appeared on Shopify and is available here for wider discovery.
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