HONG KONG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Joleen Soo flicked through racks at the launch of Hong Kong’s first “pre-owned” designer warehouse, stopping to examine Prada and Dries Van Noten outfits with tags showing up to 95 percent off their retail price.
Soo, founder of sustainable brand consultancy Catalysta, is just one of a growing flood of young Hong Kong residents frequenting a walk-in warehouse in the industrial Wong Chuk Hang area – and spurning the old Chinese superstition that second-hand clothes carry bad luck.
“I would buy these amazing pieces and bring them home over the holidays, and my mum would be horrified,” remembered Soo, who discovered vintage stores while studying in America.
In the United States, the resale clothing market has grown 21 times faster than the retail market over the past three years, according to data analytics firm GlobalData.
The world’s largest online thrift store thredUP predicted in March that the second-hand clothing market in the United States would be larger than fast fashion by 2028.
Even consulting firm McKinsey said in a report in November that it foresees “the end of ownership” in fashion, as pre-owned, refurbished, rental and repair models evolve.
But in Hong Kong - a city that thrives on luxury and never being seen in an outfit twice – it’s taken time for customers to begin flocking to resale websites such as Retykle and Guiltless, non-profit pop-ups like Redress, and stores including HULA and OnceStyle.
Sarah Fung, who set up the HULA warehouse store Soo visited, hopes to prolong the life of well-designed pieces and reduce waste in an industry where three-fifths of clothing ends up in incinerators or landfill within a year of being made, according to a 2016 McKinsey report.
“I started to feel a bit sick from the amount of clothing that was constantly being produced,” said Fung, who previously worked at luxury retailer Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.
Garments had a short shelf-life, Fung said. Her job was to make sure people bought clothing at full price, before it was put on the sale floor “and then deemed rubbish”.
Now the graduate of Central St. Martins art school in London is one of a growing group of fashion insiders in this bustling former British colony who are urging Hong Kong residents to rethink how they buy luxury-brand clothes.
Fung offers customers a line of quality “pre-loved” garments both online and now through the store, debunking the idea that such clothes are undesirable or old.
That gives them the chance to have “many lives with different people”, Soo said.
HULA’s online sales have tripled each year since 2016, Fung noted.
Another Lane Crawford retail alumni, Sarah Garner, set up children’s clothing resale site Retykle in 2016. Its sales grew 400 percent last year, and the platform is nearing 10,000 sellers and buyers, reselling 1,000 items each week, she said.
The potential of the Chinese market is so large that global fashion resale site Vestiaire Collective established its Asia-Pacific headquarters and a logistics hub in Hong Kong in January 2018.
Vestiaire Collective co-founder Fanny Moizant said demand has gone “through the roof” for its one-stop VIP consignment service, which includes collection of used clothing, setting of prices and product description and photography.
The site saw its active users grow more than 200 percent in Asia in 2018, and it now has a rising number of affluent customers from China, she said.
In mainland China, online platforms like Idle Fish and Zhuan Zhuan are offering new avenues to sell “idle” items as more Chinese say they intend to buy secondhand, Jialin Ma and Shumei Li wrote in an academic thesis published in 2018 at the University of Boras in Sweden.
Since launching last March, Idle Fish has recycled more than 8,500 tonnes of unwanted clothes - about 24 million garments - in China, a nation of 1.4 billion people. Sellers are awarded “green power” points that help pay to plant trees in China.
Blogger Belinda Lin has written that Chinese buyers have lagged the global trend in buying resale items because of stigma about bad energy in used clothing, worries about cleanliness and not finding clothes that fit or appealed.
But many Chinese who travel change their minds after seeing reputable vintage markets in London and Paris, said Cristina Ventura, Lane Crawford’s “chief catalyst officer” who also heads its social arm Luxarity.
And with Hong Kong home to some of the world’s “super rich”, up to 40 percent of clothes offered for resale are new with tags still on them or have never been worn, Fung said.
Around the world, secondhand is becoming legitimized, said Christina Dean, founder of Redress, an environmental NGO working to slash waste.
“It’s not for quirky thrifters anymore. It’s the reserve of the conscious fashion-loving consumer,” she said.
Drawn first by the hunt for a bargain, Gloria Yu, 27, said learning how fashion hurts the planet was now the motivation for her resale shopping.
Soo agreed. “If you’re any sort of conscious person at all, you can’t ignore it,” she said.
Wearing clothes for an extra nine months reduces the carbon, water and waste footprints of each garment by around 20 to 30 percent, according to a report from the UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).
BAD LUCK TO GOOD
In Hong Kong, resale demand has been driven first by expats and Hong Kong residents who travel. But others are also now jumping onboard.
A “Get Redressed” second-hand denim popup market in Sham Shui Po, one of the poorer districts in this city of 7.4 million people, was almost mobbed in January, Dean said.
“Shoppers were trying to get into our spare stock bags and were shouting about offers and good buys,” she said.
Another popup in nearby Lai Chi Kok was also overrun.
Garner, meanwhile, said the Retykle resale site was being translated into Chinese as most of its customers can only buy in that language.
Fung said she’s working on the remaining skeptics. Last year she held a “Get Lucky with HULA” event, focusing on the “amazing lifestyles” of four Instagram influencers.
The four sold a selection of items from their closets, passing on their “good fortune”.
“If we can supposedly get bad luck, then why can’t we get good luck too?” Fung asked.
Reporting by Marianne Bray; editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate
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