What I learned from a year of not buying new clothes

Katie West pre loved clothes journey

Katie West, owner of bare.PR in a pre-loved moochi dress. Image supplied.

It is said that clothes, shoes and jewellery are an extension of us. They are the mirror of who we are. They reflect our personality, our sense of style, even our mood and self-care shield. Most of us enjoy shopping, finding new items and with more competition at the lower price end, many people are caught in the cycle of buying and discarding clothes all too easily. We buy because there is a sale on, because it seems like a bargain, because we feel good about ourselves, or the opposite.  We also buy for an occasion, because an item is more affordable than the designer one and because we want to keep up with latest trends – but do these clothes last the mood, the whim and the wear?

At bare HQ, we live and breathe natural, organic, ethical and sustainable – the change makers of the future. I challenge us internally every week to make better choices and consider other options. In January 2019 we asked what else our followers wanted to know from us and overwhelmingly the response was more about sustainability and what people can do. One pressing social issue that kept coming up was fast fashion. We wanted to show an alternative to buying into this industry that is riddled with environmental, ethical and social issues.

Did you know, from our little green country alone, it is estimated that 100 million kilograms of textiles end up in landfills every year? And 5.8 million kilograms of clothing are sent offshore to third world countries, off-loading our clothing problem. Unfortunately, these countries do not have the infrastructure to discard or repurpose what isn’t utilised or sold, so they end up in the landfill anyway. So, I made a conscious choice to put into practice what I was already flirting with and not purchase any new clothes, shoes or jewellery for the entire year of 2019. Instead, I would only buy second-hand and pre-loved.

There are three ways to purchase sustainably:
– Slow Fashion: opt away from fast fashion and choose labels and garments that are designer led or have a team of designers with quality fabrics and a known, transparent supply chain.

– Ethical Fashion: labels and brands that consider the workers and pay, from the picking of the cotton all the way through the supply chain to transporting.

– Pre-loved/Thrifting: purchase already worn or purchased and never worn. It is possible to use pre-loved boutiques to find investment pieces but purchasing through these channels still needs thought. Who is the manufacturer or designer? How is it made – easiest way is to look at stitching and tailoring, are there darts, tucks and folds to flatter the style and body shape? The quality of the fabric and the overall condition? Learn to consider all these before buying.

At the start of this official pre-loved only journey, I was given a different way of looking at clothing by personal stylist, Trudi Bennett, who said, it’s nice to know a beautiful piece of clothing, (that’s no doubt been lovingly made) can live on through the ages and have multiple people enjoy it. When looking at garments that can turn up anywhere, consider the life it might have had, the mystery and history that can come with a garment. Have you ever looked at a beautiful piece of pre-loved clothing and wondered where it might have been before, the people it may have encountered and the parties it may have attended? I was captured by these words and eager to find clothing with history.

Katie West pre-loved fashion journey

Katie trying on a pre-loved coat and getting advice from a stylist friend via video calling (left) and Katie hosting a client event in a pre-loved outfit in August 2019 (right).

So, what did I discover?
– When I decided to buy only pre-loved, I quickly discovered there are a plethora of retail options, e-commerce, fashion markets, the list goes on. Over the course of 2019 options for this form of sustainable shopping expanded further with some designer brands adding their own pre-loved and ‘reloved’ platforms with their own sites e.g. Kate Sylvester Reloved.

– Pre-loved boutiques are popping up everywhere and are a great way to shop. There are styles, colours, price-brackets and bargains to suit everyone. It is true that you will not find $5 or $20 bargains, but still 10 – 50% of the original price, gives the purchaser the opportunity to buy quality garments, shoes and accessories.

– Pre-loved retailers also known as thrift shops can be bargain troves and are where you will find the $5 – $20 and upwards, garments. A few charity ‘branded’ stores donate their profits as a form of fundraising e.g. Salvation Army, Red Cross, SPCA with rostered staff donating their time. Some are commercially oriented. If you think you are shopping in a re-seller where the profits are donated, do your homework and ask, as it may not be the case.

– It is true that metro areas will always have more choice and variety. Some smaller communities rely on home cleanouts and fashion retailers donating what cannot be sold at the end of a season sale. A great tip (and one I learnt from a volunteer) is to become the store’s friend. Once they know you and what you like, some will text or ring you to let you know to visit, but make sure you get in fast!

– Starting from TradeMe, there are more and more pre-loved and vintage, e-commerce sites popping up, filled with good, ethical, smart buys. You will also find some pre-loved boutiques have e-commerce sites. The good ones will have extensive information so you can confidently purchase knowing that needing to return items will be minimal. If you are shopping in a period pre-loved boutique e.g. vintage and European vintage, it is a good idea to have an initial visit and try on clothing, as different eras can require a size adjustment.

– Regenerate markets or fashion markets expanded at a rapid rate in 2019. These rely on people coming to set up a stall or area at the market. What’s great about this is that you get to know more about the clothes and where they have come from. The variety and quality of clothes will change from market to market but if you’re looking for good pricing for men, women and child’s clothing you should visit. I visited two over the year and picked up a Quicksilver hoodie for $5 and a Roxy one for $10.

– Friend get-togethers! Setting up a day with friends and arranging to buy or swap clothes is growing. It is also predicted that these will become more frequent, but dependent on where you live.

– Wardrobe stylists do exist who trawl through your current wardrobe, discard what doesn’t actually suit or work for you and take you pre-loved shopping. This is an excellent way to still get the wardrobe you want and learn the best places to shop without investing thousands.

Painted Bird Milford

Perusing one of the racks at Painted Bird vintage store in Milford, Auckland.

Some quick tips and advice:
– Most of the time, boutiques sell on behalf and do not want stock in store for too long, so items have a set time to be sold and are then discounted. If not sold they are returned to the seller. So the answer is yes, you can find bargains in pre-loved boutiques.

– Did you know that after fashion shows some designers have arrangements for garments to be sold through boutiques or other pre-loved retailers?

– Designer warehouse sales, as well as having sample and end of line items, can include garments worn for fashion shows.

– People who want to re-sell through boutiques or donate items to charity shops do so in their neighbourhood. If you want to purchase designer labels visit the boutiques and charity shops in select areas.

– If you purchase from charity or thrift shops, it can be a good idea to factor in dry-cleaning and any alterations you might need to make to the overall cost of items – this is a good way to also make it yours.

– Look at stitching, pockets, hems, fabric and the label. These can give you a good guide as to the wear a garment or item has had, and the quality of what you will be paying for. I recently picked out a designer labelled dress when out shopping and on closer inspection, the hem around the neckline was crooked, there were no darts or tucks from the bust line to the waist and it was not lined. Checking the ‘designers’ label I saw it was sewn on crooked. The pre-loved store I was in had this dress in the ‘designer section’. Be careful and educate yourselves on what true designer and high-quality clothing should look and feel like.

– Retro is always in and classic cuts and fabrics will always have you looking great and be blended into today’s trends and still keep you looking on point, if that’s what you are looking for.

– If you want to buy pre-loved and still remain in vogue, check out what is on trend and look for items that include elements that make clothes current.

– Coats, furs and wraps from the 1940’s to the mid-70’s, were often handmade and made well. They are from a previous era and if you want to buy, buy vintage and inherit their history. I have two that I have inherited and after being hesitant to wear them, I now bring them out at any opportunity I can.

– From previous experiences when you need to buy in haste or for a one-off special event, try renting. At one-point last year I needed a floor length gown for a gala dinner and couldn’t find what I wanted at my go to pre-loved boutiques. I tried renting and loved it. The process was easy and reasonable. The best advice I received was to use the experience to try another colour. “Renting an item is a good time to try other colours you might not choose when you’re buying something. Be brave.”

Katie West pre-loved journey

Katie (centre) at an NZME event in November 2019 in a pre-loved outfit.

Looking back on my journey, I feel a lot wiser and more in tune with my clothes. I am no longer buying season to season but taking care and finding pieces that suit me and my style. I feel strangely free – I don’t feel like I’m being sucked into those ‘spend and save’, ‘end of season’, ‘long weekend’ sales. Not to mention my email inbox is a lot less cluttered without all the eDMs that go along with the sales. Cyclical sales exist to stimulate spending and subconsciously we start collecting items and building a collection of clothes that we don’t always love.

I have now learnt to really analyse an item of clothing, appreciating it in its entirety, not just for the way it looks, but how it was made and the story behind it.

What started as a change bred from a concern around the impact of fast fashion and my contribution to it, and the devastating impact it has on our planet, has grown into a long-term change. I have half converted my husband who multi shops, and every time I take my 9-year-old son shopping with me, he sees a treasure trove of options, not just cast offs.

I cannot think of any better representation of beauty, than someone who is unafraid to buy and wear items to love rather than amassing a wardrobe full of clothes, that you paid a bargain for.

My biggest lesson from all of this was: if it doesn’t make you feel fabulous, don’t do it, don’t buy it, and don’t wear it. This has become my new philosophy and I am excited to see where else this new way of looking at and buying clothes will take me.