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selling vintage clothing


How vintage clothing is priced

Why does this 1950s dress cost $49, this one $98 and that one $300? Ever wondered why the big differences?

I am sometimes asked if I can accept an offer of a lower price for an item I have for sale, and I don’t like to just bluntly refuse without an explanation. Sometimes I’m asked how to price a vintage item, or why an item I’m selling is a certain price. This post is to explain a little about the vintage clothing and accessories marketplace and the pricing one sees.

First, you need to know how vintage clothing is acquired by those who present it for resale. With the exception of some one-shot Ebay sellers, it is infrequently something from the seller’s own closet or family’s closets. Very infrequently it was given to the seller.

Usually, vintage sellers who have been around any length of time must find and purchase vintage fashions. They may get up very early to get in line for promising estate sales, garage sales, car boot sales and flea markets. They may put ads out for purchasing vintage clothing and go on buying trips to nearby (or far away) cities and towns. They may regularly scour the thrift, second-hand and antique markets. Auctions can also be sources. The seller has to make many good contacts, persevere and be resourceful.

What impacts a price

✔️ Location. In some areas there may be relatively more or less vintage available, and at more or less high prices. Just to sustain the business may take more income in some areas than others.

✔️ Scarcity. Vintage clothing and accessories that pre-date the 1980s are hard to find in many areas, and the older, the scarcer. One of the most rare things of all the 20th century seems to be a beaded silk dress from the mid 1920s in excellent condition. The amount of activity (think dancing the Charleston) that some of these dresses endured in their Roaring 20s heyday took a toll, and the combination of the delicate fabric and heavy decoration has made these dresses extremely ephemeral. With the popularity of 1920s styles over the past few years, many seek these dresses and are truly amazed at the prices...but what’s really amazing is that there is an authentic beaded silk dress from the 1920s left to sell!

Some other scarcity issues involve sizes (such as larger shoe and dress sizes) and types of items (generally trousers are more worn out and disposed of than skirts, menswear more than womenswear, swimsuits can take a beating, as can shoes...).

✔️ Condition. The example of a 1950s dress for $49, $98 or $300 may come even from the same shop, with the $49 dress being pretty but flawed, the $98 a simple dress in excellent condition and the $300 dress pristine and with a good label and great design. Condition means so much in valuing vintage because it really impacts the wearability, life expectancy of the garment, and acceptability for various occasions. Would you want to attend your friend’s wedding in a dress with an obvious and unremovable stain on the front? No, but you might wear the dress to a swing dance.

✔️ Quality. There is a reason why vintage haute couture is haute priced: It is the work of a great designer, skillfully and beautifully crafted with techniques that are becoming rarer and rarer. The materials will match the workmanship and the overall impression will be, most likely, breathtaking.

Unlabeled items can also be of great quality, and a good seller will take the trouble to explain the elements of an item’s quality. It is important to know that certain designers, labels, styles, eras, fabrics and embellishments can justifiably command high prices. Even color influences price. Would you pay more for an aqua blue dress or a similar dress in brown?

Dior in 1957
✔️ The seller. If a seller has a great reputation, with excellent references and knowledge, he or she can charge more for an item. Some excellent sellers don’t charge at the top of the spectrum, but many do. They also will stand by their sales, something that is not easy to do with vintage, each item being unique. If you enjoy the offerings of particular sellers, and you know you can trust those sellers, their finds will probably be worth more to you.

✔️ The selling venue. Are you walking into a posh Manhattan vintage shop or an antique mall in a small town? Which do you think will need to charge more for that vintage handbag? Right.

✔️ Provenance. If an item was worn by Marilyn Monroe (such as the dress she wore singing Happy Birthday Mr. President, which sold at auction in 1999 for $1,267,500), it is worth many times more than its weight in gold. Even if there is not a famous person tied to the vintage fashion item, a sweet or interesting story can push the value of the piece.

The famous gown worn by Marilyn Monroe in 1962

✔️ Going rates. Experienced vintage fashion sellers usually research before they price an item, working to find the right price for what they consider to be their place in the market, seeing how other sellers have priced. Sometimes a movie or show (Titanic, Mad Men and Downton Abbey immediately come to mind) will drive the interest in a style and the going rate will go up accordingly.

✔️ Work on the item. Some vintage items are ready to go as found, but usually they need washing or dry cleaning, often a bit of mending. In some cases a large amount of work goes into preparing a vintage garment or accessory for use. Some items are definitely worth the time, like one of those rare 1920s beaded silk dresses—if they are damaged but reparable, the repairs are often worthwhile for bringing such a beautiful piece of history back to life. Of course excellent work takes knowledge, skill and time.

✔️ Desirability. This is kind of a catch-all that overlaps the quality, scarcity, selling venue, seller...everything. Sometimes there is a certain je ne sais quoi about how the item is presented that makes it—and the seller—hot stuff. The same item may be almost worthless in other hands.

Do all these add up to a formula for how much that 1950s dress should cost? No, not at all. Pricing changes every day and it is nebulous. Even the best sellers make mistakes in pricing, and the least experienced seller may earn top money on a particular item. Desirability may make an item of low quality into the coolest and most valuable thing in the shop for some people. The best shop owner may have prices so low that you wonder if the item is of any quality. There are simply no hard and fast rules about pricing.

Then there is the thrift shop purchase. You know, the one where you found a designer dress from the 1950s in top condition and half off of $7.50? Almost everyone who has ever loved the thrill of the hunt has a story to tell of some incredible deal. This has the effect of making the general public think that all one needs is a bit of pocket change and a trip to the thrift. Of course finding something great and vintage for next to nothing is rare and getting rarer, so if you fancy items that predate the 1980s, you will mostly come up empty.

There may also be the perception that a vintage seller doesn’t do anything but buy, mark up the price and resell. Some might do no more than that, but those who take the business seriously do lots more. For instance, I do a lot of research and stay in close touch with colleagues at the Vintage Fashion Guild who can help me when I don’t know something about a vintage piece. I have a couple of bookshelves full of vintage fashion history books. I did so much research on fabric that I ended up volunteering to write and compile the VFG’s Fabric Resource. Over the course of years I’ve built up many contacts and quite a lot of knowledge.

In my house there are always buckets of vintage items soaking, needles with every color of thread stuck in a pincushion, bags of metal zippers, jars of vintage buttons. I have a very careful dry cleaner that I trust and an expert seamstress for things I can’t fix myself. I have a storage cabinet full of various stain removers, gentle washes and odor lifters. Not only do I read and write blogs about vintage fashion, I participate in the conversations about it on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. In my selling practices I am as careful and honest as I can be. I am passionate about what I do. I sincerely care about each individual who crosses my vintage path. And I am not alone in any of this—there are quite a few really excellent vintage fashion shops. Is what we do more than buying and reselling? I think so.

Bottom line? There’s no magic formula for pricing vintage, but these are some of the considerations that might be taken into account.

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Follow up on post: So you want to start an online vintage clothing business

I recently wrote this post about starting up an online vintage clothing business. The stats say that lots of people have read it, some have shared it. A couple people have quit following my blog since they read it, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not. No one commented on it directly.

Did I scare you? I have to admit, I meant to. Even though I’m a nice enough person, tough love seemed in order. I have discussed with many a vintage seller the business of selling online, and I can honestly say that it isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires a lot of hard work, patience, knowledge, resources (time, money and information), creativity and passion.

I didn’t make much of all the love you can have for this job. I figure you wouldn’t be reading the post if you didn’t have a fondness for the idea of your own vintage business, or at least a curiosity about it. Loving vintage fashion is the easy part.

I wrote a post to say that the business of selling vintage clothing isn’t easy.

It seems like nearly everybody’s selling vintage now, or knows someone who is. I have read posts like Getting Rich at Home and Top Online Business Opportunities that mention vintage clothing. Maybe you’ve read some of these too? You’d think vintage clothing was a get-rich-quick scheme! (Would that it were!)

Whew, now that I’ve got that off my chest I can be a bit more encouraging in a future post!



So you want to start an online vintage clothing business

Vintage clothing is a wonderful thing, and if you want to work to provide it for others I applaud you. Of course I feel that way because that is what I do—and I love what I do.

I started my online vintage clothing business in 1999, inspired by the 1970s and 80s brick and mortar vintage shops that I had frequented. I was new to the internet in the late 90s and as I became somewhat known in the world of vintage on this platform, I had requests for tips on selling and on running a vintage fashion business. The people asking were usually not casual here-and-there sellers, but people striving to earn at least a partial living at it. There weren’t so many of us then.

I used to have a fairly short—though not simple—list of suggestions. It went something like this:

1. Know everything you can about the items you are selling. Do not bluff if you don’t know something, but research labels, fabrics, fashion history and whatever else you need to be able to write with some confidence and accuracy about items.

2. Provide detailed garment measurements.

3. Photograph and describe each and every more-than-miniscule flaw.

4. If you’re just starting, price accordingly. Carefully research the higher and lower ends and don’t expect to be a high-end seller if you are new to the field. Save your exceptional items for a time when you are more established.

5. Always be polite, clear and prompt in dealing with any questions from customers and potential customers.

6. Ship as quickly as possible—within 48 hours is expected.

7. The customer is always right, even if they might not be. Always give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them with respect and kindness.

8. Don’t buy vintage items for resale because they are inexpensive, buy them because they are really good.

Then I started adding in:

9. Don't be lazy in the least. If there is something that you can do to help a garment you are selling, do it.

10. Become an expert at mending and washing/cleaning; find the best dry cleaner in your area, and also a great seamstress if you are not one yourself.

11. Generate enthusiasm for your items by writing helpful, interesting and knowledgeable descriptions.

12. Find the best, most efficient selling methods and use those.

13. Strive to connect to buyers through social media, online and offline contacts.

14. Offer an explicit return policy, and detail all your shop policies clearly and politely.

15. Do not expect quick results. Be patient and build your brand.

Now there are millions of vintage clothing sellers all over the world, many of them doing a very good job. What you need to do to stand out will by necessity be more involved. I would have to add the following to the above:

16. Use professional quality branding (the quality of which is not always based on a price paid).

17. Develop a social media strategy and keep it up consistently.

18. Make sure your photos are detailed, beautiful and accurate. If using a live model, be sure they are pro or very talented at portraying your brand. There are various ways to do lighting, but whatever your choice, it needs to be excellent.

19. Join and participate in appropriate forums.

20. Find strategic and memorable ways to differentiate your business in a crowded field.

21. Be extremely competitive in sourcing vintage items to offer for sale.

22. Do detailed market research and study analytics.

23. Find a good selling venue and be ready to jump to others if needed.

24. Do not assume a website will be found on search engines without very specific protocols being addressed.

25. Always keep your ears and eyes open for what people want from you, and how their preferences intersect with what you can provide.

26. Your business is not you, it is your business. Think and act for your business not according to your own feelings, but rather your brand’s identity.

You may not be able to go it alone, in fact, hardly anyone can now. The people you may have to hire once, part- or full-time are a model, a photographer, a website builder, a tech person, a marketing person, an accountant, and a designer. You will probably have to make substantial investments, such as in inventory, photo set up, storage, software, cleaning and mending, marketing and packaging materials. You will need to study and stay up-to-date on not only vintage fashion topics but business and marketing topics.

Do I follow my own advice? Sometimes! Some things are easier for me than others, but these are the things I honestly see from the business end of the vintage clothing field. A colleague recently said “the hippie days of the internet are over” and I have been repeating that phrase to vigorous nods from online sellers ever since. No longer can you just slap up a bad photo of a dress you can only vaguely identify for a highish price and then quibble when the buyer is not satisfied...not even close. You can sell vintage or you can become a vintage seller. The former is a casual affair, the latter is quite an investment, quite an effort...and eventually can be quite a wonderful achievement.

Please also read my follow-up to this post.