China’s Digital Love Affair With Second-Hand Fashion

A new wave of online vintage stores and unexpected findings on consumer consciousness are flipping the script on China’s taste for sustainable fashion.

With more than 30k followers on Weibo and counting, Pawnstar is a dreamy fan-favorite among China’s growing roster of designer vintage and consignment boutiques. Nestled in the former French Concession of Shanghai, the store boasts a wide selection of secondhand clothing and accessories from the likes of Alexander McQueen, Diane von Furstenberg, Helmut Lang and Givenchy, catering to the burgeoning taste for designer fashion among China’s Gen Z youths.

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According to Pawnstar’s Creative Director Nels Frye, the store offers a resale model similar to that of consignment chains in the U.S.  “Customers bring their pre-loved – often barely used or even brand new – items to us and we give either cash or store credit once the items sell,” he explained to South China Morning Post. As opposed to importing inventory from Japan, Europe or the U.S., Pawnstar focuses on sourcing pieces locally while educating its customers on the sustainable aspect of consignment culture.

Second-hand clothing, especially pieces from unknown sources, have traditionally been considered unlucky or ill-omened in China. However, the visible impact of low-cost manufacturing on Chinese communities, including heavy pollution and harsh labor conditions, has convinced many people to reconsider their consumption habits.  In fact, the State of Fashion reported last year that 65% of consumers in emerging markets (including India and China) actively seek out sustainable fashion versus 32% or less in mature markets. The finding is further supported by Mastercard’s 2015 Ethical Shopping Survey, in which 65% of respondents in China revealed that sustainability plays a major role in their shopping decisions.

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Aside from brick-and-mortar boutiques in trendy shopping districts, consignment fashion is now offered through a wide variety of online platforms such as million-dollar startup Share2 and Alibaba’s Xianyu (literally “idle fish”, a phonetic pun on the Chinese slang for “underdog”). On Share2’s user-friendly mobile app, one can find secondhand Moschino purses, along with other coveted designer pieces, available for immediate purchase at ⅓ of their retail prices.

For local stores like Pawnstar, online and mobile selling have also been the key to attracting a nationwide customer base. Since 2016, Pawnstar has been selling their products via livestream on social media. Four livestream sessions a week can account for up to 30% of the store’s total sales revenue, with each session generating 20,000-30,000 viewers; a small number compared to the livestream viewership of larger Chinese retailers. Young middle-class shoppers, tempted by the comparatively cheap prices of secondhand luxury goods, make up a large portion of Pawnstar’s online following.

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China’s success in marketing secondhand fashion to a new generation of internet-obsessed consumers has not been without its trials and hurdles. Counterfeit designer goods still prevail on e-commerce platforms, making the task of authenticating pieces tedious and costly. On the other hand, trendy, unbranded fashion is easily available to shoppers with less disposable income. However, for the eternally price-conscious Chinese shopper (trust me, it’s in our blood), the economical aspect of secondhand fashion makes it virtually irresistible. “After seeing a dress I like on Taobao, I will search for the same item on Xianyu,” 28-year-old Jane Zhang told the Financial Times. “Usually, I am able to find a near-new one at a cheaper price.”

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