Shopping for Gently Worn Clothing Is Now a Consign of the Times

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Stephanie Brandow first walked into Robin Eklund’s consignment shop looking for an outfit to impress a “kind of conservative” guy she was dating.

More than two decades later, Brandow is married to that guy, a plastic surgeon with whom she lives in Ardmore and has three children. She is still shopping at Revivals, Eklund’s Narberth consignment boutique. And lately, Brandow is passing on the resale-shopping habit to her 20-something daughter, to whom she recently bequeathed a leather jacket she bought at Revivals 18 years ago. “My daughter is starting to realize: don’t buy a lot — buy really quality stuff, and it lasts forever,” Brandow said with evident satisfaction.

She might have added: And don’t ever pay retail, either.


From consignment shops to vintage boutiques to thrift stores, more and more Philadelphians are discovering what Brandow has long known — that second-hand shopping can yield surprisingly satisfying items at a fraction of their retail cost, whether it’s a $20 top from Baby Gap for $5 or a $1,500 Prada outfit that originally sold for three times that.

“In the past couple of years, consignment has become much more mainstream,” said Eklund, who has been outfitting fashion-forward women on the Main Line for more than a quarter-century. “I think it has a lot to do with the prices of high-end items increasing every year. Also, the economy — pretty much across the board, everyone is more careful with money.”

But while the lure of a good deal is eternal, the resale economy has evolved to suit Brandow’s daughter’s generation. Online businesses have transformed inventories that once depended on the serendipity of local taste; buyers can score finds with a tap of their iPhones; and sellers can pack off their discarded duds in prepaid packaging.

The emerging ethos of sustainability has also burnished resale’s image, casting it as the environmentally responsible choice. Generations of Jewish women have organized synagogue rummage sales or donated their gently used duds to thrift shops run by Jewish organizations. But while giving has a long tradition as tzedakah, the new eco-consciousness has elevated second-hand shopping from compromise to chic.

So it comes as no surprise that, like so many players in the local resale market, Rick and Michael Zakroff are Jewish. The father-and-son team is behind CashinMyBag (cashinmybag.com), a Philadelphia-based online resale business, say the Jewish clientele is key to their success so far. “A Jewish woman is going to have really nice stuff, and she’s going to take good care of that purse — she’ll wrap and it store it nicely in her closet between wearings,” said Rick Zakroff.

Now she can send that Vuitton or Chanel off to CashinMyBag in a prepaid envelope, have it authenticated by a team that, Zakroff says, “looks at these bags microscopically — literally, with a micrometer,” and receive payment shortly afterward. Essentially, the Zakroffs expanded the concept behind cash-for-gold businesses — a field Zakroff says he pioneered nationally — to the world of luxury goods. Unlike consignment, in which the seller receives a portion of the proceeds only when the item is sold, CashinMyBag pays up front to stock an inventory of vintage Judith Leiber bags, Prada sunglasses and that Chanel tote that sold out at Neiman Marcus.

“I saw a piece on CNN about how people in Asia were using their handbags as collateral against their house, and that’s when a light bulb went off in my head,” recalled Michael Zakroff. Having worked as a hairstylist on the Main Line for 17 years, he understood the semiotics of luxury — and his father knew how to monetize second-hand goods. With a national advertising campaign, social media and eBay listings, business has been “explosive” since CashinMyBag launched in mid-2013, both men said, with 85 percent of sales taking place online.

Philadelphia-area buyers have an advantage: They can make an appointment to see CashinMyBag’s 2,000 items at a 10,000-square-foot showroom in Bala Cynwyd. But with more than 500 new items pouring in each week and all the effort required to process and list that inventory online, a traditional retail store would not be worthwhile, Rick Zakroff said.

Online transactions are also driving the growth of Greene Street, whose website (greene­streetconsignment.com) bills the 11-store Philly-area chain as “Your Sustainable Clothing Choice, 24/7.” Ironically, the name was chosen not for its ecological overtones, but because it was the SoHo street where founder Lynne Mastrilli lived before returning to Bryn Mawr to take over her parents’ consignment shop 25 years ago. “But a few years ago, it dawned on us that green really is the way of the future,” she said. “I love that aspect of it.”

Today, Greene Street boasts the sustainability of its business model as a selling point, claiming to have recycled seven million pounds of clothing in the past 25 years. The newly launched online business — which, like CashinMyBag, offers prepaid shipping for consigners — is likely to expand things further, giving tourists a chance to keep shopping after they’ve gone back home. But brick-and-mortar stores are still at the heart of the business: “We think having stores lends a legitimacy,” said Mastrilli.

And even as Greene Street has carefully coordinated its branding — with logoed shopping bags and custom wooden fixtures — each store still has a singular feel. “Who lives in the area, who brings the merchandise in — that creates the flavor of a location,” Mastrilli said. “Princeton is very preppy. Lambertville has more artsy stuff. South Street has more club clothing than you’d have in Chestnut Hill.”

Greene Street specializes in the kind of polished-but-middlebrow labels that the luxury outfits disdain: Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and J. Crew, which sells well in every store. Indeed, where price tags are more modest, many stores have found that a brick-and-mortar business still makes sense — as at Narberth’s Twice as Nice children’s consignment boutique, where Gap, Old Navy and Carters are popular.

While CashinMyBag has a 15-person staff that includes photographers, photo croppers, listers, buyers, an art director and four software engineers to move its high-end handbags, it’s hard to imagine a similar team employed to sell $5 onesies. And Jill Segal Baim, who owns Twice as Nice with a family member, Julie Segal, said the business has thrived as a local resource, expanding from children’s wear to home accessories, toys and books.

Still, the women rely on an online inventory system that clients can access to monitor their own items, Segal Baim said. Tucked into a Haverford Avenue storefront, Twice as Nice has the crowded, colorful feel of a child’s nursery, with racks of clothes on the walls and prams, dollhouses, toy kitchen sets and snow boots displayed throughout. “Kids grow through clothes so fast that buying every year gets out of hand,” said Segal Baim. A longtime consignment shopper herself, she knows how expensive children’s must-haves can be at full cost — which is why her top sellers are “Uggs, anything Nike, Under Armour and North Face coats. And Bat Mitzvah dresses,” she added.

Like some other area resale shops, Twice as Nice donates the clothes it doesn’t sell to local charities, including Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, which in turns sells those items at a thrift boutique it opened a little over a year ago on Frankford Avenue in the city’s Torresdale section. Segal Baim is a longtime member of Main Line Reform Temple, where she has organized the temple rummage sales, and she views clothes recycling as part of that Jewish charitable tradition.

“Taking care of people who need taking care of — these are Jewish values I grew up with,” said Segal Baim, whose shop also donates weekly to Cradles to Crayons, an organization that distributes clothing to low-income children, and to other Jewish Federation agencies. “There are so many people in need that the majority of the community doesn’t realize, including Jews in the community that are overlooked.”

Joanne Lippert, director of retail and therapeutic services at JFCS, who oversees the thrift boutique, said the upscale tastes of local donors can yield terrific buys. “We see a lot of customers who are like, ‘Wow, I’m buying Juicy for my daughter — she wanted Juicy and I could never afford it,’ or ‘I’m able to buy my husband a Brooks Brothers suit,’ ” Lippert said. “We try to only put out the higher quality items.”

The thrift boutique has a triple mission: It provides low-cost, good-quality clothes for economically stressed residents, and the profits are a valuable revenue stream for JFCS, Lippert said. She is also excited about a third way for the boutique to serve the community — employing special needs adults in a 12-week program that will prepare them for retail jobs. And periodically, JFCS organizes pop-up boutiques at Federation Housing, Inc. locations “for people who can’t get out and don’t have much money — they love to buy a little pair of earrings or a book for their grandchildren.”

On a recent afternoon at Revivals, while chilly winds whipped outside, a small crowd of regulars gathered around a client named Gaby as she modeled a springy yellow Oscar de la Renta dress. “Gaby is one of my favorite clients to dress,” confided Eklund, petite and polished in an all-black outfit. “She looks terrific in everything.”

Eklund considered the shoes, then pointed to the other pair under consideration — six-inch leopard-print stilettos adorned with feathers. “They both look great, but those really make the outfit,” she counseled, as Gaby nodded. (Like everyone at the store that day, Gaby declined to give her full name — a sign that while consignment shopping has become more mainstream, it still has a ways to go to reach full acceptance.)

The personal touch evident at Revivals is the reason off-line stores still thrive. Eklund calls her regular clients to let them know about new arrivals, advises them on dressing for specific events, and accessorizes them with bags and jewelry (the most popular part of the resale market, online or off). A graduate of fashion school in New York City, Eklund worked on Seventh Avenue and has an eye that commands respect among the Main Line’s discerning dressers.

Many years ago, Eklund persuaded Stephanie Brandow to invest in a pricey pair of heels by a then-little-known designer, Christian Louboutin. “Robin said to me, ‘You have to have these shoes,’” recalled Brandow. “They had never been worn and they were an unusual pointy-toe style.” Louboutin’s lipstick-red soles have since become a cult favorite of shoe buyers, and those heels have become a staple of Brandow’s closet. “I’ve had them redone,” she said. “and I’ve never seen them on anyone else.”

Her experience highlights a particular appeal of second-hand shopping: Whatever treasure you score is probably not for sale on racks all over town. But in the end, shoppers all say, the real allure is a good bargain. “The price is right,” said Brandow, who said she would never pay retail for designer brands. “If you like really nice things and you don’t want to spend a lot of money, consignment shopping fits the bill.”

 Hilary Danailova is a frequenter of consignment shops around the world.

 

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