Lacoste and YSL to Burberry on a budget: a trend for second-hand designer clothes is taking South Korea by storm

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fashion, South Korea

Lee Dong-jin has made an empire out of the thrift shop habits he developed during his high school years.

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The 24-year-old stands at the counter of his high-end Seoul vintage clothing shop “JANDARIROSTORE – named after the street it is on that he started with his older brother in 2016.

On the wall behind him hangs a Chrome Hearts vest with the luxury brand’s iconic jewellery as buttons and fur along its collar, on sale for 10 million won (US$8,350).

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It is the most expensive item on offer but Lee has some customers who can afford it; celebrities including major singers and artists are said to buy from him as do stylists from the three major K-pop record labels – SM, JYP and YG. Rappers Swervy and Dbo are regular clients, according to the store’s Instagram feed.

fashion, South Korea

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A second-hand Chrome Hearts designer vest in Lee Dong-jin’s store in Seoul, with a tag of 10 million won (US$8,350). Photo: David D. Lee

Young businessman Lee started out nine years ago by selling clothes on online platforms like Gmarket as a way to earn money and fund his love of fashion.

fashion, South Korea

Vintage second-hand hat, bag and clothes. Photo: Shutterstock

“I was always striving to look different and wear clothes not being worn by others. This got me the reputation of being the best-dressed student in my high school,” said Lee, adding that his self-confidence grew through buying and wearing fashion that he loved.

Since he set off on his own style journey, apps on which to sell second-hand garments have grown into one of the fastest growing app markets in the country. Around 37 per cent of South Korean smartphone users have used a resale app, according to app analysis service Wiseapp/Retail/Goods.

This online evolution has coincided with a new wave of conscious consumers who like to keep costs low – generally, vintage stores sell clothes for around US$25-US$66 – while also doing their bit for the environment by recycling.

Together, these trends have propelled South Korea’s second-hand fashion industry to being worth more than 400 billion won (US$330 million) as of 2020, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Luxury fashion accounts for more than 40 per cent of the pie.

fashion, South Korea

Many people are donating or recycling clothes, and buying second-hand. Photo: Shutterstock

In this, South Korea is following trends in bigger fashion markets like Japan and the United States. While Japan’s second-hand clothing market was already at US$6.3 billion in 2019, the American market was worth US$36 billion according to the 2021 Resale Report from online resale platform thredUP.

It is projected to grow 11 times faster than brand new retail clothing over the next few years to become a US$77 billion market by 2025.

Blame the rappers

Seol Dong-nam, an occasional visitor to JANDARIROSTORE, has been known to save for months to buy something from the American fashion designer Rick Owens or from Saint Laurent, his favourite brands, which together make up about 80 per cent of his wardrobe at home.

“About five years ago, I became interested in Saint Laurent after I saw G-dragon wearing the brand all the time,” said the 27-year-old, talking about the K-pop rapper who has been an ambassador and muse for various luxury labels. “Now a lot of rappers like Giriboy and Kid Milli are making young people look into designer clothes.”

Such rappers frequently mention designer brands in their lyrics and post Instagram photos of themselves dressed to the nines in designer clothes.

Lee knows from experience that it is this apparent desire to stand out that has attracted so many towards designer and/or unusual second-hand outfits.

fashion, South Korea

Lee Dong-jin, 24, in his second-hand high-end clothing store in Seoul. He started it in 2016 after developing an interest in fashion during his high-school years. Photo: David D. Lee

He is proud of the eclectic mix of clothes in his shop which he personally buys from private vendors around the world.

For example, this denim jacket comes from a record shop owner in Japan while that classic shirt comes from a designer in Italy, Lee’s carefully selected items tending to sell for 100,000 to 200,000 won (US$83-US$165).

Distinction is also what brings people to Cat Selling Clothes, a second-hand shop in two warehouses not far from Seoul.

Hwang In-ho, 28, is shopping there with his girlfriend. The couple have been browsing for about an hour, seeing countless items, when she mentions they have only gone through one of the warehouses.

“We can look at a large array of clothes here,” said Hwang. “The clothes are not limited to styles that are so-called trending now, so we are able to choose items that match the particular styles we are looking for.”

Cat Selling Clothes was started in 2017 by Kim Young who dreams of turning her store into a global franchise like America’s Goodwill or Japan’s 2nd Street.

She built her warehouses in a rural region of Gimpo, a city about 16km west of Seoul, and receives 60 tons of used clothes each month from recycling depositories which get used, recycled clothing from America, Europe and other parts of Asia.

About 10 per cent of the clothes at any one time are hand-picked by employees then washed, ironed and placed on racks.

We want to make second-hand shopping mainstream by changing the perception of used clothes. Our country even had superstitions about wearing them.

Kim Young, owner of store selling second-hand clothes

The rule of thumb is that the clothes are sold at 30 per cent less than comparable new products in regular shops.

Today, Kim’s annual revenue is about 900 million won (US$744,000) with profit margins increasing by 5 per cent every year.

“We want to make second-hand shopping mainstream by changing the perception of used clothes,” Kim said. “Our country even had superstitions about wearing them.”

For example, if you wore clothes from poor or sick people, bad luck would visit. Similarly, some believed that men wearing women’s clothes would also be unlucky.

fashion, South Korea

Kim Young, owner and founder of Cat Selling Clothes. Her business, currently using two warehouses, takes in 60 tons of used clothes each month; she is keen to open more branches. Photo: David D. Lee

Times have changed. The growth of the second-hand industry means Kim is confident about expanding her business to Seoul; she hopes to open branches there soon.

“As this industry has grown significantly in the past two years, there are tons of young entrepreneurs jumping on the bandwagon,” she said.

Much of that has to do with the cost advantages of starting second-hand clothing stores compared to other businesses. In addition to many vintage stores operating out of basements or tiny shops, there is an increasing number of vintage shops showing up on Instagram feeds.

Following fashion online

Lee Kye-hwan manages B.R.O Vintage, an Instagram account with almost 10,000 followers. Like many other vintage stores on the platform, he uploads photographs of around 10 pieces of clothes per day, showing their condition and price.

Popular brands like The North Face and Lacoste tend to make daily appearances while designer labels like Saint Laurent and Burberry pop up occasionally.

“Since most of our customers are in their 20s and 30s, they turn to vintage shops because they can’t afford to buy the clothes they want at the original prices,” Lee said. “And this type of shopping has become even more accessible with social media as young people are most comfortable with communicating through direct messages or tuning into Instagram Live.”

Wise choices – while knowing you only live once

According to Woo Hong-joo, a professor researching clothing and textiles at Yonsei University, the emergence of conscious consumerism among the country’s young people has accelerated such habits in South Korea’s fashion industry.

“Young consumers these days are sensitive about being cost-effective, choosing sustainable products and making environmental choices,” she said.

“Although we are not on the level of countries like the US in terms of donating clothes (in donation bins or charity shops) shopping at flea markets and yard sales, South Koreans are gradually changing their perceptions of used goods.”

Second-hand fashion became more than just a limited niche in the country when online second-hand marketplace Danggeun Market became one of the most used apps for South Koreans, she added.

With more than 17.75 million users on resale apps, there are now even platforms like Kream and Koodon that specifically focus on high-end clothes and brands.

Woo also said the pandemic had also altered consumption habits, as rising unemployment and difficulty finding jobs meant many people have less cash to spend.

“They can’t afford to buy clothes left, right and centre any more, so they are more likely to spend their money on items that will stand the test of time. Designer brands are a good choice in this sense as their styles and brand values usually stay consistent.”

There is research connecting high self-esteem and confidence with the consumption of luxury goods, but Woo believes there are other psychological reasons for spending money on fashion.

“Since there’s not a lot of things young people can control at this time, they are choosing to adopt an attitude of being more fearless when it comes to spending on luxury goods and fully enjoying the current moment,” she says. “You can say it’s a YOLO – you only live once – type of attitude.”

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