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Luxury brands' future is in shoppers' closets

Marie Sina
March 16, 2021

The luxury resale market is booming, but designer brands have been reluctant to embrace the secondhand trend. That attitude might be changing with Gucci owner Kering investing in an online resale platform.

A green Gucci handbag
Gucci owner Kering is the latest luxury giant to embrace the resale sectorImage: Lu ying/imaginechina/imago images

"There's always the thrill of finding something really cool, something you always wanted but could never afford. Suddenly, it pops up on your screen," Antonia Barthel told DW. The 27-year-old woman from Munich peruses high-end resale platforms weekly, hunting for secondhand luxury fashion.

It's customers like her who are causing fashion labels to reconsider their stance towards the resale sector. Earlier this month, Kering, the luxury behemoth that owns brands such as Gucci, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga, acquired a 5% stake in the French high-end resale platform Vestiaire Collective. The resale market was previously shunned by luxury fashion houses, who are wary of ceding control of the distribution, price and perception of their items. Kering's investment could signal a wider pivot towards resale in the industry.

Francois-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, said in a statement: "Pre-owned luxury is now a real and deeply rooted trend."

Preloved: An image transformation

The shabby, used image of secondhand clothing is gradually fading. Preloved is the new motto of many young fashionistas.

"It never bothered me that the clothes have been worn before. They feel new to me," Barthel said.

The fact that shiny no longer has to mean new is "simply the contemporary approach to designer fashion," Max Schönemann, CEO of the German luxury fashion resale platform Rebelle, told DW.

Resale on the rise

While the fashion industry is projected to take its biggest financial hit in decades during the pandemic, the resale industry is thriving. Through resale platforms such as Vestiaire Collective and Rebelle, consumers are selling their unwanted clothes directly to other consumers online. Vestiaire Collective grew by more than 100% in the past year. 140,000 new items are now uploaded onto the platform every day.

"The past few months were the best in our business' history," Rebelle's Schönemann told DW.

Resale platforms are particularly popular amongst millennials and Gen Z, who are thriftier and more focused on sustainability than older consumer segments. By giving the secondhand industry the cold shoulder, luxury fashion brands have been missing out on the opportunity to attract a big market.

Kering's recent investment is aimed at "recruiting the consumers of tomorrow," Thomas Chauvet of Citigroup told DW.

Chauvet points out that cooperation with resale sites is also a way to gather data on consumers' shopping behavior and brand desirability.

Infographic showing the growth of seconhand shopping
GenZ is adopting secondhand fashion faster than any other age group

Affordable Luxury

Affordability is a major driver of secondhand luxury sales.

"I wouldn't buy a Chloé handbag in a store, but I did recently buy a secondhand one online," Barthel said.

The 27-year-old is proud of owning such a high-quality bag, it has become a staple in her wardrobe. Exorbitant price tags meant buying a luxury handbag was a distant dream for most consumers. The resale sector has brought it within reach.

The pandemic has accelerated the trend towards affordable designer fashion: About half of millennials and mature Gen Z have experienced a decrease in income since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

By partnering with resale players, luxury brands such as Alexander Mcqueen, Gucci and Burberry are slowly attempting to build up loyalty with younger customers amid the pandemic slump. The collaborations hint at an evolving attitude in the luxury sector, one which welcomes thrifty consumers.

"Luxury brands want to maintain a constant dialogue with clients, both through direct channels and on alternative platforms," Chauvet said.

In a bid to reach out to resale consumers and discourage counterfeiting, Alexander McQueen partnered up with Vestiaire Collective's new "Brand Approved" service. In the first collaboration of its kind, McQueen is collecting pre-owned items from customers in stores in exchange for store credit. The items are then authenticated by the fashion house, sent to Vestiaire Collective and sold online with a special note of approval.

Antonia Barthel wearing a Chloe handbag
Antonia Barthel from Munich can afford high-end brands thanks to resale platformsImage: privat

Sustainability is en vogue

While Antonia Barthel cherishes secondhand bargains, frugality was not her initial motivation to shop pre-owned clothes. "Sustainability plays the most important role for me. I generally don't care much about the brand," she said.

The number of Millennials and Gen Z who support sustainable products more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, according to Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC).

"The trend towards sustainability has grown even more during the pandemic," Erika Andreetta of PwC told DW.

The circular fashion model, which keeps products and materials in use as long as possible through reusing and recycling, is no longer just a buzzword. As luxury players strive to burnish their sustainability credentials, participating in the luxury resale sector will become essential. 

"Luxury brands basically don't have a choice. They understood that sustainability will be key for them going forward. Resale is a key part of sustainability," Clara Chappaz, chief business officer of Vestiaire Collective, told DW.

Infographic showing the growing market share of secondhand
Secondhand is expected to claim the second largest market share after off-price, while department stores are expected to lose market share

Chanel and Hermès charting another course

Despite the promise that the resale sector holds, Kering's pivot towards secondhand fashion remains far from universal. Fashion houses like Hermès and Chanel are still opposed to even selling their most iconic leather goods online, let alone partnering with resale parties.

Cleaning up our closets

To these more traditionally-minded houses, the rise of resale continues to feel like a loss of control over items. Chanel is currently embroiled in a lengthy court battle with resale platform The RealReal, alleging false advertising and the sale of counterfeit bags. The iconic fashion house claims that its stores are the only places qualified to sell authentic Chanel.

"The brands which may be more reluctant to accept the existence of the resale market are those which have positioned themselves as very exclusive and exert a tight control over distribution and pricing," said Chauvet.

However, Chauvet expects that brands will not be able to resist the resale sector much longer. "I think that the trend will be strong enough for everybody to embrace it and cooperate," he said. Kering's investment will likely be the first of many in luxury fashion's race to the resale sector.