Thrifting culture spurs a rise in CNY secondhand shopping

Thrifting culture and secondhand shopping in CNY

Inspired by social media, Syracuse shoppers create new styles from old clothes.
Published: May 18, 2023
College students thrift shopping in Syracuse
Syracuse University students Cordiana Cozier, Paloma Hopson and Jordan Young shop at Cluttered Closet at 742 S. Beech St. in the Westcott neighborhood.

Cluttered Closet’s Bree Hess gazes around her Syracuse vintage shop, her eyes landing on a row of extravagantly feathered hats, hanging neatly along the wall.

“Who were they then versus who are they now? I wonder if this lady went to church every Sunday in this hat or maybe she got it for a wedding one time and then it sat in a box in her closet until she passed away and then her daughter brings the mom’s hats in,” Hess says. “It’s just really cool to think even with a teapot whose table did this sit on in 1956? What did their kitchen walls look like? Did they have the crazy lime green refrigerator and the Formica counters? It all definitely ties together.”

She moves over to the shelf just across from her checkout counter, crowded with various figurines, glassware, ceramics, and dolls, picking out one doll of a little boy that could fit in the palm of a hand.

“A relative of a relative of a relative had this little doll since forever and ever and ever and ever. It’s actually from the 1920s and his head is ceramic even though his body isn’t. Isn’t that wild?” she continues. The person who brought it in didn’t know where it came from. “How old were you when you first remembered starting to see him, the little guy floating around the house?”

Before she opened a vintage store in the Westcott neighborhood, Hess was a shopper. She grew up thrifting with her mother and sister in their hometown of Chenango, New York, and has watched the region’s second-hand stores change over the years. She loves learning about her clients and the history that vintage pieces carry, most of which are locally sourced and brought in by consigners. She says that she is especially intrigued by accessory items such as hats and antique household items, and often finds herself questioning the history of the item, its previous owners, and how it got to be in this exact place at this exact time.

The fascination with items from the past and their stories is not unique to Hess. Secondhand shopping, a longtime necessity for those with limited budgets and a hobby for treasure hunters, now thrives in the digital world, too. Online thrifting sites such as Depop and Mercari and social media sites like TikTok promote thrifting culture, and the secondhand economy is booming. ThreadUp, an online secondhand marketplace, says the resale industry grew 85% between 2017 and 2022 and expects the marketplace to grow to $350 billion by 2027.

Thrifting also enables shoppers to engage in adult dress-up, cultivating a personal style one piece at a time. Syracuse University sophomore Audrey Weisburd likes to experiment with pieces from different time periods and parts of people’s lives.

“Thrifting has helped me develop my personal style in so many ways,” she says. “Shuffling through secondhand clothes is a much more human experience. All these pieces carry stories and energy and someone else’s memories. I love getting more experimental / out of my comfort zone with the clothes I pick out at a thrift store, and I personally like the idea that someone I don’t know once loved that piece too.”

Weisburd’s favorite find is a fringed red suede jacket. She wanted a statement piece to wear to concerts, something that would draw attention and radiate with vibrant energy.

“In the men’s section at Syracuse Antiques Exchange, I saw a single thread of firecracker fringe peeking out of a crammed full rack. It was the first few weeks of sophomore year, several days after a breakup, a big move, and a giant loss, and somewhere in the confusion, change, and heartbreak, all I craved was an item that represented fun, funky vitality,” she recalled. “That’s what this piece is to me! Dynamic and electric, sassy and bold, me at my most free, not weighed down by the heavier aspects of life and growing up. If anything, it’s a piece that says independence isn’t so bad.”

Syracuse University student Audrey shows off styles based on vintage and secondhard stores.
Audrey Weisburd says she has found memorable pieces that she feels connected to while thrifting in Central New York.

Manifesting is an important part of senior Lindsay Kernen’s thrifting experience. “When I have a vision for an outfit that I came up with myself, being able to go and find pieces is really fun, because they’re all slightly different from what I had in mind. I’m just sifting through the racks envisioning what I could pair with this piece, or how it could look,” she says.

Kernen’s finds include Vejas shoes she wore all over London during a semester abroad, an army jacket worn in combat many years ago, and even a cozy striped robe perfect for icy Syracuse winters. For Kernen and others, thrifting is also social. Friends go to stores together and draw creative inspiration from each other’s individual styles. Individual pieces can be further customized.

“My sister’s girlfriend always goes to the thrift stores with a pair of scissors and measuring tape because she’ll alter something right away and see what she can do with it. She looks at all the pieces as starting points for what she can make,” she says.

Syracuse University students show off styles based on vintage and secondhard stores.
Lindsay Kernen (center) and her friends each have a unique personal style that they have been able to curate through thrifting with each other.

That sense of freedom is what drew SU freshman Kaitlyn Saxton to thrifting. During the pandemic, when going anywhere was a treat, Saxton began visiting secondhand stores in her Santa Clarita, California. Thrift stores emboldened her as she began to discover her own taste and style. She also loved that she could donate her own clothes and encourage someone else to try something new.

“You bring clothes with you from different places and then you give back to it to a thrift store in whatever city you’re in at the moment,” she says. “With constant trends coming out and people constantly consuming, consuming, consuming, consuming, thrifting is kind of a way to lean away from that.”

Sustainability is a major part of thrifting’s appeal, says Andrew Rainbow, who hosts pop-up vintage sales near campus. “A lot of clothing companies now purposely don’t make things last,” he says. “They make it with a limited shelf life so you have to continue to buy more things from them. If it’s vintage, it’s already lasted 20 years and it’s probably going to last.”

But that pull of nostalgia is even stronger than virtue, Rainbow says. Most of his customers range from college students to people in their 30s, but all are interested in fashion or a particular time period. “I’ve had everyone from 10-year-olds who wanted a jersey to look like their dad in a picture they saw, and then I’ve had 80-year-old women buy T-shirts for their husbands because that was something they wore when they were in their 20s,” he says.

Rainbow noticed an increased interest in thrifting during the pandemic when he says people were home, shopping online and thinking about a simpler time. Social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram pioneered “haul” culture, which lead to “thrift haul” culture, in which a creator would go to a thrift store, purchase many items, and post their findings, occasionally modeling them. There are also creators who post videos such as “best thrift shops in NYC,” telling their viewers the best spots to get good clothes.

For secondhand store owners like Hess, the growing interest in thrifting means higher prices. A nephew who works at the Salvation Army store in Chenango says garments turn over faster than ever, perhaps destined for the online thrifting apps. Hess uses the apps as a data point when pricing her items, but never shops. For her, it’s always better to thrift in person and find that perfect find.

“It was meant to be because I walked in at this exact time on the exact day,” she says. “It feels like the universe wanted you to have it.”