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Instagram and the Art of the Thrift Store Find

Wading through the app for vintage duds has totally changed the game

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This week, The Ringer explores how the "on demand" model has changed the way we consume TV, film, food, products, and, well, almost everything. Consumers have both adjusted to the streaming era and dictated how businesses operate in its wake. Our On-Demand Week stories grapple with how this shift came to be — and what it means for the future of tech, culture, and how we access both. Find all the stories here.

"One second, I just need to finish up posting these," Marissa Johnson told me as she balanced on a stool behind her store’s glass counter, typing furiously on her iPhone between sips of coffee. It was a chilly spring day, and the midday foot traffic outside Fox & Fawn — Johnson’s eclectic, Brooklyn-based vintage clothing shop — was light. So she began her morning routine: casting well-baited lines out into the great expanse of the internet to see if anyone would bite. In more specific terms, she was posting a photo of never-worn, vintage day-of-the-week underwear on Instagram.

Actually, it was a cluster of posts: a few pieces of old silver jewelry carefully laid out on a black knit background, two matching ’90s souvenir jackets with "Japan" embroidered on their backs, and a slightly scuffed 1940s ostrich purse. Across the room, a pile of items had already been churned through the store’s Instagram feed and wrapped up in plastic postage envelopes, waiting to be picked up by the mailman and sent to victorious internet shoppers. "Alright," she said, finally placing her phone down on the counter and turning toward me, indicating that now it was time to wait.

What began for Johnson and her former business partner a few years back as a simple effort to boost business on a rainy day has now become integral to the marketing and sales of her shop’s ever-changing merchandise. In the same way people shop online with a few clicks for kitty litter, appliances, apartments, lovers, and cars, so, too, do they shop for cutesy vintage panties. And by way of critical mass, user friendliness, and the never-ending hustle of the vintage community, Instagram has become the unofficial marketplace to do it.

Since the early days of the commercial internet, used-clothing sellers have sought to expand their customer bases via online storefronts like Craigslist, eBay, and Etsy. (In fact, a handful of online retail stores, like Nasty Gal, got their start there.) In the seven years since Instagram launched, it has become a go-to location for the on-demand second-hand clothing market, transforming the DIY profession into its own parallel-universe fashion industry. Savvy collectors now use the platform’s social features, hashtags, and photo-editing tools to market their best goods to a more diverse customer base, styling their photoshoots and models to push seasonal trends and following potential buyers based on their activity — just like their corporate counterparts. The ease of Insta-sales has emboldened a new generation of one-man digital thrift shops while transforming the art of the find. No longer are teenagers rifling through rack after Goodwill rack, on a mission for a pristine $11 Members Only jacket. Now their finds are curated by the online stores they follow, and stumbling on a treasure is as simple as scrolling up.

Like all social media phenomena, the trend of selling vintage clothing via Instagram started slowly, then happened all at once. Johnson doesn’t recall the exact date her former business partner posted the store’s first item with the caption "ring me" encouraging their followers to call in for purchase. (It was sometime before spring 2014, but the store’s account has posted more than 21,400 images since then, and the app crashed multiple times when I attempted to scroll back and find out.) Both the terminology the partners used and the path to purchase are now the norm for vintage business across the United States, including accounts based out of storefronts (like @shoppainted_bird or @mindseyevintage) and from individual buyers (like @brentedwardvintage or @pinkponyvintage). The process varies by seller, but usually goes like this: An employee picks out something from their stock that they think will sell — popular items, according to the owners I spoke to, include Levi’s, size-9 shoes, vintage sportswear, and eye-catching prints — and posts it online with a caption containing the item’s measurements, era, and brand. Followers are encouraged to claim the item in a number of ways, like commenting on the photo with the words "ring me" to charge an account that’s already on file with the store, DMing a PayPal address, or clicking through to the shop’s online store via a "link in bio." (This method of sale has even inspired an app. The former partner of Kristin Klein, who runs the San Francisco–based vintage clothing store Vacation, left the business to create a business named Postcart that simplifies Instagram purchasing.) Whoever responds first is awarded the posted item, a process that can sometimes get frantic. Some loyal shoppers even arrange their account settings to receive notifications when particular sellers publish a photo, the modern-day equivalent of showing up to a Salvation Army on the day new inventory arrives.

"We have some people that get really competitive, really good buyers that obviously have their notifications turned on so they know when we start posting stuff," said Klein, who opened up her brick-and-mortar shop in the Tenderloin in 2012. "That’s really a compliment to me. If I see an order come through I’m like: ‘Her again, that’s sick.’"

Instagram sellers often describe their success on the platform in terms of before and after the algorithm changed. In the early days, when the feed was chronological, sellers like Klein and Johnson had a direct line to their buyers and would often receive a call for an item within seconds of posting it. "Before, everything went instantly," Johnson said. "People had no choice but to see it on their feed." Then, more than a year ago, the Facebook-owned company tweaked the order that photos appeared, surfacing images based on a person’s habits, rather than in chronological order. Not only did this upset longtime Instagram addicts who worried they’d miss their friends’ updates, but it shook the vintage-seller community. The time between a post and a sale grew longer — that adrenaline shot of the immediate Insta-sale gone — and the number of likes, comments, and hashtags on a photo began to factor into whether it was seen.

"When the algorithm changed, it was a wake-up call for a lot of businesses," Johnson said. "It was sort of like: What does this mean?"

The handful of shop owners I spoke to said their Instagram sales have stabilized again. What may have once accounted for between 20 and 40 percent of business in a day for some now amounts to what many describe as a helpful but somewhat unreliable supplemental income. Mostly, owners say, as long as they’re choosing what to post wisely, they sell the majority of items they post.

"We sell enough on Instagram that it adds up to if we had an eight-day week instead of a seven-day week," Klein told me.

Aside from boosting a store’s income, a well-followed Instagram feed can also function as a marketing platform, an opportunity for stylish owners to display their fashionable staff and funky tastes the same way designer brands do in magazine editorials. Though some stores, like Fox & Fawn, prefer to photograph the items on the rack, others know that less-seasoned vintage shoppers expect a more elevated presentation. Brent Amerman, a 33-year-old online seller who includes the Kardashians and Stephanie Seymour in his clientele (or at least their stylists), says that the presentation of a high-end garment goes a long way in making a larger profit.

"That’s what people are paying me to do," said Amerman, whose Instagram has been written up by Vogue. "I just do their thrift shopping. They don’t want to go digging, they don’t want to dry-clean the items, they just want it handed to them. I love the thrill of finding it, but I think the younger audience especially doesn’t do that and aren’t trained to do that. To me, that’s what a real good vintage collector does, but a vintage collector with money just scrolls."

In other cases sellers see their newfound influence on the platform as a way to contribute their creative flare to what they see becoming a largely uniform industry.

"I have, like, a real aversion to the succulent-in-concrete-planters-fucking-oversized-linen-bullshit-manufactured–Northern California aesthetic that’s everywhere," said Klein, who explained that she’s particular about the framing and styling of each photo in her shop’s Instagram feed. "It’s pushed at you from a single person’s Etsy store to, like, Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters. Across the board, people want their lives to look like a fucking Pinterest board, and that’s the most gross thing to me ever. So what I try to do is give someone an opportunity to be an individual."

These DIY online editorials can sometime even influence item demand, said Michael Zweig, a longtime rag-yard buyer who sells clothing to vintage shop owners in Brooklyn. He points to an L.A.-based shop called The Corner Store, which began photographing girls in what he describes as "strange, ruffley maxi dresses in weird makeup and hair." But because the shop is followed by 34,600 people, most members of the vintage-selling community, he’s been able to sling similar garments by referencing their aesthetic.

"There are trends that get generated because of certain popular Instagram accounts showing certain things, and then people realize: ‘Oh this is cool and we can do it, too,’" Zweig said. "I end up selling things that I would never sell because literally I say to somebody: ‘That’s very Corner Store.’"

As a result of each account’s growing following, sellers and models are becoming minor celebrities within the vintage community themselves. All the elements of this Instagram-made fashion subculture culminate at a vintage megamarket dubbed A Current Affair that’s held in both Brooklyn, New York, and Richmond, California, each year. Zweig describes this biannual event as a deliberately hip answer to the Manhattan Vintage Show, a gathering in New York that he says is typically frequented by "80-year-old women with a ton of makeup and hats and feathers and stuff." At A Current Affair, sellers dress up in their best vintage threads, bring the models they feature on their feeds, and curate their mobile storefronts to be highly photogenic. Some fashion bloggers show up to try on clothes in an almost performative manner, a process that is subsequently chronicled on vendors’ feeds.

"This show is kind of a product of the Instagram generation," Zweig said. "It’s almost like some of these sellers are celebrities, literally. People recognize them. And they’ll all go up and introduce themselves, like, ‘Oh my god, I saw you on Instagram. I can’t believe I’m meeting you.’"

But even as the vintage community continues to thrive on Instagram, there’s a creeping uncertainty that the platform itself could take all that success away. The platform’s introduction of business profiles last spring may have made it easier to directly call storefronts from the app, but it also made store owners like Johnson nervous that the platform might eventually charge her to use the service for sales.

"I always worry that they’re going to charge us, or capitalize on the fact that people are capitalizing on this thing," she said. "I don’t know, bubbles burst, and technology is ever-changing and evolving."

After I left the shop and headed to the subway, I glanced at the Fox & Fawn feed. A string of commenters were already rushing to claim the underwear I’d watched Johnson post. "FRIDAY AND PURPLE SUNDAY SOLD," she’d written in response to a phone-call request. "I’ll take the remaining two […] ring me," another follower replied. For now, it would appear things are business as usual.