There was a time when people who shopped for one-of-a-kind pieces at Antique Sugar vintage clothing boutique in Phoenix didn’t say they were thrifting. That’s changing.
Co-owner Annamarie Sanchez does not consider her shop a thrift store, but she sees customers buying high-quality pieces and tagging her shop on Instagram saying, “I thrifted this at Antique Sugar.”
Sanchez likely isn’t alone in her observation.
Nearly three in four consumers surveyed who shopped secondhand last year consider themselves thrifters, despite the wide variety of price points at vintage, consignment, thrift and online stores, according to a 2022 resale report by Thredup, an online consignment store.
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Is vintage the same as a thrift store?
In the fashion world, vintage refers to garments made 20 or more years ago, said Sarah Bingham, Sanchez’s partner at Antique Sugar.
Thrift stores stock their shelves and racks with donated items of all eras and price points. Boutiques typically don’t take donations and are looking for specific items.
To Sanchez, thrifting means getting a “bang for your buck” at a big-box store like Goodwill or Salvation Army, not necessarily buying one piece for $80.
“You’re being thrifty by spending less and getting a good deal,” Sanchez said.
However, she did say the term may be evolving because when people say thrift now, they do not necessarily mean cheap.
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How Phoenix vintage shops select their merchandise
Styles, eras and materials vary by store. At Antique Sugar, which is at 801 N. Second St., the older the clothing is, the better.
“We are very picky about what we take. We don’t take anything that was made this century,” Bingham said.
“The first thing that is on my mind when somebody calls me and asks if I buy clothing is to ask how old it is. I’m more excited about something that is slightly tattered and not in amazing shape that is 100 years old than I am about something from the 1990s that is super amazing and wearable.”
As fashion trends phase out more quickly thanks to the influence of fast-fashion brands like Shein and LuLaRoe, Bingham will buy items like a 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks T-shirt or a Looney Tunes T-shirt from the 1990s because these garments qualify as vintage.
“Honestly, that’s as new as I’m going but even that might shift at some point because 2000 was 20 years ago. I’m gonna have to start carrying newer stuff because that’s vintage now,” Bingham said.
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‘Quirky, cool or forever in style’
Julia Fournier, the owner of Bees Knees, said she has to be particular about the items she purchases to sell because she doesn’t have a lot of space to display them.
The retired schoolteacher rents 200 square feet in a building she used to own at 2222 N. 16th St., Phoenix.
“I go out and find items that I think are quirky, cool or forever in style. It used to be curated, but now it’s highly curated so each piece counts,” Fournier said.
The merchants say finding quality garments is proving more difficult in an environment of increasing in-person and online resale shopping, fast fashion and social media influence.
“I have to constantly reassess where am I going to get my stuff. I have my spots — tried and true — that I go to but when I feel like it’s drying up, I start to think about where else I can go and what else I can do.
“I think that the availability of household goods like linens is pretty strong but clothing has really gotten sparse … It could be the number of people who are thrifting and taking out the pool of good stuff to sell online or at flea markets,” Fournier said.
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How secondhand clothing is priced
Prices of secondhand clothing vary based on the original value of the garment, how rare it is and other factors.
“We used to have a formula that we went by but that went out the window pretty quick. Now, prices are based on how cool we think an item is. … You eventually figure out what the market will sustain,” Bingham said.
“I always tell people that they’re buying stuff that they are gonna be able to wear forever. If it’s cool now and it’s 60 years old, then it’s probably going to be cool forever.”
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‘The vintage community in Phoenix is very close’
Sanchez can sadly name numerous local boutiques that have closed in the last couple of years — Lollipop Vintage, Blueberry Deluxe, Cellar Door Vintage.
“What I really want is more vintage stores to open in town because I want Phoenix to be a destination for that. When they had to close, it sucked so bad — it’s been rough. They’re like family,” she said.
“I hate seeing any vintage clothing store closed down because we want to have a community. The vintage community in Phoenix is very close, everyone knows everybody. It’s just been a cycle to see one store open and then close.”
Being profitable enough to stay open and earn a living is tough. It’s “a really hard business to make money, and anybody that’s selling vintage out of a physical location is not getting rich,” Bingham said.
Inventory is procured by hand, which is labor intensive, Bingham said. Sourcing items, maintaining a sufficient stock and bringing in enough money to keep up as rents skyrocket is tough.
“This business is not like a grocery store or restaurant — people have to eat. Nobody needs vintage. We are very much kind of a discretionary buy. Even if people need clothing, there are less expensive places to go. That’s why I think vintage is a little bit of a splurge,” Bingham said.
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Tips for a successful secondhand shopping trip
The types of people searching for vintage finds have not changed much, despite the new wave of customers looking to thrift. Men, women and kids of all ages come to find something special, Sanchez said.
“Phoenix has been a wasteland of big-box stores, Chili’s and Walmarts. We are pretty proud to be like something different — something that you can’t get anywhere else,” Bingham said.
The best way to have a successful thrifting excursion is to keep an eye out on when “your favorite places are putting out new things,” Fournier said.
Here’s another pro tip: Know your measurements. Garment sizing has changed a great deal over time.
“If you’re shopping for yourself and you want to find cool pieces, you are gonna save yourself so much time if you know what your measurements are,” Bingham said.
To come to a boutique expecting to find an incredibly specific garment like a 1950s red polka dot dress is to limit your possibilities.
“Come in with an open mind and you might just find something that will become part of your permanent wardrobe,” Sanchez said.
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