Thrift stores are starting to look more like boutiques. How (and why) Maine’s market for upscale resale is growing.
It’s a hot, hot day in Boothbay. Two women are seated on the front porch of the boutique Amelia enjoying the shade and a glass of rosé. Amy Redfern, owner, looks fresh in an loose-fitting cadmium yellow cotton dress that floats all the way down to her rose-gold Birkenstocks. She breezes back into her store, a spacious boutique fronted almost entirely by windows. An expansive selection of very tempting clothing is organized by color on racks throughout the store. Pre-styled ensembles complete with bags and shoes (including Prada and Manolo Blahnik) are displayed on mannequins. A basket of lush lavender wreaths at the checkout and a selection of cosmetics, some by Boothbay’s Crow Point Apothecary, are the only items in the store that are not secondhand.
Amelia is not your average thrift store. It is one of a growing number of upscale resale shops in Maine where the goal isn’t just to save money. These boutiques offer efficiency and a clear conscience in the secondhand shopping experience to a style-minded, eco-conscious consumer. In the case of Amelia, with its white wood panel walls, wide floorboards and antique beams, the luxury is not just about designer labels; it’s about atmosphere and experience.
Fashion resale, made up of both bricks and mortar and online venues, is an emerging market slated to double over the next five years, according to the industry’s Resale Report. It is a market fed by symbiosis. On one hand, people are said to buy twice as much new clothing and use it for half as long. On the other hand, a growing number of consumers are increasingly aware of one big downside of fast fashion. By 2050, projections are that 25% of the planet’s global carbon emissions will come from textile production. On top of environmental concerns, many shoppers are turned off by how much stock is wasted (the 2010 revelation that H&M was dumping unpurchased clothing in trash bags on a New York street was an eye-opener for many). Then there is how some brands treat garment workers, including paying them poverty wages and having them work in unsafe conditions, demonstrated perhaps most vividly in 2013 when the collapse of an eight-story factory in Bangladesh killed more than 1,100 people, many of them women.
The industry has responded, but with mixed results. According to the United Nations’ Climate Change News, between 2017 and 2018 there was a 6% increase in general sustainability efforts within the entire garment industry. Zara recently announced it would use only sustainable fabrics and created a secondhand clothing collection system. But that’s problematic as well; so much used clothing stock is sent to African nations (at least 70% of it worldwide, Oxfam has said) that their own textile industries have been devalued. A half dozen East African nations are trying to ban further incoming shipments of secondhand clothing. France and the United Kingdom recently banned the destruction of unsold merchandise and the Norwegian Consumer Authority called out H&M for greenwashing by inaccurately calling a line “sustainable.”
Redfern and other owners of Maine resale retailers are responding with a focus on high quality fabrics, natural fibers, ethically produced, sustainable brands in a well-organized, intentional and supportive space, be it through social media or storefronts.. Their owners are creative but practical people, often women with academic and career successes under their belts, looking for meaningful work and a better life/work balance. Redfern has an MFA in Creative Writing, a degree in biology with a focus on ecology, and a background as a marketing and branding strategist. The kind that led to her children calling her “Phone Mommy” before she went into the conscious clothing movement.
“I see a big part of my job is to educate my customers. You can’t get an unconscious consumer to recognize the issue of sustainability.”
Redfern places the frosty rosé on the coffee table in the sitting area, next to a fanned stack of magazines about Maine. She then considers a flight of dresses. “We’re seeing a shift in the seasons. Summer is later, hotter and longer now.” She pulls out a lightweight woven sleeveless grey dress (Boden, $36). “We can’t wear traditional fall looks until much later. You need to be able to layer.” Redfern grabs an oversized cashmere sweater (Pure, $48) , picks up a corset-style leather belt ($24) and holds the outfit above a pair of leather Frye boots at the foot of the rack. “There.”
Buying an item secondhand is said to lower its carbon imprint by about 82%. “If you need something you can find it used, and that helps reduce total consumption but also keeps stuff with value out of the waste stream,” says Cindy Isenhour, associate professor of anthropology and climate change at the University of Maine. Which is “another huge and literally growing problem,” she adds.
The KonMari Method, which dictates that things that don’t spark joy be expunged from one’s wardrobe, has been credited with drawing attention to Americans’ excessive consumption. At the same time, this approach has its critics in sustainability circles. From their perspective, the goal is non-accumulation: Buy things you need that you will keep forever, and stop shopping. Using “joy” as a criteria for what’s in your closet may actually motivate people to start over and buy, buy again.
Either way, these boutique resale shop owners agree that a fast-fashion mindset has contributed to a glut of available resale goods. While Maine doesn’t have any, there are nationwide chains that sell old and new clothes, like Buffalo Exchange (founded in 1974 and now in 50 locations). The number of online resellers like ThredUp, The Real Real, ASOS and 1stDibs, is also growing rapidly.
“These huge companies are doing consignment on a massive scale, just cranking out hundreds of items every day,” says Sarah Cellier, owner of the Georgetown-based online venue, Rice & Beans Vintage. She has carved a niche specializing in authenticated designer accessories. (Think: Chanel handbags and boots by Christian Louboutin.) “They have their place in making resale available to people on a large scale, but these online places are turning out so much product, the quality is not really reliable. I can go on any of these sites and point out things that aren’t authentic.” To boot, even in Cellier’s high-end selections, she notes that things made 20 to 30 years ago were better quality. Bags had leather lining. Zippers and hardware were gold-plated. Those items are much harder to find now.
If it took time to find that special thing in the funky thrift shop of yesteryear, today’s used clothing superstores are even more time-consuming. “I would gladly spend one to three hours in Goodwill so women will feel they have another option,” says Kristan Green, whose boutique Guru Vintage + Modern curates chic looks to sell on Instagram and in her new store in Bath. She goes over every piece with a commercial grade steamer (“it kills bacteria”) and has an arsenal of hands-on stain-removal techniques. “There’s a whole process. It’s tedious.” If an item is not in great condition after Green’s had her way with it, it doesn’t make it to the rack. “This is not a thrift store, it’s a boutique.”
As resale boutiques respond to a saturated market with harder-to-find categories like menswear (men don’t throw clothes out), children’s (post-toddlerhood, kids tend to destroy their clothes), or plus sizes, they also offer personalized services like closet detox and style consultations. Their aim: to make a strong people-to-people connection. “I see a big part of my job is to educate my customers,” says Redfern, who was also a yoga teacher for 12 years. “You can’t get an unconscious consumer to recognize the issue of sustainability.”
In light of helping in this environmental emergency, “We all just have to pick one area where we make a difference,” says Green. “Maybe I can’t do everything, but I can do this. Look at this piece!” With satisfaction, she holds up a cream, raw silk, unstructured pantsuit embellished by abstract gold metallic block printing. “I would never resell fast fashion. It has done so much damage to the planet and the way we see ourselves, our thought process about shopping. I am changing the way people think about clothing and what they’re spending money on.”
“When we started out in 2012, we had a lot of vintage, cheap clothing,” says Jenny Davis, owner of Portland’s Haberdashery Resale Clothing Co. It’s evolved. “We are all in a minimalist mindset now, but I still want people to buy my stuff. So we sell better quality—fewer things for more money. That’s what people want.” Haberdashery also photographs its new arrivals daily to sell them online, and even has its own influencers, a duo named Loretta Bryant and Grace Gregory, who present the collections like an online magazine spread. She and her team look in consignment and resale shops all over the state and on the Internet (as well as from resellers who bring pieces to the store). “I love flipping, knowing the value of something and turning around and selling it. Finding vintage is treasure hunting.”
High-end resale shop owners work hard to retain their secondhand shopper. Haberdashery needed a brick-and-mortar makeover to keep up with its online image and a higher price tag. The shop went from a “rustic looking” space with cafe lights, old carpeting and fitting rooms made out of old barn boards to a bright, clean, white and well-organized space. The style is for the hip, young, creative professional. “We couldn’t ask people to spend $70 on a dress when it felt like they were in a junk shop,” says Davis.
“This is not a thrift store, it’s a boutique.”
Green’s storefront for Guru in Bath is new. The shelves and racks in the shop were handmade by her boyfriend, Johnny Lomba, using steel and reclaimed wood from a salvage yard in Hollis. Green grew up watching Cindy Crawford on The Style Network and attended Fashion Institute of Technology. She worked for a tailor and started selling secondhand clothing on Etsy about 10 years ago. In the works for Guru: custom-fit used jeans, and a small rack of new, ethically produced brands. The physical store is a way to build a physical community, and to offer potential for hand-tailoring.
The shared goal of these upscale resalers is to make be-woke resale the new normal. How realistic is that for most people, or for the working single mother shopping for three kids and their multiple needs? “Folks who try this sort of thing rarely stick with it in the long term, in part because it is socially non-normative,” says Isenhour at UMaine. As she points out, as long as we try to match the reflection we see in a consumer society’s mirror, movements toward non-accumulation won’t work.
That’s why for Redfern sustainable fashion starts in the fitting room—incidentally, hers are luxuriously large and well lit, sectioned by thick linen drapes. Redfern offers complimentary styling inspired by her body-positive activism, in-store and sometimes at customers’ homes. She’s been known to talk customers out of clothes if they don’t fit perfectly. If women can feel comfortable in their own skin, Redfern believes, they will stop seeking self satisfaction in each fad diet, dress size and fast fashion. “I love that quote from Galway Kinnell’s poem St. Francis and the Sow: ‘Sometimes you have to reteach a thing its loveliness.’ We have to do that for ourselves. I can’t make that happen for someone else. All I can do is hold the space.”
Emily Seymour, co-owner with her husband Benjamin Dorr of Curator Consignment in Rockland, has one rule. “That is that it should fit you. You should love it when you put it on. You never reach for that thing that kind of fits.” Curator Consignment originally was exclusively menswear but has added a women’s department. Seymour and Dorr are newlyweds; both wore resale to their big event: For him, a linen suit he found on eBay, and for her, a 1950s silk organza dress she scored in New York City.
The more of these purveyors of high quality used garments the merrier, because the consensus in the scientific community is that the world needs to come together if there is to be any chance of truly fighting climate change. As Isenhour points out, collective action is the key. “Individual efforts fail to send a signal to the folks who need to hear it most,” she says. For places like Amelia’s and Guru Vintage + Modern and like-minded upscale resellers (Maine is rich enough in upscale rescale that it would be a challenge to present a complete list) it’s all about bringing people into the fold, and keeping them there. “I want people to feel confident and good going home with something that will last the next 20 years because it’s already lasted 20,” says Green. “I want it to be like I’ve done something good.”
Kerry Eielson and her husband own and ran La Muse Retreat, a writers residency in France, from 2001 until recently, when they relocated to Maine with their three children. She has worked in magazine publishing and written for The New York Times, among other publications.