Gen Z Retail Fashion

Letter from gen Z: why thrifting is the future of fashion

By Emily Johnson, -

June 7, 2021 | 6 min read

Amid a growing trend of brands investing in resale opportunities – and on the heels of Etsy’s acquisition of secondhand shopping app Depop for $1.6bn – it’s more apparent than ever that today’s consumers demand sustainable fashion. The Drum’s resident gen Z expert Emily Johnson examines why thrifting is more than just a trend – and how brands can make the most of the ‘vintage’ and ‘upcycling’ movements.

Young girl in thrift shop

For gen Z, thrifting isn’t just shopping, but a whole experience

For generations, people have reused and recycled clothes for a variety of reasons: to look unique in vintage clothing, to find a bargain that makes the dollars stretch further and, most recently, to avoid sending more stuff to landfill. It has all happened in a low-key, organic way, without marketing getting involved. But now thrifting is becoming big business, and marketing teams are wanting a piece of the action.

Gen Z, in particular, has evolved the concept of thrifting, and there are three main factors driving this phenomenon: the input from brands, the role of influencers and the creation of experiences.

Underpinning all this is the shift in terminology. ‘Secondhand’ and ‘used’ descriptors have given way to ones such as ‘vintage’. Vintage cars and rare collectables have always been valuable, but now gen Z is making everyday vintage items among the most sought-after.

A perfect example is the current frenzy for vintage sweatshirts. Nowadays, the Champion sweatshirt you bought at a ball game in the 1990s could be worth a lot more than the original price – and certainly more than any sweatshirt you could find in the gift shop today. In 2021, what is fashionable and what is unique are often synonymous. Anyone can buy and wear current and mass-produced items, but not everyone can have that hard-to-replicate look created by a rare Japanese t-shirt and vintage Lee daisy duke shorts.

It’s safe to say that it’s going to be a challenge for brands to produce goods and market to a generation whose members all want to be different from each other. No longer are the standard Gap khakis going to cut it.

H&M’s attempts better than just doing nothing

This trend is garnering interest from brands. Companies have realized that there is money to be made recycling their branded items, and promoting the vintage value of their brands gives them that unique factor that everyone seeks.

Brands are also under pressure to do the right thing, and for gen Z that means taking care of the environment. Companies know the importance of building sustainability into their plans.

But it’s not that easy. A lot of eyes have been on H&M recently, criticizing the company’s attempt to introduce their recycling initiative Garment Collecting. In my view, any progress towards sustainable shopping is better than no progress. Big brands that started by emitting lots of fossil fuels and using cheap labor in a time where it was more acceptable are now labeled as ‘fast fashion’. We know these brands should not continue on the path where they began; however, it’s too late to turn back the clock. What they can now do is start to take strides towards sustainability.

The power and price of influence

We all know the power influencers have over any trend or movement these days, and the same is true for recycling. Emma Chamberlain is a 20-year-old American YouTuber with over 10 million subscribers, and she is well known for being funny and consistently uploading relatable content. The vlogger has started many fashion trends, from her poopy jacket trend two years ago to bringing back flair-cut yoga pants this year. She has influence over millions of teenagers, not only on what they wear, but where they shop.

Recently Emma has showcased herself thrifting in many videos and posted hauls showing off her new vintage pieces. Not everyone can buy the same jacket as her anymore, but they can keep up with her trendy aesthetic by shopping in the same places.

Emma’s recommendation to shop at a vintage flea market called Melrose in LA has young people traveling across the country for a chance to visit. As with everything for gen Z, shopping at a store like Melrose isn’t merely a transactional moment; it has to be a whole experience, so the venue for thrifting becomes a cool hangout and a brand unto itself.

At Melrose, just like many thrifting spots, there is a wide variety in price. Many people go to find a bargain on trendy clothes, while others may be in the market for higher-priced items. During my most recent visit to Melrose, I found a cool manga t-shirt that I thought my brother might like, but when I was told it cost $250 it went right back on the rack. However, I still left with a great haul of items within my budget.

Levi’s is doing well at embracing the thrifting phenomenon, and influencers have noticed. The brand started Levi’s SecondHand last year, a place to buy used, loved Levi’s denim. As a result, Emma added her own feature on the website to shop her favorite Levi’s picks.

While many generational trends come and go, this one is going to stick around – just like the clothes that are being upcycled. Champion, and brands like it, will miss out if they don’t take notice and join the movement.

Emily Johnson is an editorial intern at The Drum and future Syracuse University undergrad.

For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.

Gen Z Retail Fashion

More from Gen Z

View all


Industry insights

View all
Add your own content +