We're trying to start a vintage clothing business! How do we source the best clothing at the best prices?
November 26, 2012 10:06 AM   Subscribe

How do I source reasonable to high quality vintage clothing at low prices

Some friends and I have a bit of capital with which to start a business. We've decided we want to try selling great quality, mid-century vintage garments online, probably etsy at first... and later (if that works out... fingers crossed), through our own website and/or a brick-and-mortar shop. What we're struggling most with so far is finding reliable sources of good clothing--we're really trying to minimize losses and not accumulate a bunch of stock that won't sell. Online vintage lot dealers seem of questionable quality for the price, and e-bay often gets rather expensive. We've just thought to look on craigslist, and so far that seems the most promising... we shall see. Any advice on where to find the best garments at the best prices would be much appreciated (we're Chicago-based if that's relevant)... or, any general wisdom about starting a business of this type, for that matter. We're really hoping to make a go of this, and want to make all the right decisions from the outset. Thanks!
posted by faeuboulanger to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Estate sales.
posted by jon1270 at 10:16 AM on November 26, 2012

You have to have a real passion for this, and a lot of time.

Estate sales are the best places. Contact some of the places that do clean outs or whole lot house liquidations after someone has died. See if you can get first dibs on the clothing. You will have to sift through 99 nasty things before you find a gem.

Very rarely will any of the clothes be perfect at first. You'll have to learn how to repair, clean and freshen the clothing. It's a labor of love.

Troll neighborhoods where folks are having yard sales before retiring to Boca.

The only way you can make this pay is by taking dreck and making it nice. People selling vintage aren't getting it perfect and ready to sell, they're buying it in a yukky condition and making it nice.

Lots of thrift store shopping, yard sale hopping, and asking little old ladies if you can look through their attics.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:17 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Nthing estate sales. My most highly regarded vintage shops here in SF literally travel all over the US to find stock. My favorite dress from one of them came was sourced at an estate sale in Florida.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:49 AM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: I've been in the vintage clothing business for 15 years and it's a matter of working hard to make the connections in order to access the good stuff. There's no one trick or location or type of sale - it's just a matter of constantly searching and networking.

And I hope I don't sound cynical by saying this but most vintage dealers are not keen on sharing their sources, because most of us have worked long and hard to develop them, and there is, as you know, a limited amount of good clothing.

That being said, I wish you the best of luck. It is a crazy fun business that has brought me a lot of satisfaction. If I could give any advice it would be that you need to be prepared to work hard and work consistently. I've seen countless young women enthusiastically start up vintage clothing businesses, only to see them fade away after a year or so. It is so much more work than most people anticipate.

Feel free to MeMail me if you have any specific questions!
posted by suki at 10:50 AM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I have also been an off-and-on vintage clothing dealer for about 15 years, and even co-owned a shop for a while. "Great quality, mid-century vintage garments" are not really something you can "source," per se (more on this later), and I would caution against even looking at this as a good choice for a conventional brick-and-mortar business model, where you have a consistent inventory which you purchase for a consistent price, etc.

Most people that are successful at this are 1) serious craphounds who love finding this stuff, to the extent that they haunt thrift stores, auctions and estate sales even when they're not officially looking for stock (but, actually, are always looking for stock) and 2) have multiple sales venues, including eBay, Etsy, vintage clothing/textile shows (many of which they travel around the country for, shopping for new stuff at the same time), rockabilly weekenders, Japanese guys they know who come to America as pickers themselves, an antique mall booth, etc. Each of these outlets are better or worse for selling specific types of vintage clothing: eBay is great for stuff which is easy to find with a keyword search, the Japanese guy will want your midcentury workwear, the rockabillies will pay a premium for the flashier 40s-60s clothing, like gabardine jackets and halter tops with fruit on them or whatever, and Etsy can be a good place to carve out a niche for other categories (e.g. the recent vogue for "traditional"/Ivy Style menswear, exemplified by Zachary DeLuca). A store comes last, usually, because it has the most overhead: rent, utilities, staff to cover open hours if you can't do it all yourself, some asshole breaking a window, etc.

As far as sourcing your stock: if you want to be successful--financially successful, and not just a dabbler or dilletante--it's important to be willing to sell the vintage clothing you can find, even if it doesn't conform closely to your idea of the vintage clothing you want to sell. Younger people these days are very happy to buy high-quality and interesting clothing from the 1980s and even 1990s (remember that they are too young to have owned it the first time around), and the vintage clothing world is positively lousy with dealers stuck in a certain era who "won't touch that [40s/50s/60/70s/80s/90s] trash"--these people, generally, are not running a viable business, they are supporting a hobby. If they have a store, and some of them do, even in Chicago, they are often supported by a spouse, or own/have a sweetheart deal on their storefront, etc. It can require considerable hustle to earn even a marginal (think $30,000 per year) income in a small shop owned by more than one person putting in 40 hours a week.

Other than estate sales, auctions and estates, there are raggers who will sell you fungible "types" of vintage clothing at a set price, but you generally won't be getting midcentury or quality. This is the kind of stock you see at places like Ragstock: think 70s pleather or cheap leather jackets, acrylic sweaters, and poly-blend flannel shirts. If you want the good stuff, you need to hunt for it, and in Chicago this will at least mean going to far southside thrift shops and will probably involve traveling to out-of-town estate sales and auctions--there's a lot of stuff to buy here, but there can also be a lot of competition.

If you haven't dipped your toe into actual sales in Chicago (and I highly recommend doing this first, if you don't have experience selling vintage clothing), try accumulating some stock from auctions, thrift stores and estate sales and taking a booth at a couple of Chicago's shows, like the Vintage Garage and the Vintage Bazaar. This will give you a chance to see what actually sells to the average vintage shopper in Chicago, and will help you make decisions about what kind of stock you want to buy and how to price it. If you aren't already planning to go, you should also attend the Chicagoland Vintage Clothing, Jewelry and Textile Show & Sale in Elgin this February.
posted by pullayup at 2:49 PM on November 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

I started renting space at a brick-and-mortar vintage shop here in DC at the end of February. For my initial inventory, I went to a ton of thrift stores and estate sales, but more than half of my stock was bought from a wholesaler in Baltimore.

There might be a similar wholesaler in your area-- I know there's one in Philadelphia too. Basically, they buy clothes by the bale from charities, pick through them for the vintage stuff, and sell it by the piece at fairly low prices to dealers. There's usually a steep minimum purchase, but it could be worth your time.

I'll post more in a bit-- there's a lot that's worth knowing about getting into this business.
posted by nonasuch at 5:11 PM on November 26, 2012

Just a quick note about raggers (the "wholesale vintage" businesses that buy bales and sort them into general categories like "hawaiian shirts" or "hippy tops"): if it is even remotely possible you want to go to their warehouse and pick the items out yourself. Generally the minimum piece counts and prices will still apply, but you can separate the wheat from the chaff--and there can be a lot of chaff. Plus, shipping clothing can be expensive. You should only let them pick and ship your order if you have an excellent preexisting relationship and trust them to send you 100% salable product.
posted by pullayup at 10:36 PM on November 26, 2012

Best answer: Okay, so having given it some thought, here are things you need to know:

If you're starting out on Etsy (as I did), you're going to need storage space for your inventory. Depending on how much inventory you're willing to keep on hand, this could be anything from a rack in your living room to a rented storage space.

You will also need to take really, really good pictures. Invest in a better camera, and learn how to use it. Learn to write good, clear descriptions that mention all potential flaws and pitfalls, and take careful measurements. The Etsy seller I recommend studying, if you want to learn from the best, is Dear Golden.

For me, Etsy was way too much of a hassle. I wasn't a good enough photographer, I found listing tedious, and handling shipping and the occasional return drove me nuts. So I started selling my finds to the owner of a local vintage store. I did this often enough that she offered me the chance to consign with her, at a 50/50 split, and once I had been doing that for a while she asked me if I'd like to rent the basement of her shop from her. Now I pay rent (and work in the shop one or two days a week), but I get to keep the money from everything I sell. Since I actually enjoy selling things when I am knowledgeable about the product (I love vintage and wear it daily), this is pretty much an ideal setup for me.

Right now, I have about 500 items in inventory (including smalls-- gloves, scarves, purses, hats, shoes, the art on the walls, and so on) in a roughly 15x20' space. That gives me room four five racks: two long racks of dresses, two round racks (one of coats, tops, jackets, and sweaters; one of skirts, lingerie, and aprons), and one small double rack of children's clothes. Plus a bookshelf and some stacks of suitcases and hatboxes in the corners where I display smalls.

Because the shop I sell in is well-established, we get a decent number of people calling or walking in with things to sell, and if I'm in the shop when they come in I get first dibs. I buy about a quarter of my stock that way. About half comes from thrift stores, and the remaining quarter comes from estate sales. Sometimes I get lucky and hit a big score-- I went to an estate sale in March where I bought 98 beautiful late 50s/early 60s dresses for $1 each. But that's vanishingly unlikely to happen more than once in a while. The wholesaler was useful for setting up my initial inventory, but I don't go back very often-- usually only when I'm low on stock and not finding much from my usual sources. And I pick everything out myself.

Contacts matter. If you can, get friendly with the managers of your local thrift stores-- I have an agreement with one that they'll call me if they get a lot of vintage in at once. The owner of my shop knows several people who run estate companies or house-cleaning companies, and they often offer her first pick of estates.

The most important thing you need, though, is a good eye. You need to be able to pick the stuff worth selling out of a sea of crap, and price it to move. If you pick the wrong things, they will sit and sit and take up space in your shop, never selling, until you kind of hate the sight of them. Stuff you think is fantastic will mysteriously fail to appeal to a single buyer. Be willing to mark things down when they don't sell, or even pull them from your shop entirely and take them to the thrift store. At least then you get the tax writeoff.

Don't expect to make a living doing this, at least not for a while. My vintage business is definitely a part-time job right now-- since opening at the end of February, I've cleared about $10k after expenses (and before taxes), which is totally respectable but not enough to live on. I have a second job, and all told I spend 15-20 hours a week on the vintage business. I go thrifting twice a week, hit estate sales on weekends, drive to strangers' houses, and pursue any leads I can get.

Oh, and KEEP GOOD RECORDS. I have a spreadsheet with every piece of unsold inventory listed by type and description. I note where I bought it, what I paid, how much I priced it at. When it sells, I note the sale date, sale price, and profit, and move it off the live spreadsheet to a monthly sales sheet. That way, at the end of the month I can press a button and see what my profit was. The woman who owns my shop is a technophobe who keeps all her records on paper and doesn't really keep track of what she paid for anything, and I have to imagine her taxes are a nightmare. Save your receipts (when you have them; flea markets and individual sales often don't) and keep track of EVERYTHING. Your accountant will thank you.

Memail me if you have any other questions.
posted by nonasuch at 8:54 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I don't know how to thank you all enough. This has been incredibly valuable for us. You've confirmed a lot of things we have suspected, which is humbling but also encouraging (our instincts aren't terrible afterall!). Once again, thanks so much for being generous with your knowledge and time. Metafilter users never cease to be awesome.
posted by faeuboulanger at 11:40 AM on November 27, 2012

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