University students, who are expected to have low disposable incomes, are also self-proclaimed big spenders in the world of fashion. However, their love of trending fashion has also encouraged them to be entrepreneurs by contributing to thrifting culture.On March 23, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national lockdown which was intended to last 21– days but was extended into an indefinite phased lockdown. The national lockdown called for a temporary closure of the economy, as the South African public was under strict orders to remain home–bound, only exiting to purchase essential items.
Clothing sales during level 5 lockdown were rare due to the closure of retail stores –; until the government made provisions for South Africans to buy winter attire. In order to lower the risk of the spread of covid-19, a switch to online shopping was recommended and, the retail fashion industry rose to the occasion.
According to a survey conducted by UNCTAD, 52% of participants agreed they have found themselves shopping online more often than they did before the covid-19 pandemic. The participants were canvassed from nine countries, including South Africa. Among the participants currently in university, 58% admitted shopping online more frequently, compared to before the outbreak of covid-19. Since the outbreak, online fashion sales increased by 2%.
Dr. Marike Venter de Villiers is a senior lecturer and head of the marketing department at Wits University, specialising in fashion marketing. Venter de Villiers said that despite an increase in online sales, she has observed a decline in the sales of fashion items in South Africa, due to three main factors.
“Firstly, because retail stores were closed for several months during lockdown. Secondly, because students have been cash-strapped with less disposable income. And thirdly, with the ban on social gathering, students were not going out and socialising so they did not have a need to buy and wear the latest fashion items,” said Venter de Villiers.
Despite the retail fashion industry experiencing a decline in sales, according to Statista (a business data platform), revenue in the fashion industry in South Africa is projected to reach US$1258 million in 2020 with an annual growth rate of 12% between 2020 and 2024, which would result in a market volume of UD$2035 million by 2024. If retail fashion has been struggling, then where will the supposed market growth come from?
Alongside online shops, the emergence of student–run thrift businesses selling pre-owned clothing to fashion-forward consumers may end up being one of the main causes of the projected growth. The new wave of environmentally conscious Millennials and Gen Z has also contributed heavily towards the growing popularity of pre-owned clothing, thus creating a large market for ambitious university students.
A boom in online thrifting
“Before lockdown came into play, there has been a sharp increase in secondhand clothing sales, clothes swapping, fashion bartering and customising old clothes. This is largely due to the rising awareness of the sustainable movement and policy makers encouraging brands to comply to the circular fashion economy,” said Venter de Villiers.
Online thrift seems to be experiencing a boom during the national lockdown, and university students are a significant factor in that achievement.
“During lockdown, with specific reference to customising old clothes, there has been a rise among Millennial consumers, mainly due to the following reasons: They did not have access to retail stores to buy fast fashion items; they were cash strapped and could not afford to buy new clothes on a regular basis. And students had more free time at home (with universities being closed, and not doing their usual part-time jobs),” said Venter de Villiers.
Robyn Evans (22) and Juliet Markantonatos (22) are two final–year BA theatre and performance students who started a thrift store on Instagram during lockdown called What What Thrift, selling secondhand clothes. These, they have acquired by rounding up the old clothes no longer worn in their households and carefully selecting pieces from the clothing bins at the secondhand market in the Johannesburg CBD.
Their target market are fashion connoisseurs who appreciate the charm of a faded t-shirt and the nostalgia of a pair of brown bell–bottoms once worn by a disco queen in the 70s. Thrift culture has revealed the timelessness of good–quality fashion, catering to people with different and unique styles, ultimately keeping the trendsetter alive.
As they sat side by side during our interview, Evans and Markantonatos proved themselves to be quite well in sync with each other, as they seamlessly alternated in answering each of the questions during the interview. Much like two parts of a whole, they were able to finish each other’s sentences and complement each other’s statements, which is a good quality to have as co-partners in a business.
“We started this business based on what we saw as a public demand among students like us, which is affordable fashion. Thrifting is an affordable business to get into because of the low start–up costs. Juliet and I contributed R200 each in the beginning, which we managed to double through our first round of sales to make R400 profit,” Evans said.
This combination of a brunette with an 80s pin–up look, and an edgy blonde is a perfect formula to create a carefully curated Instagram store, in hopes of making enough money to support a final–year university student’s aspirations for their first year of complete independence.
“Our main inspiration for starting this business came from wanting financial independence as final–year students with concerns for our future. We felt as though we needed to start making an income, because the pandemic has proved itself destructive to the economy. We are hoping that the money we make here could fund the projects that start our careers,” Markantonatos said.
Social media’s contribution to keeping the fashion industry alive
Anthovene Burricks (23) is a computer science student, fashion designer and Lisof Fashion School graduate, who not only studied the trends in the fashion industry but also admits to being one of the people who puts a lot of her money into buying fashion items, ever since Instagram awakened her consumerist spirit within.
“As students we are always looking for ways to get new clothes in order to change our aesthetic, and our biggest barrier is always a financial one. Instagram is one of the reasons why I started spending so much money on clothing in the first place. Instagram has also made the re-wearing of clothing seem abnormal. I think it’s why young people are always seeking to buy new clothing,” said Burricks.
An article by Metro UK titled ‘One in six young people won’t wear an outfit again if it’s been on social media’, underlined the claim by Burricks.
According to a survey orchestrated by Hubbub, 41% out of 1 000 people between the ages of 18-25 feel there is pressure to wear a different outfit each time they go out. In this same survey, 79% of the people between the ages 18-25 admitted to having been influenced by social media platforms when it comes to their taste in fashion. Instagram came in first, with 55% of participants using it as their primary source of inspiration, while Facebook came in at a close second.
Furthermore, 30% of the participants surveyed admitted having watched clothing hauls on YouTube, where influencers unpack and try on all the clothing, they have purchased on a shopping spree. So, could we say that social media is now the main source of temptation when it comes to shopping?
“Across all generational cohorts, as well as market segments, the industry experienced financial losses. However, online sales have increased, especially among Millennial consumers, as they are the most tech-savvy generation and spend hours a day on their smartphones,” said Venter de Villiers.
The cost of an online thrifting business
Shipping costs with courier companies have proved to be a turn–off for both the buyer and the seller. According to Shopify’s ‘Beginner’s Guide to Ecommerce Shipping and Fulfillment’, shipping may generally make up around 37% of the cost of each unit sold. However, when dealing with thrift fashion, shipping could constitute up to 90% of the total cost.
“Some couriers will charge over R100 as the starting price for shipping, which can increase depending on the travel distance and size. So, in the beginning we would select a meeting point and specificy for all our customers to pick up their packages. This would work quite well for us, since the majority of our customers were from Johannesburg North and are Wits students, much like us, who understand the financial inconvenience of using courier companies,” Markantonatos said.
While the fashion–mongers satisfy their need to shop by scrolling through online shops, they may stumble upon a website called Yaga, which turns out to be ‘thrifter’s heaven’.
Yaga is an online marketplace where people can sell their used clothing, and thrifters can purchase one–of–a–kind fashion items that are ready to part with their owners. It also makes the seller’s job easier because of its readily available, accessible and affordable shipping options.
Anette Apri, the head of Yaga’s marketing team, said, “Yaga’s mission was to make online selling and shopping as seamless and as safe as possible and provide everyone an easy way to keep their items in circulation, while also earning some extra money by doing so.”
The shipping options on Yaga include PAXI and Aramex. PAXI, being the cheapest shipping option, makes use of Pep’s stores as drop-off and pick-up points for the user, and costs only R59 for the sender. Alternatively, Aramex is a courier that delivers directly to the receiver’s door, and costs R100.
“Yaga intended to alleviate the shipping dilemmas that small online business owners experience on Instagram and Facebook. We found that business–minded people would often get held back by the daunting idea of having to negotiate with couriers, and the excessive shipping costs, so Yaga has put forward the best two shipping options for users to choose from,” said Apri.
While browsing through Yaga, one will find several stores owned by university students who are marketing to their own age groups.
“We have captured the audience we were aiming for, which in the majority is between 20-35 years old. However, I have found that during the lockdown period, people between the ages of 19-26 have been particularly active in both buying and selling on our platform, which greatly contributed to the boost in activity on our site,” Apri said.
Even though lockdown has seen a sharp increase in the sales of pre-owned clothing, it has also been held back by the valid fears that society has about covid-19.
“When covid-19 hit the world, consumers became paranoid about hygiene matters around the idea of secondhand clothes. There is still a risk associated with this practice as the virus stays on fabric for several hours, and consumers are paranoid that they might contract the virus,” said Venter de Villiers.
The future of fashion
Despite the hindrance that covid-19 has placed on the pre-owned clothing market, Venter de Villiers believes in its ability to eventually overtake the retail fashion industry.
“However, when viewing this from a sustainability point of view, it is an imperative stepping stone towards creating a more sustainable fashion industry. Should we see the secondhand clothing market grow, it will most likely have a negative effect on fast–fashion retailers,” said Venter de Villiers.
By contributing to the popularity of pre-owned clothing, university students are also promoting more sustainable fashion, which seeks to counterbalance the 10% of carbon emissions produced by the fashion industry annually (according to UNEP). The question of whether retail fashion will become obsolete because of the rise in popularity of thrift fashion might not be necessary, after considering the struggles retail had already been facing before the covid-19 outbreak.
According to News 24, retail fashion stores such as J Crew, Neiman Marcus and Forever 21 are facing bankruptcy, which has encouraged other stores such as H&M to switch to online sales exclusively, much like Zara.
Instead of interpreting the struggle of the retail fashion industry negatively, it could also be the consumers discarding their old habits, in order to repurpose their finances and realise their priorities.
“Even though retail clothing sales have been struggling, since lockdown restrictions started lifting and consumers started to go back to normal life, there has been a shift in the demand for different clothing categories. For instance, active–wear sales reflected a steeper increase in comparison to fast–fashion items. Likewise, there has been an increased demand for durable, quality clothing as opposed to fast fashion,” said Venter de Villiers.
A group of fashion loving third-year students wearing thrifted items clothing for a friendly lunch at Mall of Africa. They held their masks in their hands as to keep covid-19 from ruining their style. Photo: Thobekile Moyo.