Consumer Insights - Fashion

Why are Affluent Indians Thrifting?

Is the stigma attached to thrifting and pre-used clothes finally changing and will this open up market opportunities? (Also, did you know you can buy Deepika Padukone’s pre-used clothes?)

two hands looking through rack of thrifted clothes

In 2017, I wandered into an Oxfam shop in London. I was amazed to find branded clothes in great condition at 20-40% of their original prices. This was my first brush with fashion thrifting, although I didn’t know the term then.

Two years later, a friend took me to a clothing swap event in Bengaluru, where I could exchange clothes from my wardrobe for those brought in by others. The hosts checked everything for quality/hygiene and accepted only those without wear or defects.

Today, thrifting is no longer an obscure concept in India. There are hundreds of thrift stores on Facebook and Instagram, selling everything from vintage accessories to the latest K-pop inspired fashion. Thrift stores are a regular feature at flea markets and exhibitions – and they have a growing customer base of affluent Indians.

So, what has changed? I spoke to a number of thrift shoppers, thrifted fashion brands, and thrift store owners to find out.

Disappearing Social Stigma

Growing up in a middle class family before the 2000s meant wearing hand-me-downs from older siblings or cousins. For any Gen X or older person, this has long been the most acceptable form of thrifting. As my 63-year-old neighbour puts it, “If you buy secondhand clothes, people will think you can’t afford new ones. We have worked so hard in our life to reach where we are. Why will we buy used clothes when we can do better?” 

Krupa H. (28), software developer and a regular thrifter, says she often gets this reaction from her parents, but it doesn’t bother her. “I get compliments for my thrifted outfits and my friends want to know where I bought it from, so that they can also check out the store,” she says

Nayana Premnath (33), a committed thrifter and sustainability influencer, says that her most-watched videos are all related to buying thrifted items in India. “I get comments every other day with people asking if this thrifting app or that community is still active.” 

One big reason for the disappearing social stigma is that unlike in the west, much of what’s sold as ‘thrifted’ in India, is simply not pre-owned.  The most popular Instagram/Facebook thrift shops in India are well-curated fashion stores run by enterprising 20-somethings with a great aesthetic sense. The items they put up for sale are often clearance stock from large retailers, export rejects, and sometimes even first copies or brand fakes.

Millennials and Gen-Z shoppers have few qualms about buying these—if the clothes are stylish and in great condition, their provenance doesn’t seem to matter. 

Thrift store Bombay Closet Cleanse is run by sisters Sana & Alifa Khan and has more than 77,000 followers

Rising Interest in Unique, Vintage Finds

There is a growing desire to make a statement with how you dress. The signalling is that your taste is unique and unlike anyone else’s. This desire to stand out is the biggest driver of thrifted fashion.

Says Ishavasyam Dash (35), Director at Antler VC, “Thrift stores often have very different, interesting pieces that I know I am not going to find anywhere else. For example, 80s or 90s fashion isn’t in stores anymore and your best bet is thrift stores. Those drops get sold out in minutes.” Dash has even texted her favourite Instagram thrift stores offering to pay extra for early previews of the latest drops. 

The glamour quotient attached to thrifting has gone up significantly. It is now about the legit search for unique pieces.

Creative copywriter Saagarika Shenoy (29) echoes the sentiment. “I usually thrift vintage stuff and the appeal is the unique aesthetic. I am no longer into trendy pieces and prefer Indian fabrics and prints. Vintage to me is something produced before 2000. It can be a ready dress or material/vintage fabrics that are repurposed into dresses.” 

Screengrab from Dolce Vee shopwing a blue dress, a clothes rack and text Vinate and Thrifted Finds
The evolving vocabulary around the industry has made it more mainstream and acceptable

Regular Wardrobe Refresh Cycles

India’s fashion e-commerce market is expected to cross $16.8 billion by 2027. i.e. Indians are shopping for clothes and accessories more than ever before—but they are also getting bored of their wardrobes faster. 

“I love fashion and have a personal aesthetic. But as a young earner, I don’t want to spend upwards of ₹1500 per item of clothing every few months.” says Nishi Arora (26), currently doing her Master’s in Marketing. “Thrifting is a great option because I get really good quality clothes at half the price.” 

Many engage in a wave of Marie Kondo-ing 2-3 times a year. According to Siddharth Sah, co-founder of pre-loved fashion store Dolce Vee, this spate of decluttering spikes at different points of the year. For instance, a change of seasons, the month before  Diwali, and around big life events (starting college, joining the workforce, getting married). 

young indian girl looking at a rack of cotton dresses
More young people are going in for closet cleanses because they are tiring of their wardrobes faster

Stuti Jain, founder of pre-owned fashion store Swap Fashions, points out interesting generational differences in thrifting behaviour. “Shoppers in their 30s declutter because they want to get rid of the clothes they no longer use. They prefer to get a cash value for their clothes, even if it’s a small amount. But college students declutter so that they can refresh their wardrobe. They are happy to swap one set of clothes for another or take store credit, because they’ll be back soon to shop again.”

Growing Availability of Branded Fashion

Apparel from brands like ZARA, H&M, or Marks & Spencer shows up on thrift stores all the time and is quickly snapped up.

Swap Fashions has a physical thrift store in Lower Parel, South Bombay. This, Stuti Jain says, was a game changer for the business. “We are located just five minutes from Phoenix High Street, a high-end shopping mall with outlets of practically every fashion label in India. We’ve had customers walk in directly from there to see if we have thrifted items from the same brands at lower prices. We’ve also had shoppers check with us first for items they need, before walking to the mall.”

India has a long cultural history of giving used clothes to the help. But unlike desi clothing like sarees and kurtis, high-fashion western wear does not have many takers among house help or NGOs. Those wishing to declutter their branded, high-end, or high-fashion clothes are therefore donating or selling them to thrift stores.

Many online thrift stores have also partnered with homegrown fashion brands to sell their quality-assured thrifted products. Relove, for instance, has partnered with Okhai, Bunaai, SNITCH, Miko Lolo and many other labels to sell their verified seconds. 

Screenshot from Relove.in showing brands for sale
Sites like Relove have tied up with brands to offer their seconds for sale.

Celebrity & Influencer Endorsements

Did you know you can buy Deepika Padukone’s pre-used, designer fashion?

In recent years, many Bollywood celebrities have advocated fashion thrifting for sustainability. Dolce Vee has hosted closet sales of A-list celebrities including Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhat, Virat Kohli, and Priyanka Chopra, where the proceeds go towards various social causes. The top causes get upwards of ₹2 lakhs per month from this initiative. 

Although celebrity closets form <10% of Dolce Vee’s overall sales, it’s a great entry point for first-time thrifters. Komal Hiranandani, Co-founder of Dolce Vee, says that it’s a great way to raise awareness and help customers see thrifting through a positive lens. “If the leading cultural icons of our country speak for the cause of sustainable fashion, it’s a great way into the hearts of customers.” They have since expanded to a wider spectrum of celebs such as chefs, authors, artists, etc. whose styles resonate with different buyer segments.

Screenshots from Deepika padukone and alia bhats sites where their second hand clothes are avilable for sale
Celebrities from Deepika Padukone to Alia Bhatt are offering items from their closets for sale

Many fashion influencers have also begun to sell their closets to their followers. Chandni Kukreja (34), Brand Manager at Licious, says she turned to buying from influencers because of sizing issues. “Today, many brands are offering plus-sized clothes in India but the choice is between spending 5-6K for something that’s trendy and flattering or buy clothes that are essentially sacks—made to hide curves.”

So when a couple of plus-sized Instagram influencers put up their wardrobes for sale, she jumped at the chance. “They were close to my size and I liked their style. It made sense to buy their clothes. What was helpful was that they had added clear notes about the usage, like ‘worn once’ or ‘gently used’, so I didn’t get any nasty surprises.”

Increased Awareness About Sustainability

~7800 kilo tonnes of textile waste is generated in India every year, of which 51% originates from consumers. Currently, only ~59% is reused or recycled—the rest ends up in landfills. Thrifting of any kind contributes to the circular economy and keeps clothes out of landfills longer. All the shoppers I spoke to were aware of this environmental impact and while it was not the principal driver for most of them, it was definitely a positive side effect of buying thrifted fashion. 

To help customers understand the impact of their choice, Salt Scout has developed an environmental footprint calculator with the Centre for Environmental Research & Education (CERE). The calculator displays the approximate litres of water saved and CO2 emission eliminated for each product.

Salt Scout displays information about the environmental impact the reuse of a garment makes

Shifting Perceptions Around Hygiene

For any first-time thrifter, the biggest concern about pre-owned is hygiene. But as the category gets organised, there’s a major effort towards changing the perception.  The industry as a whole has replaced unaesthetic vocabulary like ‘used clothes’ and ‘secondhand’ with the likes of ‘preloved’ and ‘pre-owned’. 

Sellers accept only clean, washed clothes from individuals. After a stringent quality check, these undergo another laundry round before being put up for sale. As one thrift shopper pointed out, the clothes we try on at retail stores undergo hardly any cleaning and go back on the hanger in a matter of hours—what thrift stores offer is far better.  “I’ve received used sweaty clothes more than once while shopping with big and small fashion e-tailers. But it’s never happened in any of my thrift shopping,” says Krupa H. 

Reducing Gender Gap in Thrifted Fashion

Currently, the thrifted fashion industry is dominated by offerings for women, with jewellery and bags being an entry point and tops and dresses the most-selling categories. Thrifted fashion offerings for men are relatively fewer but interest, especially among the more fashion-conscious Gen Z men, is very high. Subreddits such as Indian Fashion Addicts see regular conversations on thrifted fashion for men.

Screenshot from reddit showing two boys in an iphone store
Thrifting for men’s fashion is slowly but surely catching on, as this screengrab from Reddit shows

Will Thrifted Fashion Go Big?

Poshmark, an app that facilitates peer-to-peer thrifting, saw big success in the US but entered and withdrew from India between 2021 and 2023. Indian apps like FreeUp, CoutLoot etc. currently support peer-to-peer sales but are more focused on organised resellers and businesses. 

In spite of the number of platforms and communities available, most people find it a pain to sell their clothes directly, for the following reasons:

  • They struggle to take aesthetic photographs of clothes.
  • Measuring and adding size details is tedious.
  • The effort of answering follow-up questions from buyers is high.
  • Hard bargaining and ghosting by buyers is unpleasant.

Managed marketplaces like ReLove, Swap Fashions, Dolce Vee, etc. seem to be having more success. The challenge is making the unit economics work. In fast fashion, once a product is designed, photographed, and listed, the company can potentially sell thousands of pieces. But in thrifted fashion, every single item has to be QCed, photographed, and listed—but can be sold just once. This makes scaling up challenging. 

Hiranandani says that at Dolce Vee, the team has algorithms to optimise everything from sizing to pricing. They also use AI-based image recognition to identify and catalogue the items that come in. “We measure our progress in 20-second increments. If we can accelerate a process step by even 20 seconds, it all adds up and makes a big difference to how many products we’re able to list.” she says.

In June 2023, 100X.VC invested $160K in ReThought, a Gen Z-focused managed thrifting marketplace. In their investment thesis, they wrote, “Thrifting is already a 2 billion dollar market in India and getting bigger day-by-day. The Indian thrift market is still unorganised and  there are very few established players in this space. This gap in the market has given a chance for startups to enter the industry with new technology and ideas that can give them an edge in this industry.”

As someone trying to live sustainably, I am big on buying secondhand everything: from furniture and furnishings to clothes and accessories. Working on this story made me realise that thrifting in India is already bigger than I thought. Personally, I am very excited to see this go mainstream soon.

5 Comments

  1. I really wish I could do thrifting, but the market doesn’t have much to offer the big and tall folks around!

    Nice read though. (҂◡̀_◡́)ᕤ

  2. Vogue Business reported how sustainable fashion hasn’t even hit carbon neutral in many instances e.g. Rent the Runway ends up using more water to clean garments between buyers and much more plastic than when you buy it once. The only way to make fashion sustainable is through Degrowth and consuming much less than we are currently. Cycles, trends, cores, and hauls seem so removed from the consequences of actual production. Gen Z may be thrifting, but what makes fashion “fast” is how often you consume it.
    If the Indian thrift market is already at 2billion$, why did Relove make only $5K in Revenue in 2022? https://tracxn.com/d/companies/relove/__ZjcL_9yvkFu2PwOZ1JNNe2w1JWeSe_NTLK0YybENvJU

  3. Possibly the best analysis of thrifting I have read so far. The trend is logical and can only grow. People who fix unit economics will win big

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