As the fashion industry makes headlines as one of world’s worst environmental offenders, some of Hong Kong’s most devoted fashionistas have adopted a new mantra: reuse, recycle and reclaim. We chart the rise of pre-worn fashion, through four pioneering entities in one of Asia’s biggest shopping destinations.
That high-low sensibility
With its sharp model-led images and parade of glamorous high-end fashion labels, you’d easily mistake Vestiaire Collective for another designer shopping platform. But unlike Net-a-Porter or Shopbop, everything on Vestiaire is already owned by someone else. This slick and efficient marketplace features a diverse range of pre-loved clothing, shoes and accessories for women, men and kids, from fresh-as-new Nike kicks and AllSaints knits to exquisite vintage Dior, Chanel and Hermès et al. Signing up is easy-peasy and, once on board, members can bid on, buy and sell items with the assurance that every single piece is meticulously vetted by an expert team in Paris before being dispatched.
The globalista of the pre-loved fashion space, Vestiaire was started by Fanny Moizant and five co-founders in her Paris living room nine years ago. Today it counts offices in six countries and more than seven million members worldwide. Fanny, who began her career in interior design, took a marketing degree to pursue her love of fashion via Vestiaire and in 2017, she and her family moved to Hong Kong to expand the business across the Asia-Pacific region. Having lived in Paris and London, both cities with a strong culture of vintage, how has she found the response to buying pre-worn in Hong Kong?
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“We’ve seen a great appetite for pre-owned since we launched last year,” says the chic French expat, who describes her own style as “classic with a twist”. “Asian buyers are more demanding in terms of quality — everything has to be pristine — but the perception of vintage has definitely changed; it’s considered to be luxury now. The young generation are much savvier and highly influenced by European trends in terms of consumption.”
Due to its international reach, Vestiaire’s offerings are truly epic, though, handily, members can manage their selection by filtering searches and setting reminders for lusted-after items. Eager to get to know her customers, Fanny is fascinated by the different reasons people use the site, though it’s usually because “they’re either looking to get a bargain, or they’re searching for a sold-out piece or a super-rare vintage item,” she explains.
Although Vestiaire grew from an idea for a trusted platform to resell designer garb, at its heart lies the belief that fashion can and should be a smart investment. “And expanding the lifespan of a product is key to thoughtful consumption,” Fanny says. Vintage and pre-loved are no longer just for those with access to brick and mortar stores; Vestiaire is bringing it to the world.
Pro tip from Fanny Moizant of Vestiaire Collective: Mixing luxe labels with affordable classics gives your look an extra dose of effortless chic (works every time for Kate Moss). It’s also the go-to dress-up motto for Fanny Moizant of Vestiaire Collective.
On Fanny: basic white tee by James Perse; trousers by Céline; Cartier Love bracelet stacked with Fred bracelets; Collier de Chien cuff by Hermès; classic white Chuck Taylor sneakers by Converse; Trotteur leather saddle bag in olive by Céline. All items are from Vestiaire Collective (vestiairecollective.com).
Combining an online community with an IRL experience is Sarah Fung’s Hula, a marketplace for pre-owned designer womenswear, where sellers are by-invite-only fashion industry insiders and their contacts. Born and raised in the UK, Sarah moved back to Hong Kong, her parents’ home, 12 years ago to work for department store Lane Crawford. The Central Saint Martins graduate had previously launched her own fashion jewelry brand and lingerie label, and it was through experiences in both design and retail that she noticed the sheer amount of waste. This was not only in the production side of fashion, but also among friends and colleagues who were always hungry for the new season’s trends; they’d excitedly snap up new items as soon as they hit the shop floor, and had bulging closets of rarely worn clothing as a result.
“I also had some pieces I wanted to sell, and when I searched online for such a business in Hong Kong there were virtually none, especially one that felt modern and fresh,” says Sarah, who’s casually dressed in cropped jeans with a J Crew slouch top and Balenciaga flats. “It fueled a passion in me to create a platform to offer these amazing pieces to others in some way, while prolonging the life of well-designed fashion.” And so, in 2016, Hula was launched.
Hula’s client base ranges from the stylish millennial who is “sustainably aware and loves to pick up bargains” to the established luxury shopper who “knows her brands, has an eye for the best designer pieces and wants more bang for her buck”. Many of them also become sellers. Being Chinese, Sarah has an innate understanding of the challenges her business would face. “In Asia there is the prevalent idea that when garments are passed on, we might ‘wear the bad luck’ from previous owners,” she explains, though she notes that the mindset is changing.
Hula also has a showroom in Wong Chuk Hang where customers can browse the collection by appointment. Items are carefully checked by Sarah and the team, then beautifully displayed. With its intimate, boudoir vibe and rails of covetable designer labels selling at up to 95% off their original prices, this trove is as close as it gets to a real-deal vintage shop in Hong Kong.
But Hula is more than a high-end swap shop, Sarah is committed to helping re-educate the market and spread the word about the environmental benefits of buying pre-owned. With the reminder that the textile industry is among the world’s biggest polluters, she quotes environmental campaigning site 1 Million Women: “If one million women bought their next item of clothing second-hand instead of new, we would save six million kilograms of carbon pollution from entering the atmosphere.” And when 5% of each sale is also donated to charity, what better justification is there for snagging some pre-loved threads?
Interestingly, one of Sarah’s best customers is male (though she doesn’t know, nor does she ask, who he’s buying for), and Vestiaire has a significant men’s section, but overwhelmingly, it’s women who are driving the pre-worn movement. Women tend to be more adventurous and are less constrained by the traditional weekday and weekend “uniforms”; they’re also becoming more aware of how they shop and recognizing that pre-worn is not about “old unwanted clothing, but desirable new or hardly worn pieces,” adds Sarah.
Pro-tip from Sarah Fung of The Hula: Sarah Fung — photographed on location in Sham Shui Po, one of Hong Kong’s most vibrant neighborhoods, known for its textile shops and labyrinthine street markets selling everything from electronics and outdoor activewear to fabrics — loves to keep her look fresh with bold pieces and unexpected combinations.
On Sarah: black-and-white striped jumpsuit by Norma Kamali; tangerine double-breasted jacket by Gucci; cerulean pumps by Gianvinto Rossi. All items are from Hula (thehula.com).
When Elaine Fong was invited to her umpteenth wedding in one year and realized she’d already worn all the dresses in her closet, the seed for Wardrobista — the clothing rental service she founded with Joey Li — was planted. “I had to attend a wedding and couldn’t find the right dress and it was impossible to be seen on Instagram in the same outfit again,” the stylish Hongkonger admits. Calling on her experience in fashion retail and Joey’s tech expertise, they set up Wardrobista in 2017 as a platform to rent outfits for special occasions: weddings, corporate dinners, parties and even holidays. As the duo point out, “You happily rent a car or an Airbnb when you travel, why not a wardrobe?”
Wardrobista stocks a wide array of frocks for that big occasion, from bold-hued Diane von Furstenberg cocktail numbers to elegant, bridesmaid-worthy Needle & Thread gowns. Renters can see the original prices online, so they’re aware of how much they’re saving. Elaine bought the first cache of dresses but, when talking to customers, learned that many were sitting on garments they’d hardly worn and were open to renting them out on the site, earning 25% commission in the process. Dresses are carefully vetted before they’re added to the collection and are re-checked and dry-cleaned after every wear; most of the original stash is still available.
“Our customers are looking for design rather than brand,” explains Elaine, “they want to look good; it’s a purpose-driven ‘purchase’ rather than a brand-driven one.” Given the occasion focus, most women are seeking an outstanding dress, so there aren’t that many basic black affairs. Social media is also massive driver, and in the age of Instagram, women are always on the lookout for outfits that stand out and photograph well.
Wardobista counts a wide-ranging clientele, from students looking for that extra-special prom dress, to mothers of the bride or groom; sizes run from XXS to XL, catering for typical Hong Kong body shapes. The site’s founders, who first met at school, have found little resistance to their concept. “It’s usual for the bride to have several outfit changes during a Chinese wedding, so bridal wear is often rented; we simply extend this to the family and friends,” notes Elaine. Bringing the online experience to real life, they hold monthly pop-ups at different partner shops and venues around Hong Kong. “It’s a great way to market the brand and meet customers,” Joey explains. “We also offer styling services and partner with hair and makeup stylists,” which provides a more holistic experience, she adds.
Party frocks aside, it’s sustainability that underscores the business. “For us, Wardrobista was born out of a need to reduce waste,” says Joey, a self-confessed non-dress-wearer who prefers simple all-black jumpsuits. Elaine chimes in: “Fashion has an environmental impact in many ways, from the landfill to the production processes. A lot of brands are getting more conscious in terms of the materials they use and their carbon footprints, and customers are more aware of how their purchasing decisions impact the environment.
If something sits unworn, or was bought online in the wrong size but never sent back, Wardrobista gives it a new lease of life.”
Pro-tip from Elaine Fong and Joey Li of Wardrobista: For Elaine Fong and Joey Li —photographed on a street in SoHo — it’s all about how you pull things together. On Elaine: long-sleeved white star dress by Self-Portrait, because “you can never go wrong with a crisp white dress (just don’t wear it to weddings!)”; teal knot satin clutch by Bottega Veneta.
On Joey: her own tailor-made white-and-blue striped blazer; basic black tee from by Uniqlo (U collection); denim shorts by Hong Kong brand Grana; white leather Ace sneakers by Gucci.
A longtime resident of Hong Kong, Cristina Kountiou, who’s professor of fashion and marketing at the Hong Kong campus of design school SCAD, is a vocal advocate of sustainability.
A fashion designer by training, Cristina is uncompromising in her approach: be it designing, consulting or teaching, she’s always looking to adopt habits that in some way contribute to the cause. And as a dedicated fashionista, who bought pre-loved before doing so was in vogue, how does she adopt a more sustainable approach to shopping? “The issue isn’t to stop buying,” Cristina explains, “it’s to stop binge buying and buying mindlessly. I buy less and I am more conscious about my decisions. I look to pre-loved luxury or second-hand, and if I buy new, it’s from companies that are making a conscious effort.”
As more light is being shed on the fashion industry’s dark side — its traditions of unethical factories and use of polluting dyes and chemicals, not to mention the landfill created by last season’s cast-offs — so grows a global movement to mitigate its effects, with people like Cristina driving it. Big-name retailers like H&M and ASOS are exploring more sustainable production methods, while savvy shoppers are embracing alternatives to buying new.
Cristina is a regular at Hula and pop-ups such as those organized by Luxarity (Lane Crawford’s pre-worn designer arm) and the Conscious Collective, but she’s aware it’s not easy for everyone to find decent pre-loved clothing. “It does require searching and looking in your area for what’s going on,” she admits, “but if there’s nothing else, organize a clothes swap!”
Citing her best-ever buys as a black recycled leather bag from Hong Kong brand Cynthia & Xiao and a second-hand Alexander McQueen jacket, Cristina finds that the hunt for old-new clothing more than makes up for the quick-fix thrill of instant fashion. “My pre-loved goods are unique,” she says, “they’re some of the most treasured pieces in my wardrobe and the search for them makes them all the more treasured.”
Pro-tip from Cristina Kountiou of SCAD: Formalwear doesn’t have to be a snorefest. Fashion lecturer Cristina Kuontiou mixes sustainable high street names with pre-loved treasures: blazer by Martin Margiela from Hula; her husband’s white, button-down shirt from Zara (he no longer wears it, so it’s truly pre-loved); ash-colored skinny jeans by COS (a branch of the H&M group who are pioneering sustainable practices in fast fashion); silver pumps by Pedder Red and black leather handbag by Cynthia & Xiao, both bought at a Luxarity pop-up; earrings are pre-loved felt from Tokyo; Ellery sunglassses from Hula.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of Smile magazine.