Luxurizing Pre-loved Clothes:
A Material and Emotional Future of Luxury
As a category of goods, luxury mirrors what is valued in a particular culture at a specific moment in time. In recent decades, luxury fashion has come to be dominated by a handful of mammoth brands, whose names and logos are relished more than anything else. In Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster, Dana Thomas famously argues that the appeal of luxury has shifted from the actual product to what it represents (41). Luxury has turned into a spectacle of representations, consumed and renewed at a dazzling pace in ever more frequent fashion shows, product launches, and advertising campaigns (Lipovetsky). As the fashion industry currently faces a crisis of consumerism and material waste, it seems urgent to reflect critically on what is at the top of the fashion pyramid and why—and to explore alternative forms of luxury that are more sustainable and regenerative.
The quest for a ‘new luxury’, however, as proposed by the 2018 Fashion Colloquium, is controversial. Sociologist Maxine Berg described ‘new luxury’ in 2005 as the form of luxury that was an offshoot of the Industrial Revolution:
All manner of new products appeared in shop windows; sophisticated mixed-media advertising seduced customers and created new wants. This unparalleled ’product revolution’ provoked philosophers and pundits to proclaim a ’new luxury’, one that reached out to the middling and trading classes, unlike the old elite and corrupt luxury (…) in the eighteenth century commerce, luxury, and new products provided a parallel conceptual framework. (5)
For Berg, ‘new luxury’ indicates a profusion of new and accessible luxury products and an increasing consumerism. In the eighteenth century, this ‘product revolution’ was accompanied by a growing ethos of disposability (Weinstein). Indeed, the celebration of newness characterizes the modern capitalist economy that has generated the throwaway culture which has come to light in recent years and which lies at the heart of the fashion system’s current crisis. ‘New luxury’, then, is perhaps a point of departure rather than a point of arrival. The question is whether the exploration for other forms of luxury should exclusively probe new luxuries and continue to celebrate new designs, new production methods, and new materials, or, in addition, turn the gaze to what is already there: an abundance of pre-owned and pre-loved clothes.
The terms ‘pre-owned’ and ‘pre-loved’ will be employed in this text as alternatives to the terms ‘secondhand’ and ‘vintage’, traditionally used to define and classify clothes that are not new. Seen in a contemporary context, this set of terms seems problematic. The word ‘secondhand’ merely underlines a pre-owned garment’s ‘secondary’ rating and seems to suggest that a garment can only go through two sets of hands before it is outlived. By contrast, ‘vintage’, meaning “unique high-fashion pieces of a specific era (…) [including] garments produced in the period between the 1920s and 1980s, associated with aspects of nostalgia”, is said to “offer the consumer luxury value” (Ryding, Henniger, and Blazquez Cano 2; Gerval). Nowadays, the term ‘vintage’ has become widely used in fashion markets and media as a tool for value creation, causing confusion about its definition (Ryding, Henniger & Blazquez Cano 3; Cervellon, Carey, and Harms 958). The term also narrows the scope of ‘valuable’ secondhand clothing to a matter of age and style. Within a sustainable fashion discourse, should terminology not reflect the state of stuff, instead of its status? The terms ‘pre-owned’ and ‘pre-loved’ accord with this idea. Pre-owned clothing encompasses all clothing that has been owned and/or worn by a previous consumer. A pre-loved item can be a pre-owned luxury item, but it can also be any other pre-owned item that is materially qualitative and durable and has been taken good care of. Its trajectories through time and space have imbued it with (material traces of) a unique story.
As this paper will demonstrate, pre-loved clothes have much to offer the consumer as a future form of luxury, not in the least because of their sustainability. However, despite their quality and exclusivity, not all pre-loved clothes are believed to offer consumers the luxury value vintage clothes do. Can pre-loved clothes become a luxury, and if so, how? This raises questions about how luxury fashion comes into being and about the stakes of human versus material agency in processes of the ‘luxurization’ of fashion. This paper takes the case of pre-loved clothing as an incentive to explore these processes. As such, it adds another new dimension to existing research on luxury and pre-owned clothing, which up until now has predominantly focussed on consumer motivations for buying pre-owned luxury or vintage luxury fashion (Ryding, Henniger, and Blazquez Cano; Turunen and Leipämaa-Leskinen). Whilst seeking a hands-on solution for an urgent problem, it expands the discourse on fashion and materiality, which has strongly developed in recent years (Smelik “New Materialism”; Smelik Delft Blue to Denim Blue; Smelik and Rocamora; Woodward and Fisher; Riello), with an analysis of the materiality and materialization of luxury.
The work of historian Christopher Berry is particularly relevant to understand how the concept of luxury is structured. Berry defines a luxury good as “a widely desired (…) good that is believed to be ‘pleasing’, and the general desirability of which is explained by it being a specific refinement, or qualitative aspect, of some universal generic need” (41). As for fashion, Berry argues that “the most promising general explanation of the human need for clothes is [the] link with their symbolic character” (28). He admits that his general idea that luxury is naturally determined to the extent that its material needs to be pleasing to the senses does not exactly cut ice for fashion. Indeed, history proves that fashions deemed luxurious were not always necessarily the softest or the most comfortable—think, for example, of the corset. Luxury fashion, then, appears first and foremost as cultural and immaterial, based on representational value.
This would explain the fluid and seemingly ‘malleable’ character of luxury fashion nowadays. It is reigned by monolith brands ruled by luxury tycoons such as LVMH that, as critical literature in recent years has revealed, carefully and strategically luxurize their products, capitalizing on the brand’s heritage to authenticate their luxury status and to mark them as items of quality and craftsmanship. Simultaneously, seasonal offer and innovation are vital to these brands to keep consumers coming to their enticing boutiques. The brand logo is pivotal to the luxury brand and to the luxury consumer as a stamp that guarantees heritage, quality, exclusivity, and authenticity, but it is also symbolic of a certain fashion consciousness. Logos are easily readable and universally recognized signals of social distinction and in recent decades have become icons of consumer desire (Thomas; Klein).
While an aura of authenticity, exclusivity, and desirability is upheld as part of a brand’s marketing strategy, the quality and originality of their merchandise seems to become less and less relevant (Thomas; Lipovetsky; Klein). The logo, the brand, and the status that is derived from it form a perilous Bermuda triangle in which the actual material object seems to magically vanish. Consumer culture critic Jean Baudrillard famously argued that fashion was becoming a system of signs that only refers to each other and are devoid of any relation to the real world. Indeed, since the 1980s, critique on fashion and brands as hollow and deceitful systems has grown exponentially.
The market for pre-owned clothing has become an alternative market for those who search to escape the monopoly of brands. The last decades have known a veritable craze for pre-owned clothing, particularly for vintage, which is recognized as something luxurious. Early on, Baudrillard explained the appeal of the bygone object in the context of the consumer society as follows:
In [the bygone object] the stigmata of industrial production and its primary functions are eliminated. (…) The taste for the bygone is characterized by the desire to transcend the dimension of economic success, to consecrate a social success or a privileged position in a redundant, culturalized, symbolic sign. The bygone is, among other things, social success that seeks a legitimacy, a heredity, a ‘noble’ sanction. (43)
At first sight, this utterance seems a confirmation of the immateriality of luxury: the bygone object is only desired as cultural sign of critical consumption. Interestingly, however, Baudrillard also predicates that the allure of the bygone object lies in its ability to confer a sense of social distinction on its owner without adhering to popular representational signs, such as the logo. As Efrat Tseëlon noted in her reading of Baudrillard, “The current trend for vintage fashion (…) shows how repudiation of the stylistic values of representation expresses yearning for these same values” (Tseëlon 227).
The idea that values of representation can materialize in a non-industrial form supports the conclusion that the bygone object is a place where principles of luxury and sustainability converge. Moreover, the notion that the ‘bygoneness’ of the material of these objects—as an indicator of craftsmanship or other material critique on the stigmata of industrial production—is apparently more important than universally legible signs of representation and social distinction. It proves that material is, in fact, central to luxury fashion. This is supported by critiques on contemporary luxury fashion. In these critiques, the general disregard for materiality in luxury fashion is far from ignored.
The materiality of clothes is thus essential, even to something as seemingly culturally determined as luxury fashion. What consequences does this assumption have for our understanding of how luxury is created? In 2014, Sophie Woodward and Tom Fisher explored a material-culture approach to fashion as a whole. Focussing on the material aspects of fashion, they argue that the materiality of things is not “just an ambiguous ‘carrier’ of the meanings of fashion” but that “objects are part of the generation and actualization of the agency of people, and, through their materiality, can carry or thwart human agency” and “externalize particular categories of identities” (Woodward and Fisher 4, 6, 8).
Anneke Smelik has contextualized this argument in a discourse of new materialism. A new-materialist perspective proposes that “‘matter’ is not merely raw and inert stuff on which humans act, but is itself alive and kicking, as it were (…) The role of agency of nonhuman factors in the field of fashion can thus be highlighted (…) from the textility of the garment to the tactility of the human body. Such a perspective helps to understand fashion as materially embedded in a network of human and non-human actors” (Smelik, “New Materialism” 34). She cites Prasad Boradkar: “Human beings and things together possess agency, and they act in conjunction with each other in making the world” (Boradkar qtd. in Smelik, “New Materialism” 39). Consequently, one has to conclude that luxury fashion cannot simply be ‘created’ by a designer or brand without considering this conjunction.
Throughout various works, theorist Gilles Lipovetsky has argued that contemporary luxury is ‘emotional’. It has ceased to be a mere expression of the desire for social recognition —social classes, after all, are no longer as strictly delineated as they once were—but is becoming a manifestation of personal betterment (Lipovetsky and Roux). Uniqueness, sensual experiences, and emotional values are central to this kind of luxury (Lipovetsky). Though the strategy of most dominant luxury brands nowadays seems to fit the bill in its emphasis on quality, craftsmanship, heritage, and exclusivity, their approach is nevertheless nearing its expiration date because these values are only materialized in the brand’s communication media, such as advertisements. These uphold myths that products finally not always live up to. Materiality and knowledge about materiality may ultimately become more important than image, especially as personal betterment is increasingly defined in terms of making socially responsible, sustainable choices, as is also reflected in the popularity of vintage garments (Fredriksson; Guiot and Roux).
Pre-loved clothing chimes with an idea of luxury that is emotional, sensual, unique, and at the same time sustainable—as much so as vintage clothing, which has merely age and nostalgia in advantage. Yet the market for vintage clothing is venerated, whereas the market for other pre-loved (and pre-owned) clothing is still perturbed by the stigmas that originated in modernity, when the new, the industrial, and the disposable became markers of status; the pre-owned became looked upon as ‘scanty’, ‘old-fashioned’, or even ‘dirty’. The pre-owned clothing market has not yet fully managed to shake off these negative connotations (Weinstein). In addition, the growing speed, scale, and industrialization of the fashion industry—as well as the myths and fetishes sustained on the market—have caused alienation among consumers. This partially manifests itself in a lack of knowledge about the quality of materials. Whereas in the case of new clothing, this responsibility is transferred to brands, on the pre-owned clothing market, it is transferred to the seller. This poses a problem because pre-owned clothing shops are often disorganized spaces with poor transaction structures. Although this bolsters the precious ‘alternative’ image of the pre-owned clothing market for some, it provokes further confusion and distrust among many consumers, which causes the market to be subject to bargain hunting and a regime of carelessness and disposability. This in turn affects the overall sustainability of the pre-owned clothing market (Weinstein; Le Zotte).
However, several initiatives are beginning to transform existing views on pre-owned and pre-loved clothing. These prove that pre-loved clothing could become a form of luxury, one that does perhaps not comply with the formal standards of scale and price projected by mammoth luxury brands, but which is a more democratic, experiential, and emotional form of luxury originating from an alternative market. Pre-loved luxury materializes “the metamorphosis of demand, its aspirations and motivations, the relations of individuals with social standards and with each other as well as with consumption and scarcity” (Lipovetsky 31-32), not only through images and spaces but also through clothing itself.
Luxury materialized: Adornment
If material—specifically, the material of garments—is considered central to luxury fashion, then it follows that the creation of luxury is a process of materialization. Following Woodward and Fisher, to understand how other forms of luxury emerge, it is necessary to envisage luxury in terms of a process or a transformation that occurs in the relationship between clothes and humans. To discuss the luxurization of pre-loved garments is to discuss a sustainable and regenerative alternative to current forms of luxury, which also allows us to focus not on the ‘making’ of luxury in terms of design but instead on the imparting of meanings on existing material that moves and has moved through more than one pair of human hands.
Although semiotics, as Woodward and Fisher righteously point out, ultimately denies the materiality of clothing (Woodward and Fisher), semiotic concepts can be useful when discussing luxurizing processes. As Anneke Smelik and Agnès Rocamora have pointed out in their introduction to Thinking Through Fashion: “Putting the emphasis on materiality (…) does not preclude an understanding of matter as symbolic; rather, it shows that there is a constant negotiation between the material and the symbolic” (Smelik and Rocamora 13). Semiotics usefully considers the places and spaces, whether physical or conceptual, where the unstable meanings of clothes are mediated. Roland Barthes stated that “the Fashion sign (…) is situated at the point where a singular conception and collective image meet, (…) is simultaneously imposed and demanded” (215). Previous literature on the pre-owned clothing market has identified the pre-owned clothing shop as the primary locus where the meaning and value of pre-owned clothes are negotiated between seller and consumers—visually, rhetorically, as well as socially (Gregson and Crewe; Weinstein). In addition, this is a space where humans encounter materials in this process. The pre-owned or pre-loved clothing shop is a crucial node in a network of human and non-human, material, and symbolic relations.
A relevant example of one such space is the Swedish pre-loved clothing boutique Adornment, situated on Stockholm’s Styrmansgatan. Here, shop owner Pauline Cappelen sells a selection of pre-loved clothing. This selection includes several vintage garments, yet most of her merchandise is of more recent date and not all garments are labelled or can be otherwise traced back to a specific brand or era. Cappelen worked in high fashion for several years before opening Adornment in 2015 and has, therefore, considerable knowledge of material, durability, and craftsmanship. These are her primary criteria for sourcing pre-loved clothes, followed by colour and cut. Adornment is particularly compelling because it incorporates an atelier where, together with her business partner and couturier Elian Yacoub, Cappelen designs and makes made-to-measure clothing from leftover fabrics. I will return to that later, but let us first focus on the shop as a space where pre-loved clothing is luxurized.
It could be said that Cappelen sells her clothes as luxuries because they generally cost more than comparable products within the category of pre-owned clothing and are still relatively costly when placed within the general clothing market at large. Although price is only one aspect of identifying a luxury good, it is cogent of the value of garments as negotiated between the seller and the consumer. This mediation takes place in the Adornment shop as well as on website and Instagram pages, which are nowadays considered integral to the shopping space. In the shop, a small and intimate but luminous space, Cappelen presents a small selection of garments on well-organized and spacious racks [Figure 1], allowing the unique details on each individual item to show. Cappelen shares her expertise on materials and craftsmanship with customers, creating a pleasurable shopping experience while passing on knowledge to the consumer. As the materiality of pre-loved clothing itself may seem to refuse fashion, Cappelen styles and photographs the garments in fashionable-looking silhouettes, presenting these on the Adornment website and Instagram page, where she combines the photos with images that seem to confer a lifestyle rather than focus on individual products [Figure 2]. Indeed, the strategies outlined above are in line with values of emotional luxury (Smelik, Delft Blue to Denim Blue 173; Lipovetsky 31-32).
Cappelen washes and mends garments whenever possible, although some traces of wear sometimes remain. However, as product descriptions on the Adornment website read: “This pre-loved item has been captured on one of our travels for its unique characteristics and great quality (…) fading, wearing, and other traits display each item’s history and add to its character and charm” (www.adornment.se). Stains or other traces of wear are not considered flaws but rather as elements that display the garment’s history and add to its value. This is also reflected in Cappelen’s use of the term ‘pre-loved’, which, apart from being a useful classification tool in research, has become more commonly used on the pre-owned clothing market in recent years, where it connotes positively previous ownership, countering part of the stigmas that afflict pre-owned clothing.
Gregson and Crewe already noted in 2003 that imagining a pre-owned garment’s former life is, to some consumers of pre-owned clothing, a positive experience (Gregson and Crewe). More recent research has suggested that it even adds considerable value to a pre-owned good: the consumer is more likely to establish an emotional relationship with a pre-loved garment, and instead of acting merely as user, envision herself as an “active part[y] in the long and ongoing lifecyle of a luxury (…) product” (Turunen and Leipämaa-Leskinen 61). This manifests itself in the incentive to mend or resell the product instead of disposing of it, further extending its duration. These actions are not only characteristic of a luxury that is emotional but also demonstrative of a new perception of the relation between pre-owned garments and their owners, where agency emerges through material as they “shift perception and suggest experiments with new practices, or make us think again about or relations with them” (Hawkins). As these examples show, the seller and consumer, as well as the material itself, have a major role to play in the luxurization of pre-loved clothes.
Ultimately, however, the designer cannot be eliminated from the creation of luxury; changes in the meanings of clothes need to be ‘consecrated’, too, at this level of the fashion system (Davis 12). In the case of Adornment, the pre-loved items in the shop are muses as well as merchandise: they influence new designs by Cappelen and Yacoub, particularly in terms of craftsmanship and cut [Figs. 3A and 3B]. The materialization of these new clothes is often led by the availability and characteristics of the materials, which are leftovers from Italian fashion brands. As Woodward and Fisher mentioned, “materials (…) are not just a medium for the realization of designer’s ideas, but the very catalyst for these ideas and therefore their creativity” (Woodward and Fisher 14). Through the use of worn or leftover material and attention to craft in new fashion design, newness can also foster more appreciation for the existent. This way of thinking about materiality could inspire creative practices elsewhere to a greater extent—for example, at fashion academies.
Finally, the fact that Adornment’s boutiques and ateliers are conceptually and spatially integrated is pivotal. Yacoub’s working table stands next to the clothing displays, opposite racks of textile fabrics [Figure 4]. At Adornment, the customer has the possibility to make personal choices when it comes to the colour, fabric, and cut of a newly made garment—moreover, the customer is actively invited to do so. According to Kristine Harper, this possibility constitutes an element of ‘aesthetic sustainability’, a design strategy which aims to reduce perceived and planned obsolescence and overconsumption through creating a durable aesthetic experience. This experience is both emotional and sensory and results in a lasting bond between subject and object (Harper). Finally, to encounter the garment in an environment that is both its consumption and production context raises consciousness of, and helps the fashion consumer reconnect with, the practices of clothing production. This amount of transparency is crucial in order to further demystify fashion and to arrive at long-term solutions for the crisis in the fashion system.
Starting from the idea that luxury need not necessarily be new, this paper set out to explore an alternative form of luxury, that of pre-loved clothing. Besides offering a sustainable alternative to current forms of luxury, the case of pre-loved clothing has prompted an exploration into processes of luxurization of material, both theoretically and as they take place in concrete spaces. This investigation has offered a new way of looking at luxury: as something that is material as well as cultural. Moreover, it turns out that material is central to creating luxury: however important its representational values, the search for personal comfort, sensual experiences, uniqueness, and also the newfangled aspiration to make responsible and sustainable choices will eventually lead back to the material of luxury fashion—more specifically, to the clothing itself. Lipovetsky’s discourse of emotional luxury, then, should perhaps be reviewed to consider the momentousness of the sustainability debate and the emphasis on materiality discussed here.
Though pre-loved clothing is not yet generally recognized as a luxury good, it is likely to become so in the future, as both theoretical probing and the example of Adornment have demonstrated. It has to be emphasized that Adornment is certainly not a one-of-a-kind example of luxurizing practices, and this paper does not intend to propose Adornment’s specific strategies as ideal or impeccable. The case study serves merely to exemplify how luxurizing processes might work inside the clothing market and to underline the relevance and potential of merging clothing consumption with education. These strategies may encourage the destigmatization of and appreciation for the pre-owned clothing market, rendering it more sustainable and may support the demystification of the fashion system as a whole. Emotion and knowledge, luxury and sustainability, though seemingly oppositional terms, are closely knit together in what might become the future of luxury.
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 Some have argued that ‘pre-loved’ is a hollow marketing euphemism for ‘second-hand’. In 1979, New York Times Magazine columnist William Safire included the word in his satirical column on the rise of marketing euphemisms: “(…) the 1979 Language Prettification and Avoidance of Ugly Reality Awards (…) Runner-up is the Philadelphia secondhand dealer who advertised ‘pre-loved’ Oriental carpets” (Safire 213). Nowadays, several authors (e.g., O’Reilly and Tennant 168) and dictionaries such as the Cambridge Dictionary or Wiktionary still refer to this euphemistic function. However, ‘pre-loved’ is nowadays often used more neutrally to refer to well-kept, restored objects or to pre-owned luxury items, in the media as well as academic research (Turunen and Leipämaa-Leskinen; Ryding, Henniger, and Blazquez Cano).