Luxury vintage goods in demand

What Goes Around Comes Around is a lucrative business in Rodeo Drive selling second- hand designer ware, including a huge selection of vintage Chanel goods (left).
What Goes Around Comes Around is a lucrative business in Rodeo Drive selling second- hand designer ware, including a huge selection of vintage Chanel goods (above).PHOTO: WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND/ INSTAGRAM

Veteran retailer Seth Weisser is in the middle of construction for his largest, most ambitious store to date: a 3,800 sq ft flagship off Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California. It will sell designer clothes, accessories and jewellery, and he plans special stores-within-a-store for Chanel and Hermes.

"It will be extremely elegant, with high-end marble, brass fittings and turn-of-the-century Cartier showcases," he says from his New York office. "This is going to be the ultimate luxury shopping experience."

There is one crucial difference between his newest boutique and those nearby, such as Louis Vuitton or Valentino: It will sell used clothing. This will be the fifth outpost of his chain, What Goes Around Comes Around, where everything for sale is second-hand or, rather, "luxury vintage".

A recent boom in enthusiasm for vintage fashion has led to a rapid expansion for stores such as these and growing profits, even when global fashion brands are faltering.

In fact, its merchandise assortment is even more exclusive and thrilling to shoppers than many of those offered by neighbouring stores.

That Chanel selection - "We have the largest collection of vintage Chanel in the whole world," Mr Weisser claims - will include dozens of noteworthy bags and clothes from Karl Lagerfeld's stint as head designer, as well as sought- after, discontinued pieces from its costume jewellery range. 

As for the Hermes "concession", the centrepiece, when it opens, will be a Himalayan crocodile Birkin; a similar model sold for US$185,000 at auction two years ago. You simply cannot walk into an Hermes store anywhere in the world and expect to be able to walk out with one of these, no matter how much you are willing to pay.

What Goes Around Comes Around is not the only superior second-hand operation in the area. Ben Hemminger's Fashionphile has been selling top-tier, gently used designer purses by Dior and Louis Vuitton from a jewel box-sized showroom in Beverly Hills since 2008. It is tucked into an alleyway at the end of the same block as What Goes Around Comes Around.

Both firms are booming: Mr Weisser's new site is 25 per cent larger than its previous location in La Brea, while Fashionphile logged US$3 million (S$4.15 million) in sales last month, its strongest ever, and business grew 50 per cent to 60 per cent year over year in 2015.

They are prime examples of the new retail sector of luxury vintage, in which barely worn bags or designer dresses are sold at discount to women who might have shopped straight from the runway.

They occupy sites adjacent to full- price rivals and, sometimes, they even supply them. Mr Weisser has contracts with department stores such as Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Barneys in Japan to supply authentic, top-tier vintage for their sales floors.

Online counterparts are jostling for the same business: TheReal- Real and MaterialWorld operate similarly, trading on the newfound cachet for used clothes.

The booming industry of prime vintage has been buttressed by the emergence of handbag-centric auctions such as those at ArtCurial in Paris or Fine Art Auctions in Miami. Christie's was so keen to enter the luxury vintage business that in 2014, it poached the wunderkind head of Heritage Auctions' bagselling department, a twentysomething Matt Rubinger.

It is still startling, though, to see a second-hand store - even one with such blue-chip, red-carpet credentials (Rihanna's a regular) as What Goes Around Comes Around - snap up prime retail space in Beverly Hills. Stylist Lauren Goodman suggests this will not be the last vintage tenant roped in by Rodeo Drive.

She points out that much like fine wine, top-tier vintage clothes and accessories often appreciate in value. "You could buy a vintage Versace dress from the 1990s, wear it five times and resell it and it's probably gone up a little bit in value."

She adds that the lure of vintage is also driven by the rising prices of new merchandise. Designer labels have deliberately hiked prices of core items over the past decade or so - the cost of Chanel's bags, for example, rises an average 15 per cent annually.

Other cultural and economic shifts are helping to bring What Goes Around Comes Around and Fashionphile to the fore. Instagramming from the front row of a show might earn editors a few extra followers, but it softens the excitement that once surrounded the delivery of new clothes to a retailer, notes Ms Goodman.

"By the time someone wears a look from the runway out to a party now, the clothes already feel like last season. But if it's vintage, it will exist outside of this cycle... It's special, unique and it's yours."

It might seem that the rise of luxury vintage is unstoppable, but a danger looms that could derail the entire industry: fakes.

The resale market is lucrative and generally unpoliced so it is ripe for unscrupulous exploitation. The situation is made trickier by the emergence of a new class of counterfeits known as superfakes - production overruns stolen from the factory and indistinguishable from authorised merchandise.

It is a threat Mr Weisser takes seriously. "Our senior buyers are like scientists and they will get down to counting stitches or even using techniques we'd prefer not to disclose."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2016, with the headline 'Luxury vintage goods in demand'. Print Edition | Subscribe