June 15, 2021

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Black-Owned Vintage Clothing Stores Surge

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Three immaculately styled Black women graced the screen. Wearing reworked vintage pieces with “FUBU” and “Phat Farm” splashed across the front, they were posing together in a fashion photo shoot, their every move exuding flair and confidence.

In the background, the instrumental version of a Juvenile song began to play, prompting everyone in the know to prepare for the lyric “Cash Money Records taking over for the ’99 and the 2000s.” And in between shots, directing and arranging the set, was Shayla Janel Hill.

Ms. Hill owns Random and Chic, an online vintage shop in Houston. She is in the process of introducing the brand’s Y2K collection, which will pay homage to elite Black fashion brands of the early 2000s. For many Black fashion entrepreneurs and shoppers, the current resale boom is not just a trend, but also deeply rooted in their communities and shared history.

The resale industry is expected to be worth $51 billion by 2023, and is growing much faster than traditional retail. Though platforms like eBay, Farfetch, Poshmark and Tradesy dominate resale e-commerce, many independent sellers are creating their own sites or Etsy shops and marketing on social media. The internet has presented new opportunities for Black-owned shops, which are often overlooked and underrepresented in the national conversation regarding the resale industry.

“I realize the power of representation, and what that looks like in the vintage realm,” Ms. Hill said. “Black women are truly a minority in this niche, although there are tons of Black women who love to thrift, and who love fashion. I mean, we’re the tastemakers.”

“I credit my success to Black women,” she added. “I think style is so innate for us, and for years, I didn’t understand it as a gift that’s embedded in my DNA. So a lot of people don’t see it as a valuable asset, and meanwhile over here at such-and-such fashion publication, they’re paying someone thousands of dollars to basically copy what they see us doing.”

A recent McKinsey report found that only 4 percent of Black businesses survive the start-up stage. Lack of access to capital is listed as a top disadvantage, with racism and discrimination well-established reasons.

Ms. Hill is working to combat this by creating resources to educate and empower Black women to enter the resale industry as entrepreneurs. She shares her knowledge and expertise through master classes, an e-book and weekly business chats on Instagram Live (called “Chic Talks”). She also recently started a new initiative, Small Business Saturday, where she posts Black businesses in Random and Chic’s Instagram Stories.

“The good thing about vintage is that it doesn’t have to cost a lot to start,” Ms. Hill said. “With Small Business Saturday, I just wanted to share my platform. Because I sell vintage, I only have one of every item, so there’s no way I’ll ever be able to accommodate over 200,000 people. I figured that I could share my space to help other businesses with marketing, and at an affordable price. That comes from me wanting to see people win and give them the opportunity to invest in themselves.”

Mariah Collazo, the owner of Vanilla Vintage in Raleigh, N.C., quickly realized that Black plus-size women were not adequately represented by online vintage sellers. “I first saw the issue when I was thrifting in college, trying to find affordable clothing on a budget,” she said “I could rarely find fun, fashionable clothes that catered to a larger frame. I don’t see the point of sustainability if it’s not accessible to all people.”

As a student majoring in fashion and textiles at North Carolina State University, Ms. Collazo started her store as a side hustle and went full-time after she graduated. “I realize that vintage clothing tends to run a bit smaller since body sizes have changed over time,” she said. “But still, some of the vintage clothing brands I was seeing online had a certain aesthetic, and seemed to be holding on to ideas that were very exclusionary. Sustainable fashion is supposed to be a good thing, but I wasn’t seeing myself in the field. So I created Vanilla Vintage as a way to be that representation.”

Ms. Collazo plans to continue expanding her company by refurbishing designer handbags and leatherworking.

She has been collaborating with other Black-owned shops and plans to continue. “We get a lot further working together versus competing with others. I’ve seen that when I’ve collaborated with other Black business owners, other vintage shop owners. Pulling together resources, you get a lot further.”

For Black women, reworking clothing was not always a choice, but a necessity. Jim Crow laws across the South prevented Black patrons from shopping in innumerable department stores for decades. Some thrifted at Black-owned stores, private homes and community tag sales, among other places, and reworking vintage and secondhand pieces became a powerful means of expression and style.

Black churches and historically Black colleges and universities hosted highly anticipated fashion shows in Black communities, giving space for dressmakers, hat makers and other designers to exhibit their talents.

Though the terms “reworking” and “upcycling” have recently entered mainstream vernacular, Black women have been employing these techniques for centuries. Today’s Black-owned vintage stores are a continuation of that same spirit of creativity, and the ubiquity of social media allows all of this artistry and ingenuity to be showcased on a global stage.

A scroll through the Instagram page of Golden Bird Boutique, owned by C. Golden in Baltimore, reveals powerful imagery of unapologetic Black beauty, replete with bold prints, statement jewelry and expertly tied head wraps.

Throughout the trans-Atlantic slave trade, enslaved Black women continued their ancestral cultural tradition of wearing head wraps in the United States. During slavery, some states even enacted laws forbidding Black women from being seen in public without a head covering.

Although these laws were constructs of colonialism and oppression, many Black women used them as an opportunity to honor their culture and traditions. Today, Ms. Golden regularly incorporates this ancestral tradition into her imagery. The sets that she creates include everything from contemporary Black art to vintage issues of Ebony magazine, making an unequivocal statement about not just fashion, but also culture.

“I feel that Black women have always been the trendsetters in fashion, ‘the creators of cool,’ so to speak. We are definitely reshaping the field of vintage in a major way,” Ms. Golden said. “There is a certain sauce that Black women have, and we sprinkle it on everything that we do. I love seeing how we are styling and remixing vintage pieces to give them a modern and fresh feel. I always try my best to create looks that inspire women to slow down on the consumption of fast fashion and find creative ways to breathe new life into clothing with a history.”

She is also conscious of her work’s potential impact on future generations. “I want my daughter to look at my brand and see a mirror,” she said. “It has always been deeper than fashion for me: My aim is to convey a message of beauty, strength, resilience and respect for the environment.”

For Simone Hines, the owner of Erstwhile Style and Quondam Cult, sister Etsy shops in New York City, working with vintage has been a way to share history through television and film. Pieces from her shop have been used to style characters in “Underground,” “Peaky Blinders, and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

“When I started in 2008, there weren’t many Black women at all” doing this kind of work, Ms. Hines said. “Learning how to date vintage, identifying which decade it’s from, learning about different fabrics, zippers and characteristics that help narrow down the year — all these were things I had to learn on my own. Now that I know, I want to be a mentor to other Black women who are looking to get started.”

Building relationships with people in order to source, and place, special pieces and materials has been key for Ms. Hines. This is where fostering sisterhood and collaboration comes into play.

“I believe that you belong in any space that you find yourself in,” she said. “I’m a one-woman show, but I have also developed many great relationships that help when I need to find something specific and unique.” She is working with production teams on styling several upcoming projects, but she can’t share the details yet. “One of them involves Viola Davis, and that’s all I can say!”

Back in Houston, as Ms. Hill prepares to release Random and Chic’s Y2K Collection, she stopped to marvel over the quality of the pieces. She took in the stitching, the materials and the construction. “This is high fashion to me,” she said. “Seriously, just think about what they were saying. FUBU. For us, by us. That is such a powerful statement.”

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