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How Secondhand Clothes Sellers Are Driving Conversations Around China’s Recycling Economy

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Sivona Lu, a young professional in her 20s, is the organizer of the “trendiest secondhand market” in China’s biggest city, Shanghai.

At her market, you can find discarded impulse buys at bargain prices, vintage clothes that are decades old, or garments that carry fascinating personal histories. 

While secondhand fashion may not be a new phenomenon for people in the West — garage sales, thrift shops, and Facebook Marketplace have all become viable places for picking up secondhand items — there are some people in China who still think of “used clothes” as unsophisticated, dirty, or even something that might bring bad luck, despite Chinese people having increasingly progressive views.

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Secondhand Market Savvy Exchanger. Image courtesy of Ma Xiaozhan

Ever since Lu relocated back to China from New Zealand in 2018, she has been looking for ways to participate in recycling events, a passion that she discovered in New Zealand.

“One time while I was hanging out at a boutique store, I was shocked at how cheap everything was. Then I realized that it was a vintage shop. It was quite mind-blowing, because I never knew it was a thing,” Lu tells RADII. “Then, throughout the years, I learned that making the best use of things had always been a deep-rooted philosophy for New Zealanders, which has come to influence my way of thinking.”

However, upon her return to China, she couldn’t find a single place where she could exchange clothes with other people in Shanghai. In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of the city, she decided to create one herself. Starting as a small-scale gathering in January 2019, where she and her friends would swap clothes, it has grown into a multipurpose secondhand fair that now happens every month.

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Secondhand Market Savvy Exchanger in Shanghai. Image by Siyuan Meng

Lu believes that in order for more young people to truly start to embrace the idea of recycled fashion, they must be able to have fun with it.

At Savvy Exchanger, you can hear electronic music by some of the city’s best DJs, you can drink cold beer, and you can view a wide range of stands with a variety of different purposes — vintage shops, used clothes booths, and eco-friendly clothes stands.

Visitors at the event are a mixed bunch: some are part of Savvy Exchanger’s fan base that has been built up over the past few events; some are first-timers who come after seeing information about the event from lifestyle influencers on Little Red Book 小红书the booming Gen-Z focused social media site — some are just passers-by who are attracted by the lively scenes, affordability and uniqueness of the selection.

Lu has seen an explosive growth of visitors to the market ever since she hosted its second edition, post-Covid, in May 2021. “It has reached a point that an increasing number of first-time visitors want to come to our event. The fact these people have a more open-minded attitude towards secondhand fashion has played a large role in that change.”

Offline secondhand markets, recycling stores, secondhand luxury stores and vintage stores have all become part of this national recycling movement over the past few years.

Based on a recent report by the third-party research group Sws Research published in January 2021, the size of the secondhand economy in China reached 8.834 trillion RMB (around 1.38 trillion USD) by the end of 2019, increasing 19% compared to the previous year. It was expected to reach 10.409 trillion RMB (around 1.63 trillion USD) by the end of 2020.

Lu is part of this new generation of Chinese youth who have fueled the emerging trend of secondhand fashion.

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Duozhuayu on Anfu Road in Shanghai. Image via Duozhuayu’s WeChat Account

Over a weekend in January earlier this year, a new shop in Shanghai was making waves on Little Red Book. Users uploaded photos of themselves taking selfies, posing with clothes and thumbing through books — all of which were pre-owned.

The shop is called Deja Vu — better known by its Chinese name Duozhuayu (多抓鱼) — and is one of two offline branches of an online platform for secondhand books and their readers, that was launched in 2017.

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Their motto, “Something great is worth buying twice,” has recently carried over to second hand clothing and electronics. Adopting a “C2B2C” model (customer to business to customer), Duozhuayu purchases used items from customers and resells to other customers on the app. Around three-fourths of the users are below the age of 30, according to statistics from the rising start-up.

The secondhand luxury market, meanwhile, has driven a huge interest in China’s secondhand industry. Master Bao, a luxury products trading platform, saw a 400% compound growth for its secondhand luxury segment between early 2020 and August of the same year. The total amount of sales of another second-hand luxury e-commerce platform, Hongbulin, increased 10 times during just one year since January 2020. 

second hand market savvy exchanger

Secondhand Market Savvy Exchanger. Image courtesy of Ma Xiaozhan

Based on a recent study by Hongbulin published in April 2021, people who were born after the 1990s are the major customer group of secondhand luxury products, whereas people born post-1995 and post-2000 are the two fastest growing groups.

Xianyu, literally meaning idle fish in Chinese, is China’s leading used item trading platform. The platform reached 20 million daily active users (DAU) and 20 million RMB  (around 3 million USD) in gross merchandise value. Xianyu is also predominantly youth-focused, with 83.2% of its users, according to the market research site BigData-Research, below the age of 35.

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For fashion-savvy young people, the individuality and economic affordability of these clothes are at the heart of why they are seeking out recycling fashion.

“I feel like with a lot of ‘Gen-Z’ fashion or beauty trends in China, it comes down to people expressing themselves and flaunting their differences,” says fashion writer and RADII contributor, Yi Jing Fly. “Of course, a majority of people will still want to follow the latest trends and buy the newest products, but many more don’t buy into that and want to carve out different styles for themselves.”

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“The nice thing is that thrift and vintage shopping relies much more on how you choose to style and match your outfits. Rarely will you find two people wearing the exact same thing,” she adds. “It’s different from seeing someone walk past you and you see, ‘Oh, that’s from the latest SS21 Gucci collection’ or something. It can make you into a more interesting person beyond just owning the latest ‘it’ items.”

Xiaozhan Ma, a woman in her early 20s running the vintage store Miozhn Vintage 没洗古着 at Savvy Exchanger, said most people at the market are just attracted by the styles of the clothes and how cheap they are compared to new ones.

However, beyond that, a lot of buyers haven’t yet grasped one of the key concepts behind secondhand stores: sustainability. The idea of recycling fabrics is generally perceived to be at the heart of the purpose of secondhand stores.

Chinese lifestyle platform Zinc Scale reported that one blogger even posted on social media after visiting Dongzhuayu : “The store’s staff must not know much about clothing. There’s a Sacai skirt priced at only 800 RMB (around 122 USD), but the original price of this skirt has now reached 10,000 RMB (about 1530 USD). So everyone should go and grab it.”

Ma believes that while secondhand fashion in China is not yet about the pursuit of sustainability on the costumer side, an emphasis on eco-friendliness from sellers, and the continuation of young people embracing this trend, will eventually help to drive the conversation around secondhand clothing towards increased eco-consciousness.

“This is just the beginning of China’s recycling economy,” says Ma.

Additional reporting by Mayura Jain

Cover Image via Duozhuayu’s WeChat Account

Siyuan Meng
Born and raised in Shaoxing, Siyuan lived in New York and Los Angeles prior to Shanghai. She likes going outdoors.