This post is one we have been thinking about for a while but have only just got round to composing and (if you're reading this) publishing. It's about the relative value of vintage from the perspective of a frockophile who turned a passion for collecting and wearing 'old clothes' into a business. Since the aforesaid collecting habit had taken over most of the house, it was either that or divorce, and it's therefore gratifying to report at this juncture that the frockers are still happily hitched!
A couple of red wine fuelled 'confessionals' with fellow business owners at a recent social gathering caused us to reflect on our own steep learning curve since starting out. Back in 2007, we not only had lofty ambitions to be a more affordable alternative to existing vintage stores which we felt were a tad overpriced, but we were also keen to offer quality preloved contemporary clothing because our own wardrobe was not exclusively vintage and our focus was on sustainability as well as style. We saw our recycling model as a timely antidote to the rash of fast fashion that seemed to be sweeping the nation and which greatly offended our green sensibilities. So far so good.
Still mulling over the frockers' progress, which has not been without bumps in the road, we happened upon this blog post in which the author considers the value of vintage fashion and, specifically, its pricing in the marketplace. The post was interesting from a personal point of view, not just because it linked to one of our frocks, but also because it mentioned Portobello Road market, one of our very favourite places (although it's not what it used to be, thanks to the encroachment of developers, and is indeed now fighting for its very survival).
We visit London as often as possible (more regularly now that our daughter lives there - that's her on our website top banner!) and it invariably turns into a busman's holiday as we trek around vintage markets and shops to see what's on offer. Some of the prices can certainly be eye-watering, but we imagine the rents, pitches and other overheads must be equally eye-watering for the traders. Not to mention the cost of living generally.
Living in Notting Hill in the 80s, when vintage was still very much a minority sport and Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts hadn't yet sent local property prices into the stratosphere, the future chief frocker's passion for all things retro was confirmed on Portobello Road and further nurtured at nearby Kensington Market. Back in '81, while her work colleagues headed to Harrods to spend suitably big bucks on posh frocks for an event where they were to be presented to the Queen (as patron of their employing organisation), Alison bought a vintage black velvet gown for a tenner at Kensington Market, having fallen in love with it at first sight. She still owns it, and despite it now being several sizes too small, will never part with it. That was to be the story of her life, which eventually led to frocking for a living and loving it!
But back to the salient point of that blog post, where the author ponders the price of vintage clothing after a shocking encounter with an especially expensive frock down the market. As a vintage aficionada and aspiring trader with frugal frocking tendencies, she speculates on the extent to which greed might play a part in pricing. She also wonders, quite reasonably, whether it might be wiser from a self preservation point of view to price items in line with those of other sellers rather than undercut them and risk suffering a damaging blow in the popularity stakes.
That conundrum took us right back to our own early business planning days and we're the first to admit that when we started out our pricing was a bit haphazard. In our quest to keep prices low, our mark-up was based simply on what we had originally paid for our stock (sometimes years ago) or, in the case of consignment customers, a mutually agreed selling price. Hindsight is a great thing and, if we are being completely honest, we failed to properly analyse all the other costs associated with running our business as we were first and foremost in it for the love rather than the money. Although our overheads were low, and still are, they all need to be factored in to maintain a degree of solvency and keep us in wine!
Our pricing is now a rather more sophisticated process based on a combination of factors, including the condition, era, size, style, label and current market desirability of our stock, rather than just a straight mark-up on what we originally paid for it. We also factor in the other overheads like website running costs, rent and storage, sourcing costs, postage and packaging, marketing, administration and compliance with all the legal aspects of running an ecommerce business such as the distance selling regulations.
Selling one of your own old frocks on ebay is a fairly simple exercise, but moving up a gear to buy and resell multiple frocks means you are no longer a private seller and automatically acquire legal liabilities, all of which need to be costed and met from your profits. Contrary to the head-in-the-sand belief of some sellers on ebay and elsewhere, that includes accepting returns of online purchases whether you like it or not!
By way of exemplifying relative value, we sold a vintage 70s John Charles cocktail dress earlier this year for £28. It was a real head turner, in very good but not mint condition, and it lasted less than 24 hours on our website before winging its way off to a new home. Imagine our surprise when, shortly afterwards, we coincidentally came across the same dress in a different colour on sale for a staggering £249 while randomly browsing another vintage site (as you do in this business!) We were frankly astonished because, gorgeous as the dress was, it was not (in our opinion) worth such a massive price tag by any stretch of the imagination. We know we're Scottish, but seriously...
While there are undoubtedly big price discrepancies in the vintage fashion business, at the same time there are so many variables involved that 'fair' and consistent pricing is essentially a difficult balancing act. Bricks and mortar shops, market pitches and online stores all have different fixed overheads to factor into the equation just to break even, and then there are other important elements to cost, like that bottomless money pit also known as a marketing budget so that prospective customers can actually find your wares.
These things are all expensive, as increasingly grumpy ebay sellers will testify, given that their ever-rising fees are inextricably linked to the significant overheads incurred by the giant platform as it seeks to maintain its place as market leader. While greed is undoubtedly a prime motivating factor for some, from corporate giants like ebay and Google right down to the smallest bedroom-based entrepreneurs, it is just one element of a highly complicated mix.
In order to survive, as well as eat, all business owners need to turn a profit (hardly rocket science!) but we frockers are committed to keeping affordability and sustainability at the heart of ours. In fact, such is the emotional investment in our micro business, we'd definitely be doing something else if we wanted to make serious money!
Once the poor relation, vintage has finally succeeded in throwing off its musty old image (with a bit of help from Lily Allen et al) to become a celebrated subset of mainstream fashion. As such, it is inevitably attracting its share of sharks and opportunists who will always find a way to make a fast buck and excessive profits from whatever they see as being ripe for exploitation (think Portobello Road and developers). We can only hope that they will eventually move on to the next big thing, but we're not holding our breath.
It never used to be so, but just like Notting Hill property, vintage prices seem to be spiralling ever upwards and there will always be people with more money than sense. In the meantime, we'll just carry on regardless, vaunting the vintage, rocking the retro and celebrating the second hand, all the while sticking to the same slow fashion principles on which the Frockery was first founded.