A generation that spent their teenage years flipping sneakers on eBay and creating thrifting content for TikTok is making the jump into the real world.
Rogue, a vintage store on New York City’s Lower East Side that opened over the summer, is owned and operated by TikTok influencer Emma Rogue. The store is decorated like a teen bedroom from the ’90s, with its walls covered in Spice Girls and Eminem posters and decorative shelves stuffed with old-school Furby and Tweety Bird toys. Shoppers bop to Britney Spears blaring over the speakers as they sift through racks of Y2K Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts and Prada nylon accessories.
Rogue started selling on Depop in 2018, flipping platform Skechers sneakers and vintage Guess tees before building a sprawling presence on TikTok. Videos of her thrifting and recreating her parents’ ’90s outfits amassed millions of views and would funnel shoppers to her Depop account. She decided to sign a lease in June 2021, taking advantage of a plunge in rent prices earlier in the pandemic.
“We’re bringing together New York City youth who are interested in exploring their style and want to shop where it’s cool and popping,” said Rogue one recent afternoon dressed in an oversized grey sweatsuit, her eyelids covered in neon-green eyeshadow.
Next door to Rogue is Bowery Showroom, owned and operated by Matt Choon, 25, who began flipping sneakers on eBay when he was 13 and later built a following on TikTok with thrifting videos. From a couch at the back of his store, wearing Gallery Dept. Lanvin sneakers and chunky silver jewellery, Choon explained how he opened Bowery Showroom in April 2021 as a retail space for his CBD business and curated vintage. There’s Japanese denim, 1980s band T-shirts and Chrome Hearts pieces from the ’90s.
And a 10-minute walk down East Houston Street, there’s Funny Pretty Nice, a vintage boutique from Natalia Spotts, 25, who built a following selling ’90s fashion online too. Her store features a rainbow assortment of Bebe, Baby Phat and Diesel, as well as hard-to-find 1990s labels Hysteric Glamour and Custo Barcelona. She’s opening a second location next month.
Sellers like Choon, Rogue and Spotts have taken the plunge into brick-and-mortar, as secondhand market places like Grailed, ThredUp, Depop, eBay, Poshmark, StockX and Goat have become increasingly crowded.
“There’s a joke that when you go into a thrift store and you see another girl who’s dressed cute, the timer goes off because they only put a certain amount of good clothes out a day and it is game on,” said Spotts.
These sellers are also capitalising on the boom of ‘90s and early ‘00s vintage, which has been fuelled by Gen Z consumers who want to put together unique looks, as well as those who see secondhand as a more sustainable way to shop. While these customers grew up shopping online, stores like Funny Pretty Nice and Rogue reflect how they still love physical retail, even if they are relying on TikTok to determine what’s trending.
These new stores compete with dozens of existing vintage destinations in New York. But their curation of ‘90s vintage gives them a distinct feel.
“Emma is really creative, so it doesn’t feel like your average vintage store,” said Ashley Yun, a 21-year-old fashion influencer and FIT student who recently bought a pair of Vivienne Westwood gloves for $85 at Rogue. “It feels more personalised.”
The shop owners also see their boutiques as a more tangible way to connect with customers.
“Gen Z … aren’t just about buying the product. They want to collectively meet up with people who have similar interests,” Choon said.
All that comes at a price. Rent alone can cost more than $5,000 a month, said Spotts. But vintage can be quite lucrative; old 90′s tees can be bought for as low as $4 and can sell for $65.
Spotts keeps a steady flow of traffic at Funny Pretty Nice by inviting influencers to sell from their closets, while Choon frequently throws parties at his space. Both Choon’s and Spotts’ businesses are on track to hit $1 million in sales by their first-year anniversaries, they said.
“You can really only list 10 items per day [online], but in the store, people are buying 10 items at a time,” Spotts said. “It’s about the volume at which you can sell.”
Blurring the Lines of “Vintage”
Vintage rock tees and Juicy sweatsuits certainly aren’t for everyone. But Spotts and Rogue see their ‘90s and Y2K assortment as a way to differentiate from vintage competitors, not to mention high-end destinations like The RealReal.
“Having good taste and a distinct perspective is what separates vintage sellers,” said Liana Satenstein, a senior fashion writer at Vogue. “You want to be buying from someone who knows the backstory … and is excited to talk about it.”
Rogue, who sources her own vintage from mass wholesale events and estate sales, said she’s increasingly noticed pickers, who scout vintage clothes for celebrities and designers, buy more contemporary labels.
“It’s funny to see the guys that used to strictly look for [the ’60s] in the bins are now picking Y2K stuff,” Rogue said. “I’m like, ‘You have no idea what you are holding!’ But they see what we’re buying.”
Not for Every Market
These sellers aren’t banking on nostalgia fashion alone. Both Spotts and Rogue have debuted their own private labels they sell inside their stores while Choon sells a handful of independent designers and takes a 30 percent commission on sales.
And while virtually every town has vintage stores, the TikTokers’ particular strain of ‘90s nostalgia may have limited appeal outside New York, Los Angeles and a handful of other major cities.
“I love Houston, but it’s never been profitable,” said Olivia Haroutounian, 23, who hosted vintage pop-ups in the Texas city as well as Austin. “It’s a lot of work to have a store and you have to worry about theft, paying employees and all the responsibilities that come with it.”
Haroutounian is scouting new pop-up locations in New York or California for this spring, and will also be teaming up with other digital vintage sellers so they can split the costs.
Success in the real world also requires a different approach than building an online presence, said Herman Wakefield, a Portland-based vintage seller who creates memes about how crowded the resell space has become.
“Something that looks alive over Instagram and Depop might not look as magical when you see it in person,” he said.