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‘You don’t know what story an item tells’: why I’m buying and selling secondhand clothes

Posted on Jun 26, 2021

Vintage clothes enthusiast Gayle Bennett has two gorgeous suits at home, part of a huge collection of items that she buys and sells for her online business. “It’s amazing they’re still together after all this time!” she laughs, as if the suits were lovers. But to Bennett, known to friends and people in the industry as Gay, they are lovers of sorts. The two halves of each suit paired perfectly, even though they’d been worn over decades by many different people. If only they could tell of what they’ve seen, she muses. “That’s what I love about vintage, you don’t know what story an item tells. A 1970s dress, or 1960s jacket, you wonder what life it’s had before it gets to your wardrobe.”

Bennett is the founder of online vintage shop Soul and Flare, which joined Depop – a community-led marketplace, renowned for good-quality secondhand and original vintage clothes – in 2016. Standing out and making sure her offering was of the highest quality was even more important for Bennett once she had started her Depop shop. And one of the biggest aims and values of her company is to eliminate fashion waste by encouraging others to shop vintage and look after the clothes they already own. She doesn’t see her job as “just” buying and selling vintage, though. For Bennett, the process is a full circle of discovery and care – from the items she chooses, to the way she washes and mends them.

Before any repairs begin, the clothes need to be washed and cleaned delicately. “I’m an avid repair seamstress, but the process is about not over-washing clothes, as well,” she explains. The wrong detergent with too many harsh chemicals can spell the end for delicate vintage fabrics. Bennett believes that treating vintage clothes correctly is the only way to preserve them for future owners.

Some of the vintage clothes that Bennett sells have been worn on and off for up to 70 years – something of a miracle and testament to their quality as well as how they’re looked after, she says. The last thing you’d want to do is just throw them in the washing machine with any old detergent. That’s why she has a clear system – first up is checking the label and material to see if it’s washable, and whether it should be hand washed. Then it’s about using the right cleaning products. Bennett is committed to using products that are eco-friendly – she’s stopped using bleach at home completely, and only uses Ecover detergent, made with plant-based, biodegradable ingredients as it’s gentle on the vintage fabrics as well as kinder to the environment.

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Bennett is based in Nottingham, where her love of vintage began with visits to car boot sales and charity shops with her mum, before she worked in a vintage shop. Nowadays, wearing secondhand or pre-loved can be quite a badge of honour, but in decades past it was often seen as something to hide.

For some, buying vintage from a company such as Soul and Flare is a new experience, but Bennett has been learning her trade for a long time, meaning she really knows what she’s talking about.

“I’ve been running Soul and Flare for around five years solidly but have been in the vintage trade for more than a decade. I fell into it in many ways but, growing up, my mum would drag us around charity shops and car boot sales. In her own way, she was sustainable even if she didn’t know what the word meant then. When I left college, I was making items for friends and family, and eventually got a job at a vintage clothing shop as their rework seamstress, and that’s where it stemmed from. That’s when I started witnessing the vast amounts of clothing that we waste in the UK, and my passion for reviving, repairing and making clothing last began. It’s not just something I do as a job, I do it at home, too – it’s my lifestyle. I look after my possessions – whether that’s furniture or clothing – and everything I wear is secondhand, so it’s deep-rooted in me.

“In the past, charity shops were there to help families that were on low incomes, so you didn’t want to publicise that you were shopping there, but now the stigma has diminished and people love going to charity shops. You don’t know what you’re going to find, there’s a whole excitement around it. You could walk away with nothing, or bags full of new items,” Bennett says. The joy, she says, is in the looking – seeking out one piece that will be a perfect project or standout item in your wardrobe. “Around 90% of the time you’re going to be wearing something unique.” And that’s something every fashionista wants – whether they’re wearing it to a wedding, or for a Zoom party.

Ecover has teamed up with Depop, the marketplace app where you can buy and sell unique fashion, to challenge the nation to extend the life of their clothing and help fight fashion waste. Find out more at ecover.com/depop