Vintage clothing pros share their secrets for shopping online

3 Canadian experts on the sites they scour and the tips they employ themselves.

3 Canadian experts on the sites they scour and the tips they employ themselves

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Between curated boutique websites, online marketplaces such as Ebay and Etsy, and peer-to-peer selling on sites like Facebook and Kijiji, it's never been easier or more convenient to shop for vintage clothing online. That goes for if you're looking for authentic garments from another era or simply hoping to score the designer item you've been coveting from a few seasons ago second-hand. "When you're thrifting or working your way through vintage markets, it's more about the hunt", says Aya McMillan, a digital consultant and Toronto-based vintage enthusiast. "You may uncover some treasure (and can probably negotiate the price) — or you might be wasting your time searching through musty old pieces. Whereas with online shopping, everything is merchandised for you."

Oftentimes, a quick Internet search will not only help you source a particular piece from vendors globally, but will also bring up useful, current pricing and authentication information in seconds. "Online vintage shopping is great when you are looking for something specific," says Julie Yoo, owner of I Miss You Vintage in Toronto. "Keyword searching can cut down the time it takes to search that item out in stores. It's perfect for if you need a dress from a very specific era for a party." 

Yet, making a second-hand clothing purchase can also be a more taxing exercise online, where issues such as fit and physical condition are not always clear from a listing, and it can take time to determine the trustworthiness and authority of an online seller. "I think it's riskier to buy online than in person — it's so challenging to determine fit and quality when you're buying sight unseen," says Lisa Mesbur, an editor and fashion writer who's been thrifting and vintage shopping since she was 15.

So to help you shop vintage online with confidence, and perhaps finally acquire that one-of-a-kind gem that you've been coveting for ages, we asked these 3 fashion insiders to share their expert tips and detailed how-to's for purchasing second-hand fashion.

Start by browsing

For timepieces, McMillan recommends Chrono24. Her other go-to sites are The RealReal, Vestiaire Collective, Le Prix, Etsy, Ebay, HEWI London, Tradesy, 1stdibs, and LXR and Co. "I'll also often peruse some Canadian based-sites like Own the Couture, Rewind, Fashionably Yours, I Miss you Vintage and VSP Consignment," she says.

"I check out high-end sites like 1stdibs regularly, and go to Pinterest for inspiration, but in real life Etsy is my go-to," says Mesbur. "I like the lack of bidding wars, and how the prices and shipping are listed in Canadian dollars — it just makes the experience so much easier."

Go as niche as you'd like

Generally, the vintage selection online is unparalleled in terms of breadth and depth, making it the obvious place to start the hunt for that special item from a bygone era or foreign culture. "The international aspect of online shopping makes it possible to shop for things that are very hard to find locally," says Mesbur. "Like, I'm a bit obsessed with vintage Japanese boro jackets, which are super-hard to find in Toronto but available through several international sellers online."

And, it doesn't hurt to set very specific digital alerts for particular garments or trends that you admire. "If you're on the hunt for that one older, vintage designer piece that got away, set up a Google alert that includes the season and style name," advises McMillan.

Do your research

In the second-hand marketplace, doing a bit of due diligence will help you make smarter purchases and avoid fakes and counterfeits. "There's a ton of information online about how to spot fakes if you're buying a supposedly designer vintage piece," says Mesbur "There are even guides on eBay that give detailed instructions on how to spot the fake versions of designer goods."

"When shopping for pre-owned designer label items, purchase from a reputable seller who deals in authentic pre-owned goods. Although you can check for authenticity cards and original purchase receipts, not all pre-owned items always have these and it doesn't mean they are not authentic," explains Yoo, adding that not all third party authentication companies are equally reputable. "When buying online, make sure you are protected by an authenticity guarantee and can follow up with the seller. For example, if you are buying from a larger platform like Ebay, the buyer has recourse if the item is not authentic," says Yoo. "Independent reputable retailers also provide the same [protections]." 

Ultimately, it's about following your instincts and buying from sellers and e-commerce sites that you have confidence in. "For certain luxury labels, I'll only purchase from sites where I know they have in-house authenticators; for example, The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective both staff a team of them," says McMillan. "I have also worked with third party luxury authentication services on items I wasn't sure about."

Note the condition

With vintage clothing and accessories, items are often sold in 'as-is' condition, with sales being final. "In terms of condition, any stains, rips, or other obvious issues with the garment should be clearly stated by the seller," advises Mesbur. "That said, you're buying a second-hand thing online, so adjust your expectations accordingly — it's not a brand new item, and it might not be perfect. It's probably also not returnable. Buyer beware!" 

And because you can't touch or try on the item in person, Yoo suggests asking about or looking out for issues such as odours, holes from moths or tears, stains and discolourations, and other common signs of wear or damage. "All pre-owned items will have some degree of 'use',  but determine your comfort level of what is acceptable or not," she advises.

Check for fit (even if you have a great tailor!)

It certainly helps if you are familiar with a particular brand or designer, and know from offline experience whether their designs will be likely to fit the way that you want, says Mesbur. "For example, I'm a fan of '70s Diane Von Furstenberg and I already know how the dresses will fit, so I feel confident buying her vintage pieces online."

Otherwise, because garments can be sized quite differently depending on the decade of manufacture, country of origin, and particular fashion house's patterns, it's important to get measurements and ask for additional details if you're unsure if an item will fit — especially since returns can be tricky. "Sizing tends to be a lot smaller with older or vintage pieces," says McMillan. "A size 12 from the 1960s is not the same as a size 12 in today's terms so it's important to get the exact measurements."

Yoo recommends asking sizing questions specific to your body type — for example, if you're petite or tall, or have other fit issues — and asking for additional photos of bags and jewelry, if necessary to better gauge scale and size. "Know your body and ask the right questions," she says. "You can also ask how tall the model pictured is for comparison." Plus, it can be worth asking if an item has been previously altered, because it will then fit differently.

Read the fine print

Policies regarding shipping and returns can vary dramatically from site to site, and you'll want to review the fine print before making a purchase. "Take the time to view all photos and read descriptions carefully to learn about any condition flaws if the item is pre-owned," recommends Yoo. "Also take note of what inclusions the item comes with [such as shoe boxes or duster bags,] be sure to read the seller's return policy, note the transit time for delivery if you require the item for a specific date, and consider additional fees for delivery such as shipping, handling, and any duties if purchasing internationally."

Don't forget about duties

Canadians import millions of dollars of used clothing each year, and the bad news is that your purchases are generally not exempt from duties and taxes. "Unless you're shopping within Canada, the duties on some of these sites can be prohibitively expensive," says McMillan, who has been surprised by unexpectedly high charges before on a vintage purchase.

Of course, you can avoid these additional costs by buying from a seller based in Canada. "There are great Canadian shops — like I Miss You Vintage, Vintage Couture and Shrimpton Couture — you can support, and you won't have to pay import duties," says Mesbur.

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.