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Upcycling Trending Up: An Interview With Boulder Thrifter, Sarah Howlett

Mackelmore predicted a trend with his 2012 song, Thrift Shop. The tune is a timeless classic and it turns out that thrifting is too. Brands and consumers are taking it one step further by upcycling clothing and giving them a second life. The fashion industry alone produces 4% of the world’s waste and some of the garments don’t even make it to stores. Recently it came to light that Burberry was burning unsold stock to preserve the perception of product scarcity. Although they have since denounced the practice, this is indicative of the waste-prone industry as a whole. Brands and consumers are choosing to rewrite the story of the fashion industry using the well-known principles of reduce, reuse, recycle.

Reduce: The idea of reducing the consumption of clothing is not a new concept. Consumers have multi-faceted motivations in reducing their shopping: they may cut down because they are becoming aware of the environmental impacts of their purchases. Now that our closets are overflowing, some experts allude to the idea that each additional article of clothing we buy brings us less and less incremental happiness. There’s a reason the capsule wardrobe or the idea of pairing down your closet to 37 pieces of clothing has taken hold. 

Reuse: If you want to learn for yourself, there are plenty of resources for upcycling clothes. Old T-shirts can become trendy dresses with a few snips and stitches. Or if they’re really on their way out, they can be reincarnated in the form of kitchen rags. When it comes to upcycling, options are limitless.

Recycle: The recommerce industry, or the reselling of used goods, is expected to double in size in the next five years. Although the industry was only recently adorned with a memorable name, the art of thrifting has grown more than 50 percent following the Great Recession (2008-2016). Fast fashion is starting to feel the impact of the 24 billion dollars (and growing) used clothes market. 

I had the opportunity to speak with a local thrifting authority, Sarah Howlett (@BoulderThrifter) about how buying used has changed her mindset as a consumer. Her Instagram is a delicious combination of thrift store treasures, shopping guides, and upcycling projects. 

Question: How did you get started thrifting, what were your main motivations? 

Answer: My original motivation was saving money. When I lived in New York City, I was epically cash poor. I was always on Craigslist for apartment searches and started buying furniture that way as well. When I moved to Denver 10 years ago, I was newly married and we collectively owned almost no furniture, so I went back to Craigslist, antique/vintage stores, Goodwill and so on, and just never stopped.

Once we had kids, I bought as much stuff secondhand as I could. There is a massive secondhand scene for baby gear because it’s expensive but no one has anything for all that long. Things like strollers and bouncy chairs, clothes and shoes can change hands many times over, which is wonderful.

Q: What's the best treasure you've found through thrifting? 

A: My favorite is our ever-growing collection of original art. There is such neat stuff out there. I ended up going to meet local artist Gerda Rovetch, who is in her mid-90s now, after buying a piece of hers at a thrift store. She usually does collage, but we have a rare charcoal print she did on a whim of a guy walking on a mountain top. I adore it. When I started Googling her name, I had no idea she was right here in Boulder.

Q: What do you wish consumers knew about the fashion industry?

A: The vast amount of gently used apparel in up-to-date styles and sought-after brands that are in thrift and consignment stores these days, not to mention available in online secondhand markets. It’s easier than ever to find cute stuff, and stores are realizing that to get people in, they need their racks to be well merchandised, clearly marked, they need to have sales, a social media presence—all of which makes shopping a better experience, no matter what kind of store you’re in.

Consumers are waking up to the benefits of secondhand shopping in a major way; there’s been a ton of media coverage on the growing acceptance toward buying used and even gifting secondhand items. I get really excited about it and I wish I could take everyone thrifting.

Q: What have you been most surprised to learn through running @boulderthrifter?

A: I’m surprised there aren’t more Boulder people on Instagram talking about thrifting! It seems very aligned with this town and its values. I’ve been heartened to hear from so many people, though, about how they’re working to form the habit of seeking secondhand items first. There’s something so charming about thrifting that just feels different than buying that cute sweater at a department store, and it goes way beyond the money savings, although that’s a huge and worthwhile part of it. Evermore these days, people want to spend money in ways that reflect their values, and thrifting to me is one big values statement. And after doing it awhile, new stuff in regular stores starts to seem reeeeeeally expensive! It makes all the sense in the world to me.

Q: Any advice for first-time thrifters?

A: Keep a list on your phone of things you’re hoping to find secondhand: a funky side table, a set of soup bowls, hand weights or gift bags. I’ve heard many people say thrift stores can feel overwhelming at first. A list will keep you focused. Also, know that Oxyclean and Magic Erasers can work miracles.

Give Sarah a follow at @BoulderThrifter and don’t miss her guide to the Boulder thrifting scene here.

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For media inquiries please email fwt@room214.com

Vanessa Kahn

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