Maybe it stems from the days of back-to-school shopping, but every fall, I get the urge to purge my closet and stock it with some of those shiny new things Vogue tells me I can't live without.
Unfortunately, this year, my pitiful bank account made a spree at the mall out of the question. I decided to draw inspiration from my stuffed-to-the-gills closet. Why not hock my old clothes to earn funds for fall purchases? Out with the old, in with the new, and money in my pocket in the process -- what could be better?
Of course, I wasn't sure that I had any clothes others would want. It was time to take a hard look at my wardrobe. Critiquing your own clothes is no easy task -- I bought them, so obviously I liked them at some point. But I realized that many pricey lapses in judgment (hello, pink paisley caftan and "Flashdance" sweater) could still make excellent resale options. It's been estimated that most people wear only about 20 percent of their wardrobes regularly, and I'm no exception: I had heaps of barely worn clothes to potentially get rid of. It took me a morning to go through it all, but I put together a pile of about 35 items to take to various stores.
My first stop: Mustard Seed (7349 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-907-4699), a secondhand store where I experienced the joy of cash on the spot. I sold about 10 items, ranging from Old Navy hipster jeans to a silk georgette skirt by H&M, and walked away with $56.50 in my wallet. Next, I headed over to Annie Creamcheese (3279 M St. NW, 202-298-5555). This vintage boutique, like most of its kind, is a lot pickier than your average secondhand store. Since I don't have any Pucci shifts from the '70s lying around, it wasn't the best bet for me: I walked out without having any of my items taken. My visit to the consignment store Eclectic Threads (2649 N. Pershing Dr., Arlington, 703-276-0051) was considerably more successful. The store took eight items in all: a classic denim jacket, a Dana Buchman silk sweater and a pair of conservative but chic Nine West heels among them.
The spoils of a weekend's worth of schlepping? $98 -- enough to buy a stylish new piece or two to perk up my fall wardrobe. And maybe someone, somewhere, found that "Flashdance" sweater of mine and rejoiced at having scored something fabulous to call their own.
Holly E. Thomas
Before you set out to earn your own fashion cash, take note of these basic rules of resale.
DECIDE WHERE TO GO. There are three main kinds of resale shops: secondhand, vintage and consignment. Where you should go depends on your style.
If you have bolero sweaters, low-rise jeans and other trendy pieces, try secondhand stores such as Mustard Seed, which tend to seek out stylish, current clothes at all price points. "Ideally, I'm looking for anything from Target to Prada," owner Gayle Herrmann says.
If you live in old Levi's, hippie-era crocheted ponchos and Grandma's jewelry, a vintage shop is probably your best bet. Typically, such stores specialize in clothes from the '40s through the '70s, though some offer pieces dating as far back as the Victorian period.
If you lean more toward classic styles such as tailored pants, sweater sets and dress blouses, concentrate your efforts on consignment shops, which are a favorite among shoppers who are searching for high-quality pieces that are all but trend-proof.
GET YOUR STUFF UP TO SNUFF. When it comes to used clothes, secondhand is not synonymous with second-rate. Most stores prefer that items be free of stains, rips and other flaws (though some will relax their policies if you have a truly special item that needs minor repair, such as a Chanel dress with a broken zipper). As for white clothes? Generally speaking, you can forget about selling them. "It's almost impossible to find white items that look new," Eclectic Threads owner Tara Selario says. "There are always food or sweat stains, so I don't usually bother with those pieces." Make sure to leave labels on what you're selling. Many would-be sellers remove them in the hopes of disguising non-designer items, but owners (and, more to the point, shoppers) want to know who makes their clothes.
CALL AHEAD. Don't just show up, clothes in hand: Most resale-store owners prefer that sellers set up an appointment first. (If you have a large quantity of clothing to sell, some owners, including Annie Lee of Annie Creamcheese, will arrange a visit to your home.) There are several advantages to calling first: You can find out the store's limits on how much you can sell per visit (typically, it's about 20 items). You can also find out if shop owners are looking for anything in particular. When I called, I discovered that several stores were desperate for cold-weather clothes. Considering that it was a steamy day outside, winter coats and wool sweaters were the last thing on my mind, but bringing mine out of my closet made a big difference in my bottom line.
CONSIDER HOW YOU WANT TO GET PAID. Usually, stores handle the payment process in one of three ways: cash on the spot, store credit or a check you receive after your items are sold.
Many secondhand stores give cash -- the perk, obviously, is that you get paid right away; the drawback is that it may not be much. At Mustard Seed, for example, most of my items scored only between $4 and $7 each.
Some secondhand and vintage stores offer the option of store credit instead of, or in addition to, cash. Annie Creamcheese, for one, takes the expected retail price of your item and gives you the option of 30 percent in cash or 50 percent in store credit.
Consignment stores usually cut you a check only after your items have sold. You'll have to wait, but you also stand to earn a fair amount: on average, 50 percent of the selling price. "I think sellers like knowing that they're getting half of the sale price," Selario says, "Even though they don't get the cash in hand."
At most consignment stores, if your items don't sell within 90 days, you have the option of picking them up and trying again elsewhere. And if you're tired of wheeling and dealing? Most stores will happily donate your leftover togs to charity.