Cambridge Local First

Taking orders from TikTok kids, vintage stores are selling through stock from the ’80s and ’90s

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By Kaia Patterson, published on the Cambridge Day on July 27.

Isabella Struckman finds 1980s gold in the racks of Central Square’s Goodwill store Friday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Gen Zers’ fervor for ’80s and ’90s fashion helps determine what makes it onto the racks of secondhand clothing shops in Cambridge and Somerville, but not as a result of the latest issues of Teen Vogue or posts from fashion websites. It’s the video app TikTok that’s driving much of today’s unique and attention-grabbing vintage styles.

At Great Eastern Trading Co., 49 River St., Riverside, owner Nephtaliem McCrary said he has had to adapt to a new age of retro clothing searches.

“Over the last couple of years, the idea of thrifting has really accelerated and has become very popular with a younger generation,” McCrary said. “And they’re not necessarily going for the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. They’re looking for ’80s and ’90s, and streetwear and tracksuits, leather and jean jackets – things that aren’t really from a long time ago.”

Nephtaliem McCrary, owner of Great Eastern Trading Co., says how he buys for his Riverside and Malden stores have been shaped by young buyers paying attention to TikTok trends. (Photo: Marc Levy)

McCrary knows social media fuels much of it – and that “if I would narrow it down to the younger generation, I would say TikTok has caused them to do vintage shopping and thrift store hunting.”

TikTok is Gen Z’s app for one-minute music videos, political postings and fashion trends. By some analysts’ estimates, it boasts about 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide and more than 130 million in the United States alone, with one-third of those being 19 or younger and 60 percent lumped into that trendsetting Gen Z category – that is, anyone born from 1997 onward. Users 15 and younger spend an average 80 minutes on the app daily, according to the digital safety app maker Qustodio.

Entering “denim jacket” or “leather jacket” into the TikTok search bar, hundreds of thousands of posts appear emphasizing a variety of trends. The @style account, with 7.6 million followers, is a leader in this electronic fashion world; smaller accounts with a vintage emphasis include users such as Mia Regan (@reganmia) with 156,000 followers, Ruby Lyn (@rubylyn_) with 119,000 followers or Natessa Fratantaro (@natessaa) with 53,400 – posting daily with thrift or shopping hauls, vintage clothing try-ons and wardrobe tour.

“It gives me ideas, or cool outfits. It always plays into the known styles and trends,” Buckingham, Browne & Nichols junior Tess Holland said.

That could be a shirt spotted in a video on a TikTok “For You” page that feeds Holland to an online boutique for an immediate purchase, or a more general trend such as the flared jeans or mom jeans that Holland said she gravitates toward. “In my friend group we all kind of like the same type of clothes and fit into this category,” Holland said.

Her haunts, before the coronavirus forced most of her buying online, were stores such as the Goodwill in Somerville’s Davis Square, she said. Her peers can also shop Raspberry Beret in North Cambridge, the Garment District in The Port, We Thieves in Inman Square, and Lola’s and the Goodwill in Central Square. (Oona’s, selling vintage clothing in Harvard Square since 1972, was brought online-only recently by owner Marianna Pease.)

The eclectic racks and shelves of the Great Eastern Trading Co. near Central Square hold fashion stretching over six or seven decades. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The TikTok trend hasn’t gone unnoticed at area Goodwill stores.

“There has been an influx of younger high-school-age students and young college-age students coming in, and we do believe a lot of that has been impacted by TikTok and just social media in general,” said Emerald Gravel, the charity chain’s director of stores. “I am a huge fan of TikTok, and it was helpful for me at this job … I could see it was going to be a driving force for an increase in that demographic coming in.”

The impact has been obvious not just in ’80s and ’90s fashions in general, but in girls looking for oversized men’s fashions from the eras, Gravel said. It’s a problem when it comes to meeting demand because fewer of those items make it to the secondhand market, especially to Goodwill standards of being free of rips, stains or tears. “A lot of men tend to wear their items into the ground, or don’t necessarily think of going through their wardrobe and bringing things to donate,” she said.

Staff have seen people making TikTok videos in Goodwill stores or in their parking lots – and being a user herself, Gravel said she was able to reassure workers that it was okay. If they “see somebody in the store doing a dance move in a corner, they’re not like videotaping stuff to steal stuff.They’re filming a TikTok,” Gravel said.

“People seem to be genuinely excited about how much fun they can have in our stores looking for some unique items, whether it be for personal use or to just dabble a little bit and maybe sell it through their Instagram page,” Gravel said.

The Goodwill system benefits from its diverse communities when it comes to stocking shelves with donated fashion, she said. But the stores aren’t able to actually curate what’s stocked, even if – as in Cambridge – the stock comes from a central distribution center with overflow from the stores that take donations.

Stocking the Great Eastern Trading Co. with fashion of the 1980s and 1990s means some literal gold too. (Photo: Marc Levy)

That’s not the tale at Great Eastern, where young shoppers like Holland coming in to browse shape what McCrary buys to squeeze into his cozy corner space. Among the latest such trends: A return to the chunky, blingy gold chains of a bygone period in hip-hop. (And country clubs.)

Since buying the store in 2017, McCrary said he’s had to focus his purchases less on his own interests – though he said he discovered his love for fashion in the 1990s – and more on a combination of buyer preference and personal fashion expertise.

“The things that I’m into I was good at searching for and acquiring,” McCrary said, “but I quickly learned that there are so many different people with so many different tastes. I had to learn by interacting with customers while taking note of the things they were interested in.”

“Personally,” he said, “I lean toward the ’70s.”


This story was published in collaboration with the nonprofit small-business network Cambridge Local First.

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