You can love fashion but not love what it costs to be fashionable.

With the world grappling with inflation and awareness regarding sustainability on the rise, a wardrobe full of designer-wear may not appeal to your pocket or to your moral compass. You may become inclined towards buying new clothes that are, well, not actually new. And you might just lovingly splurge on a handbag that is pre-loved.

There was a time when not many people in Pakistan considered investing in second-hand designer-wear or accessories. Luxury was meant to be new, purchased straight off the retail rack, with a designer label proudly dangling off it. Vintage clothing may have become a trend around the world a while ago but, on our turf, the begums and the sahibs would not think twice about walking into an atelier and order a shiny, new seasonal wardrobe. The Itwar (Sunday) bazaars and the landa market was simply not for them.

Well, you probably still won’t see them lurking amidst the imported designer-wear carelessly strewn across a grimy stall in a second-hand bazaar but even the begums — except the ludicrously affluent ones — are keeping an anxious eye on the plummeting value of the Pakistani rupee.

And lo and behold, for many, the stigma attached to second-hand is now waning. Giving testament to this is a burgeoning range of ‘pre-loved’ businesses that have mushroomed on the internet, offering everything from thrift watches and handbags to wedding-wear, by the likes of Bunto Kazmi and Sania Maskatiya.

As unbridled inflation and a depreciating rupee hits the buying power of countless households across Pakistan, many of the fashion conscious are unashamedly turning to purchasing ‘pre-loved’ designer-wear. Who are the people who facilitate this new trend of ‘re-commerce’?

Some are now well-established enterprises, with organised, updated webpages and a presence on Facebook and Instagram. Others take their first few cyber-steps into re-commerce before fading out.

For those that are managing to last the long haul, it’s a promising avenue. But the pre-loved market is strewn with its own unique set of obstacles. Evidently, rule one in ‘Retailing Preloved Designer-wear 101’ is winning the customer’s trust. Designer goods, even second-hand ones, can be quite pricey and no one wants to fork out huge sums to a retailer they can’t trust!

“It’s very important to develop a feeling of trust with your customers,” says Mona Raza, an Islamabad-based entrepreneur who has been running the online portal ‘Brands Basement’ for six years now. “I act as the middle-man, connecting buyers with sellers, but I always check the quality of any product that is purchased through me. If it not up to par, the price may get renegotiated or the sale gets cancelled altogether.”

For those that are managing to last the long haul, it’s a promising avenue. But the pre-loved market is strewn with its own unique set of obstacles. Evidently, rule one in ‘Retailing Preloved Designer-wear 101’ is winning the customer’s trust. Designer goods, even second-hand ones, can be quite pricey and no one wants to fork out huge sums to a retailer they can’t trust!

She elaborates: “People wanting to sell their clothes or accessories get in touch with me and I will post images and videos of the products on my platform. If the buyer is interested, I will ask the seller to send me the product. I will check it and then deliver it to the buyer. There is complete transparency in the transaction — I charge a fixed commission, while the remaining amount goes to the seller. Also, most buyers and sellers want their identities to remain anonymous and I make sure that it remains so.

“I now have repeat customers. I will sometimes guide them on the shoe that they are thinking of buying, knowing that there is a certain size or shape which will not suit them. There have been a few times when I have been sold fake items and I make sure that they are returned.”

Mona continues: “Also, sometimes the appearance of a product is subjective. The seller will think that the product is in mint condition, but the buyer will disagree. For instance, we recently uploaded a range of cufflinks on our website and a buyer added all of them into his online cart. Later, he felt that he didn’t like their condition and so we adjusted the price, because he was buying in bulk.”

She adds, “I was a housewife all my life before I started off this business, so I have learnt and made the rules along the way.”

What steered Mona towards the second-hand market? “I was looking for a business opportunity which required zero investment,” she says. “I knew so many people in Islamabad who had designer-wear lying about which they no longer wore, and they could easily earn by selling it off. One of my first transactions was thanks to a friend, who told me that she didn’t need to sell but I asked her to do it for me. Now, she sells her designer accessories and apparel through me all the time!”

Is business doing well? “It is, and I have now invested into a website,” she says. “During the pandemic, sales particularly skyrocketed. I think, with the current dollar prices, people find it more affordable to buy a pre-loved item from a reliable platform rather than spend huge amounts on a brand new designer product. Also, with fast fashion, they have become more conscious regarding wastage.

“And when it comes to purchasing designer-wear, they are comfortable knowing that the clothes are already with me. Quite often, when people order from major designers, the clothes never get delivered!”

Nazish Hussain, the founder of Secret Stash, one of the longest standing online businesses in Pakistan for curated pre-loved goods, has similar observations. The idea of retailing pre-loved items in Pakistan struck her back in 2013.

“I was on a work trip in San Francisco and I observed how vintage clothing was popular there. There were even some high-end vintage stores, and I kept thinking that we needed to have something along the same lines in Pakistan. In December 2014, I launched my business’ website and it took a few years to build the concept and to eliminate the taboos attached to second-hand products.

“Now, customers trust us and we try to accommodate their requests. If they want to see more of the product before they confirm their purchase, we send them videos and photographs via WhatsApp. Anonymity of buyers and sellers is guaranteed, and we are upfront about the commission that we will be charging on the seller’s asking price.”

She adds: “Since we are based in Karachi, customers from within the city have the option to make an appointment and see the product that they are purchasing. We have also occasionally set up pop-up exhibits at events in Karachi and Lahore, just so people can come and see the products physically and become more familiar with the brand.

“The quality of the products is a major priority, which is why our product lines are usually dominated by imported designer brands. We also sell children’s clothing which is all new, because we have observed that people are more hesitant about buying pre-loved products for children.

“Retailing formal Eastern-wear tends to be trickier. Sometimes, a customer will believe that the embellished designer outfit that she’s selling is in great condition but, when we inspect it, we’ll find pin-holes in it. For the buyer, this could be a major concern. It just tends to make sales more complicated.”

Pre-loved online brand And Againn, on the other hand, counts Pakistani designer-wear as one of their fastest flying products. Founder Ramshay Sheikh reveals, “Clothes by brands like Misha Lakhani, Sania Maskatiya, Farah Talib Aziz and Faiza Saqlain tend to get sold off within minutes! And if it’s wedding season or Eid is around the corner, we are flooded with queries for particular designs and brands.”

At Brands Basement, customers often ask for kaftans. “People love them, perhaps because the silhouette is easy to wear!” says Mona Raza. “There’s also a huge demand for designs by Misha Lakhani. And there’s a new brand called Nia Mia which sells like hot cakes.

“It isn’t a very expensive brand, which is why I wasn’t initially interested, because the profit wouldn’t be much for me. But a seller told me to price a Nia Mia design which originally cost 8,000 rupees at 12,000 rupees and she was confident that it would sell. She was right!”

Which social media platform is most conducive for sales? For And Againn, orders primarily get hauled in via Instagram.

“I also have a website because it helps win over customers’ trust and assures them that the business is an authentic one. However, there is a lot of back and forth communication during a transaction that can only be efficiently done via Instagram or WhatsApp messages.

“Products are with sellers until an order comes in and, sometimes, they get sold off via some other platform. We have to confirm availability before accepting an order. Sometimes, customers want to see more of the product. All this can’t be done through the website.”

Instagram is the ideal cyber marketplace for many fledgling brands. Omer Ahmed, a young Institute of Business Administration (IBA) grad, relies completely on Instagram for his four-year-old online business ‘thriftwatches’ which started off with retailing used watches and has now expanded to also include completely new products.

“Online sales can sometimes happen within a day and it can get tricky to update a website constantly,” he says. “Also, for luxury products like watches, people prefer to communicate directly through messages than place an order on a website.”

Are the taboos attached to buying second-hand on the decline? “Absolutely,” says Omer. “People don’t mind investing into a used luxury item as long as the price and the quality is to their liking.”

Ramshay Sheikh says, “I started this business seven years ago and, back then, people would create fake IDs in order to buy and sell pre-loved items. Now, I feel that they are more upfront. Even pre-loved designer-wear is quite expensive and a lot of people have stopped associating shame with wanting to buy second-hand.”

Ayesha Pervaiz, owner of online brand @prelovedstuffpakistan reveals that she now has contacts who send her pictures of their designer-wear even before they wear it. “By the time they have worn the clothes two or three times, a sale has been made already. They sell off the clothes at a great price and, then, they can buy more!”

For the conscientious buyer, the pre-loved market offers a greener option. For those determined to balance out their love for luxury goods with a fluctuating budget, it may soon be the only feasible option.

And while the begums of yore may have quailed at the thought of getting discovered scrutinising the designer-wear at a musty, grimy Itwaar bazaar, the Internet offers complete anonymity. You could discover absolute treasures browsing a cyber-market and no one would know.

It’s an extension of e-commerce — ‘re’-commerce — and it may define the future of the market for luxury-wear.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 21st, 2024

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