In college, Symphony Clarke had a rich roommate, who she says “would look so bomb” when the two would go out. Like the average college student, Clarke, now 24, isn’t rich and knew she couldn’t afford Gucci or Dior, but she wanted the same vibe. A friend suggested she start thrifting. “I was like, ‘You mean Goodwill?’ And they were like, ‘There are so many other places besides Goodwill,'” she tells Elite Daily. One trip to the thrift store later, and the wheels in Clarke’s head started turning. “I would [think], ‘I wonder if I could just buy a hoodie and crop it and make it into this cool little thing?’”
About 624,000 likes later, she became an example of the on-camera up-cycling that has amassed over 360 million views on the app and says a lot about what people want — and don’t want — from fashion right now.
To get thrift-flipping, you have to start with an approach to shopping that shrugs off what every American kid is programmed to do: buy something new. Then there’s the math: a vintage graphic T-shirt from Goodwill costs $5, give or take. An hour and some bleach later, it’ll look exactly like an $18 graphic T-shirt from Forever 21 (without the “I love tacos” text unironically printed on the back) or the $100+ versions on Shopbop. A lot of people might hold that $18 shirt in their hands for a moment, thinking, I could make that myself, before just buying the damn shirt. (Everyone loves tacos, right?) Thrift-flippers DIY it; they’re only in the hole $5, and they rack up 100K likes.
The most popular videos depict 15- to 60-second bursts of teens and 20-somethings slicing up old clothes and even unconventional objects to reveal trendy crop tops and acid washes similar to those on the shelves of Urban Outfitters, Forever 21, and Brandy Melville, but with a personal flair no fast-fashion retailer can deliver. “I love the exclusivity of having that specific item,” says YouTuber and TikToker Nava Rose (née Alexa Jade), 29. “There's also something very rewarding with someone complimenting your outfit and you saying, ‘I made it,’ or ‘I flipped it.’"
CeCe Vu, fashion and beauty partnerships lead at TikTok, attributes this, in part, to how engrossing the projects can be, both to watch and perform. “TikTok is giving the fashion community a platform to showcase their art and personalities in a new way,” says Vu. “Our audience is drawn to the level of innovation, the educational how-to angle, and the oddly satisfying DIY process.”
Up-cycling clothing isn’t a new phenomenon, of course, especially for young, creative people. But it’s probably never been as popular to watch — and then try yourself — as it is now. That has to be partly due to the COVID-19 shutdowns, which have kept everyone inside crafting, like one long rainy day at the world’s bleakest summer camp.
It’s made possible, too, by the unprecedented popularity of buying and wearing secondhand clothes. Online resale and traditional thrifting are set to boom over the next five years by over 400% combined, according to a report from the resale app thredUP. This is compared to the approximate 50% increase the secondhand market has seen since 2015. Quarantine has given people a lot of extra hours to clean out their closets and financial incentive to sell what they don’t wear. Buy and sell apps with easy shipping options mean no one has to haul anything to a store. Influencers have made thrifting an official cool-girl practice — see Emma Chamberlain’s thrift haul videos or the thrift-focused Instagram and YouTube accounts of Haley Israelov or Rachel Spencer. And a lot of people know about thrifting from their parents.
According to the secondhand app Poshmark, Gen X, the people who raised Gen Z, report that 14% of their closets are made up of secondhand items, just behind 16.5% of Gen Z. “They've lived in a world with secondhand shopping as an alternative, not as some unheard-of thing,” says Erin Wallace, vice president of integrated marketing at thredUP, which allows users to purchase secondhand and clean out and donate their old clothing. Now, the app reports 80% of Gen Zers they polled as saying they see nothing socially unacceptable about thrifting.
Thrift-flipping, though, means not just buying and wearing used clothes but reworking them in novel ways for an audience. For this, you need to learn how to sew, and you probably need TikTok.
Both of Clarke’s parents sew. Growing up in the Bahamas, her dad learned in home economics class to iron, to cook, to clean, and to sew — he even sewed Clarke’s mother’s wedding dress. Horrified to learn that the first items his daughter sold were held together with safety pins, he pulled her aside and showed her a basic straight stitch and a zigzag stitch on the spot.
Rose also comes from parents who sew and says secondhand fashion has always been a part of her life. “I would say 75% of my closet is all thrifted items,” she says. While she steadily grew her YouTube following over a few years, it took mere months before Rose’s clever thrift-flips — in which she’s transformed oversized shirts and even Louis Vuitton purses into impossibly cool matching sets — catapulted her to 2 million followers on TikTok and counting, although she never thought she’d go viral because of it. “I thought I was just going to join the pool of DIY [content],” she says. “I'm very shocked that I've gotten this far.”
Clarke, who posts her thrift-flips on TikTok under the username @TheThriftGuru, has racked up over 200,000 followers since she started posting her creations on the app in March 2020, and she now sells them on her website. Popular for the hoodie-shorts sets she’s made since the beginning and her outrageous basketball purse (yes, made out of an actual basketball), she knows the value of getting a look that can’t be matched and prices her one-of-a-kind pieces accordingly. “They'll pay for it, because they're like, ‘Yo, this is so interesting. I know no one is ever going to have this.’”
Thrift-flipper William Andrew Burgess II, known as @WandyTheMaker on the app, has a total of 3.2 million likes across the 44 videos he has posted of his intricate patchwork creations. “I've made a shirt that was literally over a hundred pieces sewn together,” says Burgess. “Really, the longest part is piecing it out. [Viewers] might think my patterns are all just randomly placed, but it's really strategic to get the color balance and pattern placement down.” You can see Burgess’ level of craftsmanship easily in his thrift-flips, like this recent Venetian-style printed jacket, this patchwork denim vest, and even this Care Bears bucket hat (his most viral TikTok creation to date).
A single thrift-flipped item can take hours, sometimes upwards of 12, to produce, especially if, unlike Clarke and Rose, you don’t have a generational sewing advantage. Despite the complexity of his patterns, Burgess still considers himself a “super beginner” and has learned how to sew with YouTube tutorials. “There are a lot of technical things that I can't really do yet, because I haven't taught myself,” he says. If his designs look like the work of a more experienced hand, that is thanks to a ton of trial and error. “I still get really frustrated. There are times I want to throw my machine on the ground.”
What keeps someone from succumbing to that frustration and just buying the taco shirt? The need to earn rather than spend money, for one thing. Gen Z influencers with a strong brand identity are getting a lot of attention and, in some cases, making substantial bank. A big following can pave the way for a personal fashion line. Clarke and Burgess, who also sells his creations through his own clothing brand, are proof of this. “[Gen Z are] really go-getters, genuinely entrepreneurial ... They are so empowered by technology,” says Marie Petrovicka, vice president of international at Depop, another popular resale app, whose users are 90% Gen Zers.
For all of its entertainment value and potential financial upside, though, thrift-flipping is also an expression of what many of us born into a climate crisis want from the fashion industry (and most other industries): sustainability. In a January 2020 report from First Insight, a platform that analyzes consumer habits, 62% of Gen Z respondents said they’d rather buy from sustainable brands, and 73% are willing to pay more when purchasing sustainably. Gen Z was also most likely to report making buying decisions that align with their “personal, social, and environmental” values.
“I am so done with fast fashion,” says Rose. “I truly do believe in secondhand and just cycling through clothes. There are just so many clothes out there in the world that are perfectly fine … It's not like people pooped on it or anything.” Even Burgess, who says he wouldn’t classify himself as the biggest environmentalist, has come to appreciate the environmental implications of his work. “[The sustainability aspect] was more incentive to keep going and spread that message.”
Makers like Rose, Clarke, and Burgess do worry about the impact their work could have on those for whom secondhand shopping is not a hobby or a business: people who can’t afford to buy clothes outside of thrift stores. If hoards of young 20-somethings with cropped-matching-set dreams start combing through tees and hoodies, dropping cash and clearing the racks, the neediest customers could be priced out. Clarke says she thinks it’s already happening. “They’re starting to charge up,” Burgess agrees.
Looming over every thrift-flipper more immediately, on TikTok at least, is the possibility of a U.S. ban on the app. “If TikTok were to be banned, that would be the worst thing to happen,” says Clarke, crediting TikTok’s user-friendly editing process and algorithm that can send any given video mega viral as key factors in getting her work seen. Since news of a potential ban surfaced, she’s prepared to shift gears to YouTube or Instagram (and Instagram’s new TikTok clone feature, Reels), although she’s already dreading the laborious YouTube editing process and Instagram’s algorithm favoring aspirational content.
Burgess, too, is steadily building a “decent” following on Instagram and may transition to Depop to show and sell his work. He’s skeptical, though, about TikTok’s demise. “It's just too big of a platform,” he says.
He and Clarke agree that another app will likely replace TikTok, as TikTok filled the experimental short video void left by Vine. Thrift-flipping, on the other hand, feels lasting — something young, creative people with time and not much cash didn’t realize so many of them do, until they could show each other what happens in their rooms when they’re bored. “To be able to make your own clothes, especially at a cost-effective rate,” says Clarke, “that's always going to be the ‘in’ thing to do.”