Not long ago, as I perused the racks of a local Goodwill with my girlfriend, a young group of friends strolled in, took one glance at the rows of clothes, and, within seconds, erupted in excitement. Two grabbed carts while the other three made a beeline for the men's section, muttering quiet yeses in tandem. They pored over the racks with such ease and abandon, fishing out the most avant-garde items — a pineapple-printed shirt, lavender chinos, a '70s leather blazer — declaring them "perfect." They looked like they were having the time of their lives. A few rows down, I felt so incredibly overwhelmed, I'd barely touched the racks. What did they know about thrifting that I didn't?
When you're a part of a generation born into a climate crisis that then comes of age during the 2008 recession, thrifting isn't a passing fad — it's routine. In fact, Gen Z has been cited as the most open to secondhand shopping. But as thrifting continues to see a sharp rise in popularity, it gets trickier to navigate. How do you suss out the just-OK stores from the gold mines? How do you know when to keep going or give up? Where do you have to look to find that vintage leather jacket you'll take one look at and say, "Perfect"? For all these answers and more, who better to ask than the thrifting pros themselves?
Below, eight Gen Z thrifters share the tips, trends, and techniques that have helped them secure the coolest vintage finds.
Don't be afraid to shop small — like, really small.
"The main thrift stores I go to are Goodwill and Salvation Army — that’s where I’ve found most of my favorite thrifted pieces." — Sebastian Lopez, 18
"In New York, thrifting has become huge in the fashion scene, which makes it a little difficult to find the cutest clothes because they are being snatched quickly. I suggest finding the small thrift stores around your neighborhood, your local Goodwill, Salvation Army, and charity shops as well. These are usually the places not many people have looked into." — Celine Azena, 20
"Pre-pandemic, I always checked out thrift stores when traveling because different areas can offer totally different styles. It really is a treasure hunt." — Hannah Hines, 26
"I live in New York City, so the amount of amazing thrift stores I can go to is great, like L Train Vintage, Beacon's Closet, and Goodwill. That being said, I find the best stuff at small mom-and-pop thrift stores either outside NYC or in Long Island." — Joanna Marquina, 22
"What’s really important about thrifting is being open-minded about where to shop. The best finds can be at the most unexpected places. I live in New Jersey, so I typically travel to other towns to visit their thrift stores. ... Goodwill is always a great store to shop at. They have many locations, and the prices are very competitive." — Gina Lauricella, founder of Nine Lives Thrift, 24
Be prepared to search for a long time.
"My top tip would be to take your time. Shopping in a rush is never effective, but especially when it comes to thrifting. You need time to browse and find cool stuff. I've also found that thinking about the clothes you see in relation to things you already own is important because something might seem really cool in the store, but there's nothing worse than buying it and realizing you have nothing to wear it with." — Annie Blay, 21
"Typically, you’ll need to rummage through racks and racks. It’s like a scavenger hunt! You need to be curious. Don’t wear layers because you'll be sweating. It takes a lot of energy to thrift — dress comfortably." — Lauricella
Shop in every section of the store, but especially the men's section.
"The trick to finding good clothes is to look through each and every aisle and rack. Even if you think you’re not going to find something you like, you’d be surprised." — Lopez
"Shop the men’s section in thrift stores. Being between sizes (16 to 20, depending on the fit and fabric), it’s a bit hard to find clothes for me at thrift stores. After working and adapting to my job’s business formal/casual dress policy, I became an avid blazer wearer. Some plus-size sections are outdated, so instead, I opt for a men’s blazer. If it fits around the shoulders and waist, I consider myself good to go. At times I will take it to my regular tailor or my mother’s next-door neighbor who used to be a seamstress to make it fit better or shorten the length of the sleeves." — Cindy Hernandez, 24
"I always check the men’s and even the kid's sections because it’s about what you love (and what fits), and not as much about the section." — Hines
"Look in the men’s section! It’s 2021; gender is fake. Also, always check the shoe section of a thrift store, especially for items that you won’t wear often, like heels or cowboy boots." — Amelia Milne, 21
"I find all my Levi's [in the men's section]." — Marquina
"I always go to the men's sections first. Every vintage leather varsity jacket or even the best dress shirts and vests, you can find in the men’s section. For [the women’s section], I always go straight for intimates. That's where you’ll find your corsets, bustiers, camis, and tanks — everything that's super popular at the moment. Even the youth sections will have cropped vests and collared tees." — Azena
"Shop the jewelry section. Before you say, 'ew, gross,' hear me out. One, there’s a process called sanitizing. Two, did you know people try on jewelry in [traditional] retail stores also? Yes, even the earrings. During my first few days working in retail, a customer asked me if she could try on a pair of earrings. I double checked with my manager, and it turns out she could. Anyway, I once lingered through the jewelry section at the thrift store and saw a cute band for my own Apple Watch. I purchased it for $12 in good condition." — Hernandez
Do your research.
"I always try to be intentional [about my shopping], whether that means having a mood board of what I’m looking for as far as colors, patterns, or styles or having a list. It helps me stay focused and not overbuy." — Hines
"Do your research on fashion history by decade, so you know exactly what you’re looking for. This will help you spot trends/silhouettes specific to certain decades." — Lauricella
Save thrifting for your one-of-a-kind, statement pieces.
"If you are looking for good vintage, always look at labels and the fabric. This makes it so much easier to find amazing pieces." — Marquina
"Looking for really amazing quality fabrics is a great thing to keep in mind while thrifting. Leather, silk, and cashmere are just a couple of fabrics that are worth good money, and you can typically find these for cheap at thrift stores." — Lauricella
A soft tape measure is your new best friend.
"Bring a measuring tape to measure the bust, waist, and hip size of apparel. This is great since there are no fitting rooms available right now [due to COVID-19]. The risk is small, but you don’t want to waste all of your money buying apparel that won't fit. Expect vintage apparel to fit smaller than the numeric sizing that we are accustomed to." — Lauricella
"Know your measurements. Go get a soft tape measure; it’ll help. I used to use a piece of paper, which I cut up and wrapped around my body, but the $5 investment has been a huge step up. I always size up if I want the fit to be comfortable. However, if I’m going for a going-out vibe or a snatched look, I’ll size down. Look at the material of the item. If it’s something with a lot of stretch, and you go for your smaller size, that can be a cute lil moment." — Milne
Keep your local vintage store employees close.
"Make friends with people at your local vintage or antique store. If you want something specific — like an '80s playsuit or a '70s mod dress — they can be on the lookout for you or even call you if it comes into the store. Many vintage store workers have great stories behind pieces that you may want to hear." — Hines