Slow and Sustainable Fashion is Picking Up Speed in the Ocean State
How six (plus) Rhode Island boutiques are saving the planet with style.
Rene Ergazos thumbs through a rack of fuzzy sweaters embroidered with roses and sporting classic argyle patterns at one of the booths inside the Vault Collective in Providence. Her daughter, a freshman at Johnson and Wales University, tags along on her search for vintage finds.
Ergazos has been vintage shopping since the eighties, back when “vintage” wasn’t even the word used to describe it. Back then, she could score designer labels like Gucci and Prada embedded in the unassuming thrift store racks where she lived in Los Angeles. Her best finds are a Prada purse and stiletto boots made of kid leather — the purse made its way to her daughter’s closet while the boots have rarely been worn due to their daunting heel height.
All these years later, Ergazos continues to shop vintage and secondhand. “I like authentic materials,” she says. “I cannot stand polyester, but then again, some good vintage has some nylon in it. You want it to hold up.”
Like many fashion fans, Ergazos shops vintage mainly for the aesthetic. “If it’s still around, it’s going to be around for longer.” She scours collections for leather, wool or angora, materials she says stand the test of time.
A native of Ohio, Ergazos hit her prime thrifting days in college. “The gaudier the dress, the better,” she says. She still has some of these dresses tucked away in her closet.
Items don’t have to be in tip-top condition for Ergazos to buy them. She recently bought a pair of Frye boots, her third pair, which were used, but only cost $38.
“They looked beat to hell but they’re Frye, so I knew the soles and leather were good,” she says. Her husband rubbed leather cleaner on them and now they’re as good as new. She picks up a sweater that has a small snag. “There’s this little flaw, but it’s so easy to fix. It helps to be handy with a button and a needle,” she says.
Vintage shopping can be overwhelming for some, with so many textures, colors, styles and brands to sift through. But the reward pays off.
The Vault Collective, with locations in Providence and Burlington, VT., offers shoppers a wide variety of collections from local vintage sellers, says founder and CEO Ruth Meteer. Sellers work shifts at the store to talk vintage with shoppers and offer up new finds that just made it on the racks.
“I think vintage shopping is so easy once your eye is trained and you know good materials,” Ergazos says. “It helps to know your brands and materials, and you might have to be willing to put in a little bit of time to do a repair or polish if needed.”
Spots like the Vault Collective are becoming more popular with younger shoppers, who are leaning into sustainable fashion rather than relying on fast fashion as they have in the past. Case in point: Forever 21, previously a top spot for younger shoppers, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2019.
In fact, recommerce as a whole is on the rise, with more than 25,000 resale, consignment and not-for-profit resale shops operating in the United States, according to NARTS: The Association of Resale Professionals.
And the numbers are only going up: The total secondhand market was valued at $35 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to $82 billion by 2026 as more platforms make secondhand buying and selling easier, according to a 2022 report issued by online resale marketplace thredUp.
But why are shoppers choosing resale when new clothing is just as easily accessible? Many consumers cite sustainability and the environment, finances and scoring great finds to justify giving items a new home.
A New Life
Buying secondhand isn’t a new concept, but local store owners are seeing an influx in customers of all ages and backgrounds. While some may consider it trendy, they say thrifting has never gone out of style.
“It’s always been popular,” says Amanda Gallagher, owner of Closet Revival in Newport. “What we’re going through right now is this trend of sustainability, and I hope it really sticks with people for the future.”
After twenty years in business, Gallagher has seen a lot of clothes and even more people repurposing them. “I’ve had a lot of people wanting to consign, which is really great instead of throwing your clothes out, which is a huge part of pollution,” she says. “They’re wanting to repurpose, recycle and resell.”
Textiles are one of the biggest contributors to waste. In 2018, an estimated 17 million tons of textiles were generated, with only 2.5 million recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The rest either ended up in landfills or was combusted into usable electricity, fuel and heat.
Gallagher has seen younger generations wanting to buy secondhand, finding head-to-toe attire to match their own unique styles. Prom season can be a busy time, she says, as her vintage boutique is located just a step down from her consignment shop. High schoolers wander in, wanting to buy something totally different from everyone else. She speculates that they don’t want what everybody else has, but at the same time, they’re being more environmentally conscious. “I just hope it’s a change in the right direction,” she says.
Gallagher opened Closet Revival after working in a consignment shop in Newport and falling in love with the industry. The store is tucked away on bustling, small business-friendly Broadway. She doesn’t accept brands like Forever 21 and Old Navy, looking instead for high-quality fabrics that will last for twenty or thirty years.
If she gets lesser-quality items, or if clothing hasn’t sold within three months, she gives the consignor the option to take them back before donating them to shelters. Summer clothing is donated to an orphanage and clinic in Haiti, so nothing goes to waste.
Even those newer to the secondhand scene — like Danielle Sturm and Charlotte von Meister, owners of the Nest in Providence — are conscious of textile pollution. While working for a fashion startup, von Meister was enthralled by the idea of being immersed in the industry. But the longer she persisted, she realized just how toxic it was, not only from a manufacturer’s standpoint, but in terms of materialism as well.
“It never sleeps,” she says. “Fashion is happening all the time and people want more and more and more.”
Von Meister pivoted and pursued a career as a professional organizer, practicing the KonMari Method of decluttering and appreciating items that have a purpose in your life.
“I learned to take a step back and still love fashion as a form of self-expression,” she says. “I wanted to encourage people to shop with more intention, be more conscious of how they’re consuming and the things they bring into their space. It ultimately forces you to take care of your things to make them last longer.”
Shortly after, mutual friends introduced von Meister to Sturm, who was working in the medical tech startup industry. The decision to transition from the medical field to fashion was easy; she owes it to her overflowing closet of plus-size clothes.
“My whole life, it was really hard for me to find clothes that were affordable that were not just from fast fashion brands, that were not cheaply made,” she says.
She began reselling her clothing not only to free up some space, but to also fill a need for stylish plus-sized clothing in the community. She began building her business based on her prior knowledge from her job and added in homeware and furniture. Then she met von Meister, and the Nest was born.
Schooled By Shopping
Besides being an inviting gathering space for secondhand shopping, the Nest also serves up education. While sustainability and shopping with intention are key factors, the shop’s owners say society’s obsessive focus on fashion goes beyond making a negative environmental impact to also taking a toll on mental health.
“Fast fashion steals a bit of our authenticity,” von Meister says. “It’s a sheeplike mentality where people are shopping at the same five big box stores wearing the same styles they tell you are trendy this season.”
For those who financially or physically can’t access these fashion trends, it has a negative effect, Sturm says.
“That fear of missing out on a trend — it’s a marketing tactic to get people to buy more, but it also weighs on our mental health and our psychology,” von Meister says. “You feel you’re missing out on something, so you need to buy it to still be involved.”
After one year in business, the Nest has fostered a community of like-minded people who embrace individuality and feel better about not keeping up with trends. The shop hosts monthly clothing swaps where people can trade pre-loved clothing. After all, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
“Whatever is trendy is so personal. It’s whatever you feel good in. We are all built differently: different skin tones, personalities, senses of style,” von Meister says. “It doesn’t make sense that we’d all be wearing the same thing. I think shopping secondhand really empowers the individual to pick out whatever is calling him or her versus one style in different colors on a rack.”
Social media also plays a large role in fashion. Between shopping directly from links posted by your favorite social media influencers (who receive a small commission, by the way) or avoiding being an outfit repeater, consumers have an urgency to buy more, buy new and be somewhere beautiful to wear it.
“It’s this sense that we need more new stuff all the time, and fast fashion is delivering it to us,” von Meister says.
While impulse shopping may feel good, that feeling is fleeting. “It sparks joy for you to buy that shirt in the moment, but what if you come home and it doesn’t fit quite as well as you remember it did in the store, and you already own something that’s similar, and your drawer is exploding? That feels chaotic; does that spark joy for you?” von Meister says.
The Nest owners consistently advocate for the life cycle of a product when it comes to overconsumption.
“One good step to think about is where it’s going to be: is it going to stay in your home forever? A lot of people don’t think about where it’s going to end up,” Sturm says. “They just buy things and then all of sudden they’re like, ‘I don’t need this anymore, I’ll just throw it in the trash.’ We always think circularly. Can I consign this? Am I going to donate or gift it to somebody? We can’t keep throwing everything out.”
If you think you go through clothes as quickly as the seasons change, think about how fast children grow out of their closets. Diane Jennings, owner of Luca Boutique in Warren, loved shopping for used clothes for her toddler son, but found the experience challenging. There wasn’t enough room for a stroller in the aisles, merchandise was difficult to see all at once and the store setup wasn’t parent- and guardian-friendly. “I was disillusioned by the whole experience,” she says.
When a friend opened a secondhand shop in Brookline, Mass., and was unable to operate it any longer, she asked Jennings if she wanted to buy her out. She dove in.
“I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew what it wouldn’t look like,” she says. She vowed to create a place that was “for parents, by parents” that was immersive yet simple to shop with little ones in tow. And so, Luca Boutique — named after her son — opened its doors six weeks later.
Luca Boutique isn’t just a place where parents can shop for clothing from other local families — it’s somewhere they can connect in person. A dedicated play area, changing rooms and an open floor plan that allows room for strollers creates a space that “feels like a real store” while including the family component. Clothing is organized by size to make it easier for parents to shop for a whole wardrobe in just one section.
Only in the past five years have people become more aware about the environmental impact of fast fashion, Jennings says. From an economical standpoint, buying new children’s clothing can be costly. Children’s clothing is more detailed with larger components, more variety and more pieces, from pajamas to dresses to outerwear and dance or sports uniforms.
“Children can go through three sizes every year from birth to teenage years,” Jennings says. “You don’t have to purchase everything brand new.”
Community is emphasized at Luca Boutique, with 95 percent of the merchandise coming from local families as a way to support other parents in the community. “It’s moms helping moms,” Jennings says.
She likes to carry brands, such as Hanna Andersson, Janie and Jack and Boden, that are built to last. Fittingly, she’s seen her son’s coat rotate within the community and the store for ten years. That’s why she only accepts in-season items, high-quality brands and checks articles for wear and tear. If the material shows signs of pilling or fading, it won’t make it to her racks.
“Kids are hard on their clothes,” Jennings says. “Better brands make a better-quality product.”
With the increased popularity of secondhand shopping, however, it’s becoming more difficult to procure high-end pieces. Parents tend to be brand loyal, Jennings says, and there is more competition between buying those brands secondhand. When Luca first opened, Jennings said parents were primarily finding used clothes for children from Savers or Craigslist. But now that parents can sell their children’s clothes online, there’s an added layer of competition. The store is seeing fewer high-quality items come into the mix as people turn online rather than to brick-and-mortars to buy and sell.
Brands like Patagonia have launched their own secondhand websites, with many manufacturers following suit. Patagonia has always stood by its products, even offering an “Ironclad Guarantee” to repair and ship items back to extend their products’ life cycle. Specific buy-and-sell Facebook pages are popping up for designer brands, too. These are the types of brands Luca likes to focus on, but it can be more like a treasure hunt for both the shopper and the retail buyer to track down pieces.
Buy Back Boutique
At Dish Boutique in Warren, the focus is on purchasing high-quality pieces that will last a lifetime. Keri Cronin and her mother, Sara Volino, took their extensive backgrounds in retail and eyes for quality fabrics to open Dish in April 2003. At the time, the term “slow fashion” wasn’t even used in mainstream discussion. They researched sustainable labels founded by women that were not widely available in malls and department stores.
One of Dish’s first labels was Prairie Underground, a sustainable line that the store still carries. As the market grew, more quality lines became available, sourced from Italy, France, Japan and smaller family-run clothing lines, and Dish took in as many brands as it could.
“It represents everything we loved: craftsmanship and quality,” Cronin says. “We can point out each line [in the store] and see how it reflects our values.”
During the pandemic, they also started reDish, a resale collection of clothing that originated from the shop, loved by local customers and returned for others to enjoy and extend the clothing’s life. The concept was to “mix it up and entice people” with items that originated in the store from customers who had a change in their lifestyle, Cronin says. For those who worked exclusively in offices but changed to a hybrid or remote setting, they were able to give their preloved clothing back and receive shop credit to buy items that fit their new lifestyle. “It gives the items a new life and keeps them out of the landfill,” Cronin says.
One of the best ways to be environmentally conscious is to buy secondhand denim, as it cuts back on water and production waste, the owners say.
“The dichotomy of it all is if you’re buying secondhand denim, you’re making a really great choice,” Cronin says. “But if you’re paying less than $100 for your denim, there’s no way it’s not actually a culprit to [harming] the environment.”
Cronin points to a pair of jeans from People Tree with a price tag of $147. She says that’s the most affordable pricing she can find in the denim industry with sustainable values, and there are many more brands with much higher price points. While it may be more convenient and affordable to purchase a pair from a big box store, she says, the practice may not be environmentally conscious.
Regardless of how you choose to shop — consignment, vintage, secondhand or boutique — you’ll stay true to both your sense of style and ethics if you shop consciously and fashionably.
“What you wear should make you feel great,” Cronin says. “Our closets are filled with things we choose that have integrity and value.”
Resale and Donation Sites
The Salvation Army
Blackbirds Consignment Shop
1800 Mineral Spring Ave., Unit E, North Providence, 353-2028, blackbirdsconsignment.com
Thrifty Goose Thrift Shop
50 Orchard Ave., Providence, 751-2141, stmartinsprov.org
117 Brook St., Providence, 654-6935, urbanthread.org
Jackie on Broadway
324 N. Broadway, Rumford, jackieonbroadway.com
1286 Broad St., Central Falls, 729-0405, mcauleyri.org
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Rhode Island
1341 W. Main Rd., Middletown, bigsri.org
Various locations in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts
Donation bins at various locations. Nonprofit organization offering textile recycling, planetaid.org
Circulate Your Closets
These sustainable stores will extend the life of your wardrobe.
The Vault Collective
235 Westminster St., Providence, 250-2587, thevaultcollective.com
30 Broadway, Newport, 845-0592, closetrevivalnewportri.com
1155 Westminster St., Unit 220, Providence, thenestpvd.com
193 Water St., Warren, 289-2251, luca-ri.com
155 Water St., Warren, 247-7705, dishri.com