ThriftCon creators Mars Conte and Ken Meade got into thrifting because they were young and broke. Now, their vision ties into a growing movement away from fast fashion and towards mindful yet nostalgic consumption.
Conte and Meade recently staged the biggest ThriftCon in the vintage clothing and collectibles convention’s five-year history with 14,200 attendees and 154 vendors at Denver’s National Western Complex.
“Everyone knows what a thrift store is. They get the concept that the resale world has been around since things have been things, but I think we’re reaching people who are being newly introduced to the whole idea,” Meade told Sourcing Journal. “Our demographic is changing and there’s definitely some momentum and some awareness around the environmental aspect of it. We try to be very conscious about making the point very clear that that is one of the benefits of engaging in a ThriftCon environment, but we don’t want to greenwash. We don’t want to make it the only reason we’re in business, or to sit on a pedestal and say, ‘you know, 95 percent of my closet is vintage.’”
Eighty-seven percent of the attendees at the Denver show were between the ages of 18 and 35, according to ThriftCon, and spend averaged $130 across approximately 75,000 items sold.
“I think it is important that once you’re in a place where you do have disposable income and you can really think about your purchasing decisions on a price basis but on a good-for-the-world basis, we can be a tiny little part of encouraging people to rethink how they’re buying and selling stuff,” Meade said.
Event organizers said men’s graphic T-shirts from the 1970s-1990s were the most popular product, but that women’s wear vendors more than quadrupled year-over-year.
All told, more than $1.7 million was spent at the event, where most vendors hailed from the Denver metropolitan area.
“Dozens make the drive from wherever they’re at for the opportunity to get their inventory in front of new shoppers—sometimes traveling multiple days cross-country to get there,” ThriftCon’s Brian Frederick said. “We also have about a half dozen vendors who follow us to every ThriftCon we do. They all have an online storefront one way or another, be it a personal site or through reselling apps like Depop, Grailed and Poshmark.”
Frederick said the vendors were 54 percent returners, a ratio that holds up across ThriftCon event.
“It’s about 99 percent regional small businesses too, only one or two vendors we work with have made the transition into more than one storefront nationwide,” Frederick said.
ThriftCon next takes its show on the road to the Los Angeles Convention Center for a June 3 event. According to Frederick, applications for vendor booths filled up within two minutes of going live.
Conte and Meade said New York and Los Angeles still lead as America’s thrift and vintage capitals, but cities like Atlanta, and even Denver, are quickly catching up.
“Atlanta is definitely becoming that city that’s creating a lot of the popular culture that we’re consuming,” Meade said. “The people in Atlanta are kind of on the edge of culture. They’re really setting the terms for what the rest of the country is doing.”
Though the stigma of wearing pre-owned apparel is largely gone in the U.S., not everyone everywhere is ready to embrace the used-clothes movement, according to Meade.
“You’ve got to consider in Chinese culture, Indian culture they haven’t reached that threshold where it’s not seen as a cheap, dirty, used item,” he said, reiterating U.S. millennials’ love of secondhand fashion.
Conte added that those who are already conscious about fashion have a leg up on making the conversion to buying pre-owned regularly.
“For someone who’s worried about their outfit, the worst thing you can do is walk into a room and see someone wearing the same thing as you, so vintage is a very interesting way to curate personal style and kind of make things your own, for sure,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a long process, but I do think the fact that fashion people and people who are leading in that industry are really taking notes on what’s happening in the secondhand world, and also producing [new clothing] based off vintage items.”
Conte and Meade started the first ThriftCon in Denver back in 2018 because the Mile High City is “criminally late” when it comes to fashion, but with its biggest turnout ever and traveling shows planned every six weeks, the movement is gathering steam.
“Overall, we want to have the cultural and world impact like a ComicCon, where when an off-shoot Comic-Con happens, everybody still calls it a Comic-Con. I think that’s kind of our trajectory,” Meade said. “The goal of Comic-Cons was to spread awareness of being creative and reading and engaging with media and just really getting into the fandom. If we can have that type of impact on how people consume things and the way people perceive what they’re buying, what they’re selling and how they’re just kind of carrying themselves, we can be part of moving the general perception in that direction… And yeah, we just want to throw really good events that appeal to the three-year-old kid all the way up to the 80-year-old grandpa.”