How To Shop Secondhand Like A Stylist

Tips from an industry pro.

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the real real vintage pieces

Like any true fashion fanatic, Alexandra Imgruth knows the best styles always come back around. And when they do? She’d rather have the real thing than a modern-day imitation of it. That’s why the stylist has built a practice of buying vintage both for herself and for many of her celebrity clients. In today’s sustainability-minded market, of course, there’s quite a bit of competition for secondhand scores. But Imgruth’s ability to discover the gems hidden in racks upon racks of decades-old pieces has paved the way for her entire career. She knows how to shop vintage with a stylist’s eye by finding the potential in clothes others might not see — and knowing where tailoring can come in and change the entire presentation of a piece.

Lately, Imgruth’s instincts have come in handy on the job. “In general, I hear a lot from younger actresses now that they want to work more with vintage and upcycled clothing and with brands who have vegan leathers or faux fur or some sort of sustainability ethos to them,” says Imgruth, who frequently works with clients like Léa Seydoux, Taissa Farmiga, and Jemima Kirke on sourcing pre-owned pieces for big events. “I think that’s great and really cool because fashion can be frivolous and we already have so many incredible pieces existing in this world and they all kind of deserve a second, third, fourth, and fifth life!”

Jemima Kirke, one of Imgruth’s clients, in a vintage dress at a screening event.Nicky J Sims/Getty Images Entertainment

It helps that the stylist has quite the background in fashion to draw on. Her godmother, who owns a line of luxury boutiques in Europe, exposed a young Imgruth to the biggest names in the business through buying trips and runway shows and got her into the same rooms as influential figures like Azzedine Alaïa. Still, she didn’t recognize fashion as her calling until her early twenties. In college she studied art history; it wasn’t until a few years after graduation that she realized her lifelong education in personal style could amount to a real career, when she was offered an opportunity to style a band for a music video her then-boyfriend was working on. The rest was history — literally: She dove into the vintage market to source some T-shirts that might fit the vibe they were going for.

“I thought my ex-boyfriend was kind of just throwing me a bone, like here’s a little job to do!” Imgruth says with a laugh. “But they wanted some cool vintage stuff, and we were in Paris. I didn’t know what I was doing but from there I met other people working in the industry and found that this was actually a viable job, and it was what I wanted to do.”

A vintage-packed rack from one of Imgruth’s recent fittings.courtesy of Alexandra Imgruth

It wasn’t long before she embarked on a full-fledge career in fashion (she started in editorial shoots before eventually moving on to celebrity styling). But while her love for fashion was inborn, Imgruth’s appreciation for film is what initially fed her inclination towards styling with secondhand pieces. As a teenager, obsessions with different movies or directors and their styles led her down different sartorial rabbit holes. When everyone was trying to emulate the look of their favorite models and celebrities, Imgruth was looking for clothing that would make her look like the characters from her favorite French New Wave and ‘70s films. She realized the most efficient way to shop those time periods was to thrift them.

“You really can create movies in still images in the editorial world, and a big part of that is due to vintage and sourcing items that are really cinematic-looking and beautiful,” says Imgruth. “When you take photos of them, it’s art.”

Of course you don’t need to be in a artsy movie or attending a big red carpet event to benefit from a little vintage-shopping know-how. Ahead, Imgruth shares a few tricks of the trade.

Take Stock

New to vintage shopping? Start by getting well-acquainted with your own wardrobe. Imgruth emphasizes that getting familiar with one’s own pieces is crucial for the new secondhand shopper because stepping into a consignment store with little idea of what you’ve got at home can make the experience overwhelming.

“Look at pieces that will work with your wardrobe that you will wear,” she stresses. “It’s really easy to get distracted and be like, ‘That’s amazing! I love this!’ It's fun to get those crazy buys sometimes, but you can get sucked into those moments a lot in vintage shopping where you think you need it but then you won’t wear it.”

Imgruth does not hesitate to apply her beginner’s shopping strategies to her own clients, such as when she sorted out the looks for Kirke’s most recent press tour. Right before fittings for her Hulu series Conversations with Friends, the actress asked Imgruth if she wanted to stop by her house and see if anything from her own closet might fit the bill.

“I don't normally go into a client’s closet and pull pieces from what they have — I get samples from brands and that’s what they wear on the red carpet,” says Imgruth. “But Jemima’s closet is like walking into a fantasy vintage shop and she has so many incredible pieces! It’s really fun to play with her. The dress she ended up wearing to the premiere in L.A. was this really rare rosette patterned Versace gown that she had never worn so we got that tailored to her and so many people were like, ‘When is that from?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know, it’s vintage!’”

Go In With A Game Plan

Imgruth also notes that intentionality is key to successful secondhand shopping. While it’s important to have a sense of what you’re working with at home, it’s just as essential to know what it is that your closet is missing before you set yourself adrift in a sea of Goodwill racks.

She adds that making a mood board to decipher what look you’re going for can help in streamlining thoughts prior to jumping right in.

“If I have an inspiration, I can boil it down a bit and it’s not just like walking into a crazy carnival and not knowing where to go because everything's kind of exciting” Imgruth says. “I get a little bit more laser-focused and I’m like, ‘Ok if it’s not here, moving on, next one.’”

Even with all the inspo in the world, secondhand shopping can still be a formidable task. Imgruth explains that coming in with an open mind and being aware of your measurements (in case alterations will be necessary to take your finds to the next level) can alleviate some of the stress. It’s also good to have a little bit of imagination as you pour through any vintage store’s racks, according to Imgruth, since tailoring and dry cleaning can make a garment look less like it comes from a certain time period — for instance, subtle ‘20s vibes versus a full-on Daisy Buchanan costume.

Instead of going off to the tailor in multiple trips, Imgruth will do a haul and have them “cut up everything.” Sometimes she’ll want a skirt taken up to be much shorter, sometimes she’ll find the perfect crochet dress but she envisions it with a different lining. Regardless of how she plans to bring a garment into the 21st century, Imgruth feels strongly that shopping vintage is a great starting point. After all, the clothing has already proven its durability by withstanding the test of time.

Look For The Unexpected

At the end of the day, Imgruth continues to feel the allure of shopping vintage for the distinct, original pieces she’s not likely to find through buying fast fashion or sourcing clothing from modern stores. Despite the fact that all secondhand clothing literally started off in someone else’s closet, the biggest draw to shopping vintage for Imgruth is the uniqueness of the items.

“Personally I just think it’s so much cooler to have a piece that not everybody has,” she says. “When I see somebody who has on the exact same thing as me, I'm gutted, in a way. There’s so much clothing in this world, so much great clothing that has so many lives left in it, so why go where everyone’s going to have the exact same thing? Fashion is like a language you can speak in; in cinema before you even hear a character speak, you see what they’re wearing and that helps you build your perception of who that person is. So if we’re all wearing the same thing, then what are we?”

Setting herself apart from the pack and singing in her own sartorial tune may be of the utmost importance to Imgruth, but that sentiment doubles when it comes to her clients. Recently at a film festival, she was reminded of just why she’s developed a strong preference for buying vintage over newer pieces.

“I was in a luxury store and saw this handbag I loved, my client loved it as well,” she says. “We thought, ‘OK we’re going to get this at the end of the festival.’ And two days later I saw it on Instagram — it was the bag the brand was gifting to everybody! I was like, ‘Abort! Don’t buy the bag! Don’t buy the bag!’”

Know Your Sources

As for the spots she can always trust to have a one-of-a-kind find, the Big Apple-based Imgruth recommends New York Vintage, Ritual Vintage, and Nomad Vintage in NYC. She also consistently finds great buys on the L.A. and Paris vintage markets and considers them go-to locations for great secondhand denim. Yet despite the obvious advantages of shopping consignment stores in person — like actually trying the clothing on — shopping vintage online has never been easier.

“You have luxury vintage places, like First Dibs, for if I’m looking for Hermès or Tom Ford by Gucci,” says Imgruth. “Then you have Vestiaire Collective, The RealReal, Poshmark, I would say those are all [a mix of luxury and] mid-luxury brands.”

It’s useful to keep her scope wide across the plethora of sites that host vintage listings, but one of her favorite spots is Etsy.

“Etsy is where I find the best vintage that isn’t necessarily designer,” she says. “It’s like my happy place.”

Imgruth feels Etsy is amazing because it allows the user to be extra specific — instead of having to scan through a whole physical store, being precise with your search terms on Etsy can help cut right through the noise.

“You’ll find your dream [on Etsy], but it’s all knowing exactly what piece you’re looking for” she says. “You just have to be very specific, like: ‘I’m looking for a salmon pinstripe short sleeve button down 100% cotton poplin.’”

Imgruth also encourages new shoppers not to shy away from old reliable: eBay. A lot of online marketplaces where users can upload listings directly can feel a bit like the Wild West, but she says some of her best scores have been through eBay. Though it is ancient by internet standards, according to the stylist, its somewhat slept-on status can really work in your favor when you’re on a hunt for a unique piece.

For digitized vintage shopping in general, she advises consumers to start out on the app versions of the stores, which she feels are generally more user-friendly rather than their desktop counterparts.

And of course, the best buys aren’t only online, or in NYC, or Paris. Sometimes, the greatest thrifted gems are waiting undiscovered on a rack in Small Town, USA. That kind of hidden treasure is exactly where the thrill of vintage shopping truly lies, at least for Imgruth.

“Seven years ago in Massachusetts, I walked into what looked like some crazy vintage shop and upstairs was the most incredible, almost to the ankle suede shearling-lined coat in perfect condition and it was like $120,” she says. “I get sooo many compliments on it. Everyone’s like, ‘That’s so chic, where’s that from?’ Literally, I have no idea. Someone’s closet in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.”

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