When the pandemic waged a public health war against New York City last year, forcing the city to go under lockdown, my life as I knew it froze — and my bank account metaphorically froze along with it. I spent nothing but groceries and cleaning supplies, too scared to shell out cash in case, I don’t know, the world ended. Months later, after hours of endlessly scrolling through Instagram, I cautiously made my first gratuitous purchase since March: a retro cardigan with the sweetest floral embroidery and Lucite buttons. And then I found myself clicking “purchase” on more vintage fashion trends in rapid succession: a broderie Anglaise top from the ‘70s, a suede Max Mara skirt from the ‘90s, a vintage see-through shirt with buttons that lined the back, an oversized striped men’s Dior button-down. All my time on Instagram had consequences — following more vintage sellers on social media begot more purchases; by summer, my credit card had most definitely, without question, thawed.
As it turns out, I wasn’t alone. Robert Bird and Brittany Blanco, co-founders of the Y2K-driven, immensely popular luxury vintage shop Treasures of New York City, saw a noticeable spike in sales during the pandemic. “There was a stagnant point at first, but once there was more information out, people went stir crazy and just started buying,” says Bird, explaining that, other than a showroom and office space, their business operates online, which helped propitiously offset costs. “We came out of the pandemic stronger than ever; we have an amazing, loyal group of customers who stood by us — a lot of people were shopping,” Blanco says. “The pieces we were shipping — Robert and I would laugh, ‘Where are you going to wear this?’ I think people were stockpiling their vintage for when New York and the world reopened, and now they’re putting their best foot forward in the craziest vintage, so good for them.”
But it wasn’t just any vintage flying off the shelves — it was vintage layered with lasciviousness. There seemed to be an unbridled, unapologetic sexual upheaval that took place in the last 18 months. “Pre-pandemic, people were like, ‘Can I wear this to work? Is it practical?’ And honestly, it’s really wild that it isn’t as much a thing anymore — people want crazy corsets, bustiers, bodycon [dresses], the shortest-possible skirt,” laughs Brandon Veloria Giordano, who along with Collin James Weber launched James Veloria to offer special designer pieces that boast a streak of subversion and humor that defy convention and expectations. He points to Jean Paul Gaultier meshes and anything Vivienne Westwood as the pieces that go quick. “Both are really cool, irreverent designers, and maybe that says something about right now: It’s the time to really let loose and live your fantasy. That’s been really fun.”
Olivia La Roche, the founder of her namesake vintage boutique O. La Roche, noticed a similar pattern among her customers: “A few years ago, there was more of a somber sexuality — Bottega Veneta and its boxy, bigger silhouettes — but now, it’s the total opposite. Anything I post that’s really tight or see-through or really sexy, that’s what they want. I’m like, damn, people. I think [consumers] are trying to reconnect to their sexuality after possibly being abstinent during quarantine.”
Let’s call it what it is: Big Paris Hilton Energy, and everything that era — the ‘90s and Y2K — entails, which means an abundance of rhinestones and logos, finished with a carefree, laissez-faire attitude. “The early 2000s was the last party-focus cultural moment,” expounds La Roche, who stocks her store with early 2000s pieces from brands like Prada, Blumarine, Roberto Cavalli, Guess by Marciano, and Custo Barcelona. “It was this pure hedonistic, sexy, weird form of innocence where people were making a lot of mistakes. We haven’t had party pictures like that since.”
This intersection between fashion and pop culture has always existed, but the ubiquity of ‘90s and Y2K nostalgia and the significant role it plays in today’s zeitgeist, especially among Gen Z, combined with the visual cues from those decades have made it clear that one can’t really exist without the other. It’s why you have a buzzy teen celebrity like Olivia Rodrigo wearing a 1995 vintage Chanel skirt set for her White House appearance rather than a look from a designer’s latest collection — a development that’s indicative of a shift in perception, from vintage deemed as uncool to it being decidedly very cool.
“I think [the ‘90s and early 2000s] was an amazing time for fashion because designers and models were becoming celebrities,” Giordano says. “And there was something for everybody — even if you couldn’t afford designer clothing, you got to experience it.”
The main (and obvious) catalyst for the recent vintage boom is social media, which has achieved several things: the convenience of discovering vintage sellers, the access to it (all sellers I spoke with reported having to field hundreds of DMs), the much more appealing presentation of pre-owned clothing (super curated, steamed free of wrinkles, and shot in good lighting, thus taking the labor out of digging through bins of stuff, which is especially conducive during a pandemic), and the context to decades-old trends that Gen Z are just beginning to experience. Coupled with Gen Z’s preferred platform — TikTok (or as Bird and Blanco like to call it, ThriftTok) — vintage was bound to dominate the collective consciousness.
“I think it starts with an excess — there’s an excess of clothes like Juicy Couture tracksuits, matching sets, low-rise jeans because people were getting rid of it. They were considered tacky and dated, but the younger generation is looking at it in a different light,” Blanco muses. “My generation is donating it, and the younger generation is rediscovering it, buying it, and making it relevant and cool again.”
To her and Bird, the ‘90s and Y2K have always been cool — Treasures was founded on the trends of their youth (she’s a ‘90s baby; he’s an ‘80s baby), and the duo credits their love of the ‘90s and 2000s, their esoteric knowledge, and their discerning eye for their success. Bird offers up an example: In 2014, he loved the novelty of bucket hats and fanny packs (before either returned to the fashion scene), so he sourced them; the next year, prices tripled for both. “We’re inspired by pop culture and trends, and there are trends that I think we’ve helped move the needle,” continues Blanco, calling out Dior saddle bags, micro purses, anything with a logo as their most in-demand items. “It’s the constant balance of what’s trending, what we can add to that trend, and ultimately, what we think is cool.”
One can’t dwell on Y2K fashion forever — Bird and Blanco are already focused on what’s next. Their prediction? “Early 2000s emo, punk, rock and roll, grunge, like My Chemical Romance and Blink-182. We’re starting to see that in pop culture with Machine Gun Kelly and Travis Barker, and we’re so excited for this direction,” Blanco says. That would involve digging through the early 2000s archives of marquee designers like Dior, Vivienne Westwood, and Louis Vuitton, and plucking era-specific details, like rock studs, fishnets, dark denim, and camo, before the trend officially takes off.
And the beauty of looking back at the past instead of seeking out a mass-manufactured carbon copy made today is being in possession of a special, one-of-a-kind item that has stood the test of time — the mark of superior craftsmanship — which is particularly refreshing after years of being subjected to the industry’s ongoing chase after newness or the homogeneity of the Instagram aesthetic.
“Fashion collections are being done faster with less thoughtfulness, so it’s all going to look the same. I think people are also more conscious of wearing something once and never again — it’s so wasteful, and it’s gotten people to look at what already exists instead of what’s new,” Weber says, with Giordano chiming in to say: “Everyone I know who owns a vintage store is thriving right now, and I’m just so happy that people are shopping consciously and buying vintage — it’s the most ethical way to shop, and I hope it continues to be a thing.”
We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.