What’s Old Is New Again.

The shrinking half-life of fast fashion has led to an explosion in apparel production – an estimated 10 billion items per person per year in the United States – and a corresponding mountain of waste. Meanwhile, second-hand clothing boutiques are under siege from e-commerce and gentrification, as their idiosyncratic inventory stubbornly resists classification. Enter Thrilling, a platform launched in November 2018 for second-hand and vintage boutiques. Founders Shilla Kim-Parker and Brad Mallow work directly with Los Angeles boutique owners to list their one-of-a-kind items online. Kim-Parker explains why she started the business, how second-hand stores are vital to cities, and how she intends to make your standard-issue sweatshirt a must-have next season.

Q. “Thrilling” evokes the thrill of the hunt in vintage shopping – a thrill that’s missing in scrolling through page-after-page of e-commerce. How do you recreate that feeling of serendipity online?

Shilla: I’m so glad you picked up on that, because that’s exactly why we’re named Thrilling. Second-hand shopping should connote feelings of excitement and adventure – the dopamine rush of finding the right piece. I think we’re offering a concentrated version of the off-line experience by working with boutiques – the owners themselves are picking gems from within their stores. So, while there’s still incredible diversity, you’re guaranteed everything you’ll encounter is going to light up your brain in some way.

Thrilling CEO Shilla Kim-Parker at their HQ in Los Angeles. Image credit: Alana Sitara.

Q. What inspired you to launch Thrilling?

Shilla: I grew up second-hand shopping as a necessity. I didn’t have a lot of resources or means for purchasing unique fashion – especially growing up in New York City. As I’ve grown older, I’ve continued the habit to support local owners. But it takes time – it’s a weekend activity, or an afternoon. And I craved a way to shop while I’m collapsed on the couch, post-kids’ bedtime, or between meetings. So, on one level, it was really about convenience.
But the environmental issues around apparel were also a huge factor. New apparel production is a leading contributor to global warming and pollution, requiring as much as a thousand gallons of water to make a single item. And then we wear it seven times on average before throwing it in the trash – creating 70 pounds of apparel waste per American each year. And those 23 billion pounds of waste cost cities hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Buying second-hand reduces the environmental impact of clothing by 75 percent.

Q. What’s your vision of a more sustainable fashion system?

Shilla: Our mission is to make second-hand shopping more accessible. In some ways, it already is – there are nearly double the number of second-hand stores than all the Starbucks and McDonalds in the US combined, but roughly 90 percent of their inventory is completely off-line in “digital darkness.” So, making that inventory modern and accessible is one of our goals.
Second, most Americans don’t realize there’s this huge environmental impact to apparel production. So, part of what we’re trying to do is not just be a fun fashion platform, but also to be front and center about our values. When I started the company, only URBAN-X encouraged incorporating environmentalism as part of our brand. Most people felt it was too political, and would be off-putting to consumers. But the issue is too big to ignore, and secondly, Generation Z and Millennials vote with their dollars – they’re activist consumers.
Lastly, we’re not anti-new fashion. But we should pressure apparel companies to invest in more sustainable practices – to make better things that last longer, and make fewer of them. And consumers should be more aware of who they’re buying from, and should buy fewer things that last longer.

Q. But doesn’t a business based on e-commerce run the risk of being less sustainable than the current second-hand model, especially when shipping is factored in?

Shilla: I’ve done a ton of research into green shipping-and-delivery options, but I don’t think they’re there yet. Once we reach scale in hundreds of cities, we’ve talked about creating completely local marketplaces where you’re only buying from stores within biking distance, for example. But right now we’re trying to achieve lift-off before we tackle these gigantic issues.

Thrilling recently established a partnership with national nonprofit Goodwill to inventory its collection and sell online.

Q. Speaking of localism, your boutique partners are frequently caught in a vise between plummeting foot traffic due to e-commerce, and rising rents in affluent neighborhoods, producing the empty storefronts that have become endemic in New York. Has this made them more receptive to your pitch?

Shilla: It’s the thing they worry about when they get up in the morning and when they go back to sleep. Relying on local foot traffic is – as you can imagine – extremely stressful. They feel enormous pressure to be online, reach a broader customer base, and tap new revenue, but don’t feel they have the capabilities for that. Everything that makes second-hand shopping unique also makes it extremely difficult for e-commerce. Most of these stores are women-owned, and they’re typically sole breadwinners. They contribute $15 billion to local economies and are absolutely vital to the health of cities.
That’s part of the reason we’re acquiring stores at three times the pace we expected. Right now, we’re mostly in California, but we will reach hundreds of stores across the country by the end of the year.

Learn more about Thrilling, an URBAN-X Cohort 05 company, here.