The age of consignment

Online resellers are multiplying with trade-in kits and cash incentives to keep the cycle going.

NEW YORK — “Your happy envelope is on its way!” This was the title of an email that appeared not long after I’d sent two dead laptops and two dead cellphones to Gazelle, an online gadget reseller. More thrilling was the $397 check that followed. It was a happy ending that sent me burrowing into my closets, hoping to find more expired booty to sell.

It’s been 21 years since the founding of Craigslist and eBay, both of which transformed so-called “person-to-person trading.” In the last decade, companies like Gazelle have refined that process again by removing the messy human factor. With sleekly designed websites, mailers and labels for free shipping, e-resellers handle the sales of your goods themselves, often paying you up front. As the lifespans of your things grow ever shorter, and you are increasingly overwhelmed, selling your stuff without having to leave home would seem to be an enchanting innovation and do much to dull the sting of an object’s obsolescence.

Clothing resellers like Material Wrld, Crossroads and thredUP propose to make “refreshing” your wardrobe more joyful, with their own trade-in kits and cash incentives to shop their wares to keep the cycle going.

As fashion gets faster, these services are multiplying, flush with venture capital.

“It’s the Age of Consignment,” a friend proclaimed, still giddy from selling off the contents of her basement.

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Tradesy is like a dating site for your old clothes: You can post a photo, tell its story and the site will price your garment (a button invites online shoppers to “love” your listings). Move Loot will do the same for your furniture; if a piece sells, the company will handle the exchange and arrange for pickup. So will Lofty, Chairish and Viyet, which sell high-end furniture, decorative items and artwork; curators from Lofty and Viyet will vet your items in your home. The luxury site RealReal, a favorite of fashion-conscious New Yorkers, trades in artwork, designer clothing and jewelry.

Material Wrld operates out of Industry City, a groovy former factory building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, now colonized by tenants like West Elm’s Makers Studio and the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Its founders, Rie Yano, 34, and Jie Zheng, 33, met at Harvard Business School and left their jobs in fashion to start the company in 2012.

Like many fashion resellers, they make you an offer upfront, and send that which they won’t accept to a charity, in their case Housing Works. “What we’re encouraging is a lifestyle where if you purchase quality fashion,” Yano said, “we can extend its life when you don’t want to wear it anymore.” In late March, Material Wrld received $9 million in financing from an e-commerce company based in Japan.

“Resale is trending,” said Martin Ambrose, 29, an associate manager at the RealReal, who estimates he assesses more than 2,000 items each month from clients, many of whom are regulars. The company, in business since 2011 and with $123 million in financing, reports that it takes in, on average, 100,000 items each month and has sold about 2 million items. “People used to be embarrassed,” Ambrose said. “But once you start, it’s like an addiction.”

I met him one chilly February afternoon at the home of Emilie Cresp, 33, a natural-beauty entrepreneur who had decided to cull her formidable wardrobe, of which over 350 pieces (by Chanel, APC and Vanessa Bruno, mostly) were being stored at Garde Robe, the high-end closet and valet service, for up to $2,000 a month.

Cresp, who is French, lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in the West Village with two full closets and a stuffed armoire. I had been invited there by Ann Lightfoot, 55, a professional organizer in Manhattan with a wide network of consignors and charities who sends next to nothing to the dumpster. Who knew there was a booming market for used Lululemon workout gear? Lightfoot’s company, Done & Done Home, which she runs with her daughter, Kate Pawlowski, 29, cleans closets at an extremely high level (chief executives, film and TV directors, an Olympic athlete and a “Real Housewife” have been clients).

It took six hours to sort through Cresp’s clothing, a typical marathon, Pawlowski said. She and her mother leaven their labor with brisk good humor and a refreshing lack of dogma. “We could color-code,” Lightfoot said while folding all 70 of Cresp’s sweaters. “But that can stress out a client.” By sunset, Ambrose had carted away four suitcase-size zippered totes; Pawlowski left 11 garbage bags at Goodwill, and sent four bags to Linda’s Stuff, an online consignor based in Pennsylvania.

Joan Juliet Buck, the author, actress and former editor of French Vogue, said: “Everyone’s objects are freighted. It’s never just stuff.” In January, Buck purged her 42nd Street loft and sold some belongings through Paddle8, the online auctioneer: Art Deco lamps, a Cartier watch, an Hermès desk set, vintage R. Crumb comics and lots of jewelry, including a long strand of steely gray South Sea pearls that she’d bought a few years into the job at French Vogue. “I was miscast as an executive,” she said. “The pearls were austere, very expensive, and I thought they telegraphed authority. I sold my mother’s jewelry to buy them.” And yet, she reported sadly: “The boss lady pearls didn’t sell. They’re coming back.”

This is why consignment can still break your heart. Not every object you send away has a happy ending.

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