The secondhand market is booming not just online, but offline, too, as vintage events pop up all over North America offering ‘revolutionary’ retail experiences
If it weren’t for a spray of colourful tinsel fluttering on a sidewalk sandwich board, you might walk right past it — an otherwise unassuming commercial space in Toronto, Ont.’s west end, where inside lies the friendly chaos of the Hippie Market, one of the city’s largest pop-up vintage events.
It’s always big energy at Hippie: part festival, part catwalk, part retro club. Dozens of vendors sell vintage fashion, accessories and handmade gifts in spaces that look more like studio apartments than show booths — thrifted Persian-style rugs, overstuffed racks of painstakingly sourced secondhand clothing, shelving units artfully stocked with tiny treasures, the odd disco ball. A DJ thumps tunes. Market goers mill about, looking for the perfect leather jacket or Y2K-era jeans. More tinsel rains down from the rafters.
The crowds are larger than ever since Hippie Market launched in 2017. It’s been well documented that consumer interest in vintage fashion and decor has skyrocketed throughout the pandemic, especially online, with buy-and-sell marketplaces surging over the past three years, and retail brands going all in on launching their own resale platforms.
But out here on the ground, in Toronto and in cities large and small across North America, a twin phenomenon is taking place, and it’s one that’s a little more tangible. An uptick of vintage markets tucked into empty storefronts and popped-up in public spaces is bringing resellers and shoppers together in person in a way we’ve never seen before.
These markets are also introducing new audiences to the thrill of shopping secondhand.
In an effort to get consumers to consider vintage for their holiday gifting, Hippie Market — which regularly pops up in Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwoods neighbourhood — has staked out a spot at 9 Ossington Ave. for its first-ever holiday pop-up store, running until Dec. 8. A market will follow at 1153 Queen St. W. on Dec. 10 and 11.
Floating somewhere in the crowd at Hippie Market will be founder Kealan Sullivan, also the stylist-owner of 69 Vintage, and a veteran in Toronto’s vintage scene.
You might find Kealan hugging somebody she knows (there are many) and exclaiming that she’s thrilled they stopped by, or encouraging a potential buyer to grab that piece that looks “so good” on them, or welcoming a young vendor’s parents, or organizing a lunch order for the market staff, or lugging a mirror between booths. Often she’s doing all of it, all at once.
“There’s been a huge resurgence of people coming back to vintage,” Kealan says, noting that some of her friends in their 40s and 50s who’d once shopped vintage as thrifty teenagers had stopped once they could afford new designer clothing. But they’re now “hungry” for interesting pieces that are built to last, she says.
“And the youth notice that these markets have incredibly well-made clothing that they never would dream of being able to find or afford otherwise.”
It’s always big energy at Hippie: part festival, part catwalk, part retro club.
Meet Kealan and you’ll quickly get a sense of the soul of Hippie Market: vibrant, funky, full of life. She sparkles like the tinsel. But you can only know that if you get out from behind that online shopping cart and attend one of her markets.
That’s refreshing in a digital-first world, Kealan says. She views the rise in vintage markets as a movement, not a trend — one that caught its spark more than a decade ago, about 12 years into in her 25-year vintage-selling career.
The pandemic has been the accelerant, fuelling a return to in-person shopping. Since March 2020, ecommerce has hit record levels. Statistics Canada reports 41 per cent growth in ecommerce for small businesses in 2021 over 2019. In the U.S., recent data from Adobe puts total ecommerce spend 55 per cent higher during Covid than it was in 2019.
But three years in, shoppers may be getting weary as they reintegrate into something that resembles pre-pandemic life — the Retail Council of Canada’s Holiday 2022 report expects 64 per cent of total holiday purchases to be in-store this year, versus 37 per cent in 2021. Even social media use is said to be in a downturn.
Shopping in person is “revolutionary” for some consumers, says Kealan. “Especially for the younger generation, because they just haven't had that access until now.”
To understand why markets are more popular than ever, we need to look back. Kealan remembers the early 2010s, when consumer habits started to shift as online retail hit its stride.
At the time, she was operating 69 Vintage in a retail storefront on Toronto’s coveted cool-kid boutique row on Queen Street West, offering styling services and a curated selection of vintage goods.
Online marketplace giants such as eBay, Etsy and Amazon were quickly becoming go-tos for consumers, offering thousands of products from hundreds of vendors at reasonable prices, all a few clicks away.
Shoppers craved a similar vast selection and ease in the offline world, but they couldn’t get it — certainly not at the independent retail shops of downtown Toronto, which simply couldn’t offer the same volume, especially with soaring rent and increasing labour costs.
“People just weren't taking the time anymore to come down, do the driving, park the car,” remembers Kealan.
But they are now. So what changed? In the past few years, shop-local movements have gained massive support with campaigns designed to encourage purchases from local businesses, such as Shop Small, Small Business Saturday and Not Amazon, among others.
The pandemic prompted a bigger push to help small businesses keep their doors open during the lockdowns, and fed further desire to shop local as supply chain bottlenecks stifled the retail market.
Simultaneously, Millennials and Gen Zs are leading the sustainability revolution — and in Canada, those two cohorts make up more than 55 per cent of the working-age population.
Nielsen reports that 75 per cent of Millennials identify as eco-conscious to the point where they’ll shift their buying habits. And 75 per cent of Gen Z consumers consider sustainability more important than brand names when shopping, according to a study by retail analytics firm First Insight.
Gen Z especially champions embracing one’s individuality — a report by McKinsey states that “consumption as access rather than possession, consumption as an expression of individual identity, and consumption as a matter of ethical concern” all affect how a Gen Z consumer views their relationship with a brand.
“[The pandemic] had a really incredible impact on not just Hippie Market, but all of the markets that are springing up across the country.” — Kealan Sullivan, Hippie Market & 69 Vintage
Highly appealing to today’s young buyer, then, is that vintage sellers carry product SKUs of one and inventory with a relatively low carbon footprint compared to “firsthand” retail.
Genevieve Smith, stylist, founder of vintage shop Gifts of Thrift and frequent vendor of Hippie Market, says that markets are “a new way to discover unique fashion, as the pieces you find at these events [feel] one of a kind,” she says.
“A lot of younger people nowadays are looking for better alternatives to online shopping and fast fashion/haul culture, and markets provide a welcoming, approachable option.”
Put it all together and you have the conditions the mass market needs to consider shopping secondhand. The global secondhand apparel market alone is projected to hit $218 billion in 2026 from $96 billion in 2021, says online secondhand fashion retailer thredUP in its 2022 Resale Report.
Vintage markets are an ideal place to buy secondhand fashion and decor, says Kealan, because they offer something for everyone. Shoppers at markets are presented with many choices at once, capturing the often-competing consumer desires for the vast selection of online marketplaces and for shopping locally.
Market organizers carefully curate vendors to include different styles, demographics, and eras, and often tap local musicians and food outlets to transform markets beyond shopping experiences into community-wide events.
Sarah Little, founder of The ReLove Market, which has been running in Calgary, Alta. since 2019 and Victoria, B.C. since 2021, says the rise of vintage markets stems from a rise in opportunity — increased demand online shows there’s support within the wider consumer market. Now, she’s seeing more events that cater to specific niches, such as streetwear or western wear.
“It’s beautiful [to see] because these markets help people shop more particularly,” Sarah says. “It’s like going to specific stores, rather than having to go through everything.”
In a sense, notes Kealan, vintage markets are a new way to experience the curated, well-merchandised selection of high-quality, investment-worthy items that consumers used to seek from department stores and shopping malls in their heyday.
Hippie Market began in 2017 as a grassroots movement — Kealan tapped the shoulders of stylist friends and shop owners to vend at the first few shows, which popped up at larger festival events.
She’d closed 69 Vintage’s physical location in May 2016 — “at that point I felt like I had achieved what I wanted to experience from having a retail store,” she says — and spent nearly a year travelling abroad, visiting markets in New York and across Europe for inspiration.
“By the time I had evolved out of that chapter of my life, it seemed archaic to me that a person would lock themselves into one place [with a lease] and have all that stress on their head and isolate themselves in a way where they didn't have much contact with other sellers, and no support team,” Kealan says. “Everybody seemed to be doing everything on their own.”
Hippie Market was by no means the first or only fashion-focused vintage market in the city. There was the Toronto Vintage Show, still the country’s largest show, and the original Old Clothing Show, both of which were held a couple of times a year, plus a host of area antiques markets that drew a familiar set of collectors, including the Sunday Antique Market, the Ontario Vintage Market and the Christie Show.
Kealan herself had been hosting one-off pop-up vintage and craft markets, such as the Queen West Market in the mid 2000s, and the Old Soul Weekend Market and One Night Stand night markets in the early 2010s.
But Hippie did carve out a new niche — a regular pop-up market held in multiple locations, geared toward a decidedly younger crowd, where market goers are encouraged to come as they are, where experimenting with vintage fashion is encouraged, and where community and creating a sustainability movement are as much a part of the ethos as selling vintage clothes.
By the third show, Kealan had signed 30 vendors. “They were practically in tears saying markets are what they want to do,” she remembers. “They were all I wanted to do, too.”
Hippie Market drew a regular crowd for a couple of years. Then Covid came along and, like with most things, divided vintage markets into the “before” and the “after.”
Faced with loopholes in provincial public health guidelines that didn’t identify arts or vintage markets as businesses, Kealan fought to secure outdoor space for Hippie Market pop-ups in the summer of 2020. “It was very frustrating not to find any answers,” she says. “Nobody on the phones knew what was going on.”
During the pandemic lockdowns, she lobbied the government to recognize vintage and arts markets and crawls in their guidelines. More than two years later, it has yet to happen. Kealan maintains the change is necessary. “Retail marketplaces, micro-retail and outdoor retail spaces need to be recognized as a crucial aspect of the retail sector,” she says.
That first Covid summer, Kealan managed to convince a developer who owned a yet-to-be-transformed parking lot that an outdoor market following physical distancing protocol was essential for the wellbeing and morale of the people in the neighbourhood.
“We had to satisfy regular police visits in terms of how we were handling these crowds because we weren’t able to pack them in,” Kealan remembers. “They actually pulled me aside once to congratulate us on what we were doing for the community, and for spreading joy in the street.”
By the time another set of lockdowns in Ontario ended in June 2021, “there were so many people ready to leave their homes to shop, and there were so many people ready to leave their homes to sell,” Kealan says.
When Kealan opened vendor applications that summer, “there were hundreds of kids applying,” she says. “It was so unbelievably inspiring.”
The “kids” — her affectionate term for her young vendors and mentees — were in their late teens and early 20s, and had started side hustles selling vintage and secondhand fashion out of their own closets during the pandemic.
“A lot of younger people nowadays are looking for better alternatives to online shopping and fast fashion/haul culture, and markets provide a welcoming, approachable option.” — Genevieve Smith, Gifts of Thrift
They’d sign up as vendors at Hippie Market, which welcomes shops at every stage of business with booth sizes ranging from a small table to 10’ x 10’, and find community offline for the first time. Occasionally, out-of-towners would go back to their respective cities and start their own vintage markets.
Sarah Little at The ReLove Market says the environment gives entrepreneurs the opportunity to get their business up and running quickly. “In Calgary, the vintage fashion scene was always kind of underground. Once we started doing markets, people saw it out in the open,” she says. “I think it had a lot of people inspired by what they were seeing.”
Kealan says the pandemic “had a really incredible impact on not just Hippie Market, but all of the markets that are springing up across the country. Before, you never heard of pop-ups and night markets in Guelph or in London. People weren’t doing it.”
“It was like a bit of magic that happened.”
If you’ve ever been to a farmer’s market and enjoyed getting to know where your food comes from, the same can be said of a vintage market. The camaraderie between shoppers and sellers is, in itself, reason alone to visit.
In an environment where authenticity is valued, right down to the inventory, the way shoppers behave at vintage markets is markedly different than at a local mall, Kealan says.
“You look at people shopping in those environments versus something like a market and it's night and day in their postures, their attitudes,” she says. “People are just not energized, not friendly, not enthusiastic at a mall. The youth look bored. It’s like, do you even like these things you're trying on?”
At Hippie Market, both customers and vendors are encouraged to take fashion risks, try new things and feel safe being themselves. At a vintage market in a smaller and perhaps less liberal city than Toronto, having that kind of support and feeling of belonging is invaluable, Kealan says.
“There’s a lot of spirituality to running a business, in terms of helping people create confidence in themselves,” she shares. “Hippie Market has been really all about people, making non-fast fashion available and making smaller brands visible. And giving those people the chance.”
As a lower-cost alternative to running a full-scale retail shop, vintage markets can be a way for online sellers to try an in-person experience. Shopkeepers get in front of customers and away from the grind of listing on social media or in online marketplaces.
For customers, markets are “an opportunity to be able to engage with the people behind the brands, behind the vendors who have these epic Instagram accounts that people can find very remote and intimidating,” says Kealan. “You can go to a market and see people are actually there, doing the work.”
Genevieve Smith at Gifts of Thrift is one of Kealan’s market ambassadors. She’s also a vendor who manages an Instagram channel and pops up at markets. “Small businesses are more likely to provide a personalized shopping experience, engaging with each person who walks into their booth,” she notes.
They’re also eager to make a difference in their customers’ lives. Genevieve remembers crying after receiving a note of thanks from a shopper on a limited budget who’d needed help styling an outfit for her son’s wedding.
“She had simply written about how nice it was to have someone take the time to measure her shoulders and share in her joy,” she says. “I definitely undercharged her, but the dress was meant to be.”
On any given weekend in Toronto, there is usually at least one vintage market happening somewhere in the city. The weekend I’m writing this, there are four that I know of.
Hippie Market and the few stalwart vintage events that operated pre-pandemic now share the scene with newcomers such as Welcome Market, Good Friends Market, The Street Market and Nostalgic Market, among others.
Starting a market makes good enough business sense for would-be organizers: if consumer demand is up, why pay booth fees to someone else if you can host it yourself and keep more of the profits?
But is there a point where the number of vintage markets will dilute the audience so much that we officially hit, er, market saturation?
Kealan doesn’t think so. She points out that in most cities, hosting large-scale events is a regulatory headache: permits, insurance and now higher-than-ever event space fees coming out of the pandemic.
Just finding available space to even host a vintage market is a challenge. In Toronto, “it’s very difficult to call up an agent about empty space, because nobody wants to deal with the legal, the insurance, all the paperwork,” she says. “There are a couple of venues that could or would host events, but they're really priced for corporate businesses and there's not a ton of flexibility there.”
It’s a similar story for Sarah at The ReLove Market in Calgary and Victoria — inflation and rising event space fees coming out of the pandemic have squeezed market organizers, she says. She recently had to back out of an event space that announced a 100 per cent fee increase.
“We’re not trying to charge our vendors a ridiculous amount of money to do this. It has to be within reason,” she says. “I’ve always wanted vendors to be able to do my market, not just want to do it.”
For both, though, the mission is bigger than the red tape: markets are about promoting sustainability through community engagement.
Sellers spread the word to their customers. “They understand the importance of sustainable fashion on the level we need the masses to be at,” says Sarah. “The more people are successful at it and the more these markets are happening, the more these communities grow.”
And the customers pass on their experience to their friends. Watching consumers leave the Hippie Market with their bags of secondhand clothing “is like taking in the biggest, most rewarding breath,” says Kealan.
“Every market that is attended, as far as I'm concerned, is pulling the strings tighter and tighter to close the gap on mass production and consumption.”
To see vintage and resale events happening in Toronto and across Canada, visit our events calendar.