For lovers of vintage, the Web is the biggest flea market in the world. A click or two, and you're rummaging through a Pennsylvania attic, a chic Hollywood resale boutique, a New Orleans cache of disco dresses and mini-frocks.
But as delightful as that may be, there are perhaps more pitfalls to buying secondhand online than anything else. You could be saddled with a fake Gucci, a stained Pucci or worse. And most of the time, you can't return it.
The safest bet is to use a trusted online seller of vintage or resale fashion. These gurus of garb have built stellar reps through consistency -- listing accurate measurements for every garment and, when necessary, detailing any flaws an item might have. They can tell you why that gold lame bathing suit is worth $525 ("because Nettie Rosenstein suits are about as rare as hens' teeth") and can spot a fake Fendi at 10 paces.
But no matter where you shop, there are a few things to keep in mind. The Web is a veritable boneyard for fraudulent fashion. "If the price is too good to be true, it's too good to be true," said Christos Garkinos, co-owner of designer resale store Decadestwo and its EBay shop. "People will put fakes up for auction on EBay and sell it at almost full price, then disappear."
Checking out photos of the lining or zippers on a garment is just as important as inspecting the logos, said Sher Katz, owner of online designer shop Swank Vintage: "People are stealing buttons and labels off of items in vintage stores and re-creating them and selling them online."
Even when buying non-designer clothes online, read the fine print, said Melissa Stone, owner of the online Mama Stone Vintage resale store. A modern size 8 was more like a size 12 in 1967, so make sure the listed measurements are at least an inch bigger than your personal measurements.
And if you have any questions, get them answered before pulling the trigger. What if the seller doesn't respond to your inquiries? "Don't buy from them," said Stone, "and look at the customer feedback on any EBay store" -- a cheat sheet for gauging customer satisfaction.
Competition for vintage and resale fashion has increased sharply since the dollar began weakening, so "know that you're up against foreign buyers who are getting an amazing deal," Garkinos said.
But there are still magical and, dare we say, even mythical, deals to be had online if you know where (and how) to look. Here are some of the Web's savviest and most reputable secondhand-clothing online sellers.
Wading through this site is like perusing a museum exhibition on 20th century fashion. This is the place to go when you want to splurge. From Ossie Clark dresses to Thierry Mugler jackets, the shop features high-end designer pieces from the 1960s to the '90s, including plenty of rare objets, such as Zandra Rhodes multicolored tights ($45) and an emerald Scaasi ball gown ($1,500). It's also a thrill to navigate -- each well-designed page looks as if it was ripped from a magazine. The store accepts exchanges, but not returns.
Black Light Vintage
This online store, based in a rural suburb of New Orleans, specializes in classic '60s and '70s no-name looks including disco dresses, mini-frocks and floral dresses -- right on trend for spring and summer. Yes, there's lots of polyester, but there are also some gorgeous pieces to be snapped up for a song, including a belted maxi dress emblazoned with an Asian-inspired peacock print for $99. Co-owner Sheila Harper prices items slightly below what the equivalent modern-day piece would fetch, so most styles are under $100. She also includes postage in the price and accepts all returns for a full refund.
This L.A. resale destination runs one of the most competitively priced online locales for designer fashion from the last 20 years, including pieces from current and recent seasons. Its secret? Hollywood's biggest fashionistas, including Selma Blair and China Chow, are consignors. Most pieces sell for 60% off original prices. A beaded Badgley Mischka dress that fetched $1,249.99 at retail, for example, was recently posted for $779.99 on the store's EBay site. Keep in mind, the no-frills auction shop almost never accepts returns.
Owner Anissa Mook is based in Watsontown, Pa., or "the middle of nowhere" -- so there's little competition at the estate sales and thrift stores where she forages for non-designer clothes from the 1950s to the 1980s. The beautifully kept site has a limited selection, but Mook -- a graduate of San Francisco's Academy of Art College with a degree in fashion merchandising -- has a great eye for pieces that translate seamlessly into modern fashion, such as simple tie-front disco dresses (around $30) and kitschy plastic earrings ($8). Prices are reasonable, and if something doesn't fit, the shop offers full refunds or exchanges.
Mama Stone Vintage