The age of consignment

Emilie Cresp, from left, watches as Kate Pawlowski, center, and Ann Lightfoot organize her clothing for the RealReal, a luxury consignment website, in Cresp’s home in New York, Feb. 17, 2016. Online stores like Material Wrld, the RealReal and other resale sites aim to make “refreshing” your possessions ever easier.
Emilie Cresp, from left, watches as Kate Pawlowski, center, and Ann Lightfoot organize her clothing for the RealReal, a luxury consignment website, in Cresp’s home in New York, Feb. 17, 2016. Online stores like Material Wrld, the RealReal and other resale sites aim to make “refreshing” your possessions ever easier. New York Times

“Your happy envelope is on its way!” This was the title of an e-mail 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 finish 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, to paraphrase a Kate Atkinson character, by “the relentless culling and resolution that the material world demands,” 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. Ethical elimination is a theme (a corollary to ethical consumption). The manifesto of Crossroads, a favorite of college students who worry that their Urban Outfitter discards may end up in a landfill, is that “fashion shouldn’t come at a cost.” Material Wrld aims to alleviate “fashion guilt” with its own promise: “We'll handle yesterday’s fashion so you can focus on tomorrow.”

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.

What sells, what doesn’t

Like many fashion resellers, Material Wrld will make you an offer upfront, and send that which they won’t accept to a charity. “What we’re encouraging is a lifestyle where if you purchase quality fashion, we can extend its life when you don’t want to wear it anymore,” said one of its founders, Rie Yano, 34. 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.”

Ambrose, who wrote a college essay about the characters he met while window shopping, is a resale encyclopedia. Some basics: Women’s pants don’t sell. Nor do men’s dress shirts, because people are very particular about these items. Recognizable brands, like Christian Louboutin shoes with their red soles, do. Shoes and handbags hold their value nicely.

The RealReal divides the sale price 40/60; once a seller’s wares reach $10,000, that person receives 70 percent. In the world of luxury consignment, Ambrose said, that benchmark is not the unicorn you’d imagine.

The sorting

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.

I had realized pretty quickly that my Gazelle sale was a fluke. I owned nothing else of value – at least, nothing that I wasn’t using – and if I wanted to participate in the Age of Consignment in a meaningful way, I’d have to do so as an observer. (“Get out of my room, Mom,” my daughter had texted from college after I’d sent her photos of her own left-behind clothing. “Do you really want this?” I’d written. “Need stuff to sell.”)

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).

She told me that many of them were inspired by Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidiness guru, but were flummoxed by the process. “They don’t know where to begin, and they worry about where those things that don’t spark joy will end up,” she said.

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.

Not everything sells

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.