The fashion industry is constantly changing. As new trends emerge, more clothes are produced in mass quantities and sold at low prices. This era of “fast fashion” makes flashy and cheap clothing readily available, making it especially appealing to online shoppers.
But fast fashion, though convenient for many people, comes at a cost. Often, the employees making these trendy garments are working in exploitative or even illegal conditions, earning as little as $1.58 per hour in some factories, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And since the speedy pace of production usually means cutting corners in terms of quality, landfills are overflowing with low-quality, scarcely used garments, which pollute oceans and increase carbon emissions. According to a report from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the textile industry emits more greenhouse gasses than international flights and maritime shipping combined.
With growing awareness of the social and environmental impacts of fast fashion, more consumers and businesses are shifting toward a circular textile economy—a more sustainable approach to fashion that champions “upcycling” (altering or repairing old items), reusing, and recycling clothes instead of throwing them away. One way to participate in this circular economy, while simultaneously supporting small businesses, is to shop at (or donate to) thrift stores and vintage boutiques. (However, it’s worth noting that overconsumption, even at thrift shops, might cause more harm than good.)
The Bay Area is home to a plethora of secondhand clothing retailers, many of which are operated by women, LGBTQ+ folks, and people of color. The Oaklandside stopped by four women-owned vintage clothing stores in Oakland that carry a diverse array of brands, sizes, and price ranges—and spoke with their owners about how business is going.
Note that this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of all secondhand clothing stores in Oakland. Some businesses, including ReLove and All Things Vintage, could not provide an interview before deadline.
Heads or Tails Collective
When Lou Lou Rosenthal and Kylee Kienitz first became acquainted as vintage apparel vendors, they quickly discovered that they shared similar aesthetics and styles.
“We were both collectors in our own right, and we just vibed really well together,” Rosenthal said.
In September 2020, the duo opened their first iteration of Heads or Tails Collective in downtown Oakland on Webster Street between 15th Street and 17th Street. They founded the shop with the goal of selling thoughtfully curated pieces and quirky wares handcrafted by local artists, designers, and creators.
Kienitz and Rosenthal soon discovered they needed a larger space for their business, so they shuttered their downtown location and moved to their current Piedmont Avenue storefront in September 2021. This month, Kienitz and Rosenthal celebrated their third anniversary as business partners and the shop’s second anniversary on Piedmont Avenue.
With Heads or Tails Collective being tucked on the second floor of a treehouse balcony, Rosenthal described the store as “off the beaten path” but worth a visit. To attract more patrons and bring more exposure to local vendors, Heads or Tails Collective hosts Piedmont Lane Market every third Saturday of the month in the courtyard just outside of the shop. Enduring since Kienitz and Rosenthal launched their current location, the monthly market features a D.J. and about a dozen vendors ranging from vintage clothing collectors, artists, tarot readers, and creators.
By partnering with local makers at Piedmont Lane Market and Heads or Tails Collective, Rosenthal and Kienitz aim to uphold and promote their shared values of sustainability, inclusivity, and diversity.
“We’re all about keeping stuff out of landfills and offering a diverse range of sizes,” Rosenthal said. “We also believe clothes should not be gendered, so we try to incorporate different styles for everyone who comes in.”
As sales boom online and in store, there have been some major life changes for the two business owners. On Sept. 4, while walking her dog around Lake Merritt, Kienitz was shot and injured during a crossfire and has since been recovering in a hospital, according to a post on the store’s Instagram page. One day after the shooting, Rosenthal went into labor and gave birth to her son.
As both shopkeepers take some time to recover, Karly Pearson—their friend and the owner of vintage-inspired apparel company Penny Sierra, which is also sold at Heads or Tails Collective—has stepped in to help keep the shop doors open.
“If Kylee and I are shop moms of [Heads or Tails], then Karly is shop auntie,” added Rosenthal.
In spite of recent events, Rosenthal feels grateful for the local community’s words of encouragement as she and Kienitz navigate their new normal.
“The timing is crazy, but we appreciate everyone supporting us during this time,” Rosenthal said.
Piedmont Lane Market is scheduled to continue as planned this Saturday. At this time, the funds from the market will go toward keeping the shop open, according to Rosenthal.
Heads or Tails Collective, 4125 Piedmont Avenue, #13. Open Wednesday through Sunday from 12-6 p.m.
Oakland resident Karen Fort’s admiration for textiles blossomed in her youth. Her mother was a quilter, and as a young girl, Fort sewed her own clothing.
“Understanding the value of how textiles are milled and how things are put together made me really excited to bring that to more people,” Fort said.
Her penchant for styling different fabrics and textures carried on into her adulthood, working with textiles on the side even as a full-time special education teacher in the early 2000s. In 2002, she decided to open the first Mercy Vintage storefront in Berkeley, leaving her teaching job two months later to focus exclusively on the shop.
Though the Berkeley community was supportive, Fort said foot traffic there was minimal. After six years, she shut down the store and relocated Mercy Vintage to a storefront on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue in 2009.
Today, you can find two Mercy locations along Piedmont Avenue, with each one catering to different aesthetics. Mercy Vintage, the original store adjacent to Landmark’s Piedmont Theatre, offers colorful statement pieces with bold patterns, flamboyant prints, and fun silhouettes. Mercy Too, which opened in July 2022 and features a revolving rack of denim jeans, houses what Fort calls their “future vintage” collection—classic pieces that will stand the test of time, regardless of fast fashion fads. The latter style, Fort said, was launched to meet the shifting demands of consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people expressed interest in casual, yet high-quality staples.
Fort, who also owns Valencia Street Vintage in San Francisco, hopes first-time and returning Mercy patrons can radically explore themselves through fashion.
“Mercy is like a paint palette with all these different beautiful tones and colors, and what we do is we encourage people to come in and experiment with their individual look without being driven by trends or what’s happening around them,” she said. “I think of dressing as a creative process, and I love to share that with people.”
Down at Lulu’s
It’s hard to miss Down at Lulu’s, thanks in part to its bright pink storefront and the rainbow-colored crosswalks leading up to the shop. Sandwiched between a Vietnamese restaurant and a therapeutic massage parlor on Telegraph Avenue on the North Oakland/Berkeley border, the vintage clothing boutique distinguishes itself from other vendors in that it also offers a full-service hair salon in the back.
Berkeley resident Amber Sermeno, the owner and sole hairstylist of Down at Lulu’s, said the shop’s unusual layout is part of the reason why she loves working there.
“The founders were like, ‘We do hair, we like vintage clothes, and we like records. Let’s just put it all in one shop.’ And I’m glad they did because it feels very at home doing hair here,” Sermeno said.
While Sermeno has owned the shop since 2016, Down at Lulu’s was launched in 2006 by local garage-punk icons Tina Lucchesi and Seth Bogart. Sermeno had been a hairstylist at the boutique for five years when the co-founders brought up the possibility of transferring ownership of Down at Lulu’s to her and other employees.
“It’s like, one of the few places that could tolerate me,” Sermeno said, jokingly. “I fell in love with this place, like I finally found a spot that just fit into my life.”
The brick-and-mortar store boasts a funky and eclectic collection of feminine and masculine apparel, shoes, and accessories, featuring brands and designers such as Versace, Wrangler, Betsey Johnson, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Eileen Shields.
Unlike traditional retailers, Down at Lulu’s operates as a collective, with Sermeno and five other employees functioning as their own bosses while stewarding the shop together.
Down at Lulu’s is also unique in its long-standing mission to make fashion accessible and inclusive to all genders, sexualities, and clothing sizes. Sermeno attributes these values to Lucchesi and Bogart, whom she said shifted the fashion paradigm before sustainability, size inclusivity, and gender-affirming apparel were mainstream buzzwords.
“It’s always been a queer business, a green business, and a business that promotes different sizes,” she added. “We’ve always welcomed everybody, and we want everyone to feel fun and find something they didn’t think they could wear before.”
Down at Lulu’s, 6603 Telegraph Avenue. Open every day from 12-7 p.m.
Anne Hartford’s number-one rule for maribel is simple: Steer clear of fast fashion.
“I think if you’re paying attention, you realize the damage, and I’ve always made the choice to not have fast fashion in the store,” Hartford said.
Born and raised in Oakland and now living in Berkeley, Hartford first opened maribel on Lakeshore Avenue in 2003 with the help of her friends and family. maribel—which is intentionally lowercase—is named after Hartford’s mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother, all of whom shared the same name.
“It was an amazing family affair,” she said. “Everybody pitched in, from sanding the floors to doing the lights. They stood behind my vision.”
This year, she celebrated the vintage boutique’s 20th anniversary. But according to Hartford, the milestone didn’t come without challenges. It wasn’t until very recently that she felt confident in herself as a business owner. And as more retailers transition to “click-and-mortar” modalities (selling items online in addition to operating a storefront), Hartford has relied on Instagram marketing and loyal shoppers and consignors to keep the shop running, especially after the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. With foot traffic along Lakeshore Avenue dwindling in recent years, Hartford said she aims to expand her store’s online and social media presence.
“If you’re invested in your community, it shows. And I feel like the community I’ve built here is just so strong,” Hartford said.
With community being an integral part of maribel’s business model, Hartford collaborates with small vendors, makers, and collectors to stock the shop with curated, locally sourced inventory. Furthermore, she makes a conscious effort to sell apparel, bags, and shoes for everyone’s budget, whether they’re on the hunt for their next designer splurge or looking to thrift a basic white tee. And it’s reflected in the eclectic range of brands sold at maribel, which includes Cinq à Sept, BÉIS, Everlane, and Black Crane.
“It’s kind of rad now because people are not only not into fast fashion, but they’re really into these super ‘slow fashion’ brands,” said Hartford.
“It’s all about knowing what people want,” she added. “I want everyone to be able to come into the shop and not feel excluded.”
maribel, 3251 Lakeshore Avenue. Open Sunday and Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Closed on Monday.