Mely Olmeda, owner of Virgo Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Santa Cruz

New wave of vintage clothing stores helping drive a retail renaissance in downtown Santa Cruz

In the past 12 months, six new vintage stores have opened in Santa Cruz, contributing to a rebound of foot traffic downtown after pandemic lockdowns. Analysts say Santa Cruz’s vintage boom is being driven by younger shoppers and their increasing appetite for unique, environmentally sustainable second-hand clothing over mass-produced new items.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Mely Olmeda, 28, owner of Virgo Santa Cruz, found it scary when she first made the jump from working sales at a car wash to selling vintage clothing in 2019. But after selling at different events on the weekends, she knew the market and saw vintage’s increasing popularity in the area as an opportunity to fully dive into the job. So she opened a store on Pacific Avenue in April 2022.

It’s a ripe time in the city for vintage clothing. In the past 12 months, another six new vintage stores have opened in downtown Santa Cruz, contributing to a rebound of foot traffic to the area after pandemic lockdowns.

Analysts and retail watchers say Santa Cruz’s vintage boom is being driven by younger shoppers and their increasing preference for unique, environmentally sustainable second-hand clothing over mass-produced new items. Store owners also point to the popularity of events like antique fairs for helping them build a following, as well as the trend of vintage clothing entrepreneurs pooling their wares and sharing retail locations to save on rent.

“I think specifically in Santa Cruz, the market had become really popular,” Olmeda said. “There were more events happening. I was able to do the Alameda antique fair the first Sunday [of the month], the Santa Cruz antique fair the second Sunday. There were just a lot more opportunities to make money at these events.”

Shiri Gradek, brand director at the Downtown Association of Santa Cruz, which provides support to local businesses, said she’s excited about these new vintage stores opening up, especially because the proprietors are of a younger demographic than many downtown store owners.

Gradek said a younger generation of business owners brings with it a new clientele. “It’s really cool to see this next generation because they know their audience,” she said.

According to Neil Saunders, a retail analyst at market research firm GlobalData, these Santa Cruz vintage store owners are tapping into what has become a booming market in the United States.

inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode
Inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The second-hand market for apparel has been one of the success stories of American retail,” Saunders said. “It’s been growing very rapidly for the past five years or so and it continues to grow.”

Saunders said the trend is generally widespread across the country, but GlobalData surveys have found that there is a slightly greater predilection for vintage on the West Coast, especially in comparison to other regions like the Midwest and the South.

He said this likely comes from a greater interest in fashion in places like California, along with a greater environmental sensibility, which is one of the main reasons market research shows customers decide to shop vintage.

Rebecca Unitt, economic development manager at the City of Santa Cruz’s Economic Development department, believes the proliferation of vintage stores in Santa Cruz is tied to environmental concerns.

“To be able to have this more sustainable retail experience versus consuming new products really speaks to the eco-conscious mindset of our community,” Unitt said.

Providing a more sustainable alternative to buying new clothing was also a central part of the calculus for some of the new shop owners. Mikey Huynh, 29, owner of Motherlode also on Pacific Avenue, said vintage is important to him because of fast fashion’s impact on the environment. Fast fashion — which refers to mass-produced, on-trend, often cheap clothing from companies like Zara or Shein — is often pointed to as a driver of carbon emissions, waste and water pollution.

inside vintage story Virgo Santa Cruz
Inside vintage story Virgo Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Olmeda agrees. “I just don’t want to see people walk into Forever 21 and spend $300 on 50 pieces when they could get more unique pieces and better-quality pieces that would break down much sooner in a landfill because it’s more organic than the polyester you find at Forever 21,” she said.

Gen Z and millennials are the audiences currently driving the growth in the vintage market, Saunders said, and the ability to find something that’s one-of-a-kind is a key factor drawing in young consumers.

Laurel Preschutti, 31, a Santa Cruz native who owns StellarVintageJeans, a vintage shop on Etsy, says she thinks this interest in individuality is part of the reason Santa Cruz is a good market for vintage.

“Santa Cruz is such an individual place and I think tons of people have realized that … so it makes sense that these unique shops would pop up because it kind of just matches the energy,” Preschutti said.

And while younger consumers often shop for vintage online through sites like Etsy and Poshmark, they are still very interested in going to brick-and-mortar vintage stores, Saunders said.

“People quite like vintage shops. They’ll pop in constantly to see what’s new, see what items have come in and what treasures they can find,” he said. “There’s a real treasure hunt to shopping vintage and that lends itself to a physical store.”

Olmeda said the majority of her customer base is people just walking into her store, excited by pieces they’ve not seen anywhere else.

“People are just looking for unique pieces and they find that at the vintage shop in downtown, as opposed to going to Urban Outfitters and seeing three people walk out the store with the same thing,” Olmeda said.

Many of the new vintage stores provide something different from some of the other vintage shops in the area, Huynh said, including unique pieces from the more recent past, like the early 2000s: “There’s more selection and it’s not all just older, true vintage. It kind of goes into a little bit of Y2K and contemporary stuff.”

Huynh, who had been thrift shopping and collecting for years, began reselling his wares during the pandemic primarily through Instagram and realized he could create a business. Owning a storefront, Huynh said, had been an idea floating in the back of his head for some time until he decided to open Motherlode with his business partner last July.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about being the middleman and finding things that people think are cool and can get excited about,” he said.

inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode
Inside downtown Santa Cruz vintage story Motherlode.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The new crop of vintage clothing entrepreneurs is finding more affordable ways to open brick-and-mortar locations downtown Santa Cruz by sharing spaces with other vintage sellers and local vendors, helping to drive the post-pandemic downtown renaissance.

In addition to carrying unique wares, the majority of the new vintage shops downtown have a unique structure. Instead of one vintage purveyor filling up the whole shop with their inventory, store owners rent out rack space to other local sellers.

At Motherlode, for example, in addition to clothing that Huynh sources, the store’s racks are filled with stock from 35 other vintage sellers. Virgo was the first shop that Huynh saw do this in the area. Then Angel Aura opened with the same structure. Huynh did the same with Motherlode, as did Oasis, opened by one of Huynh’s former employees. Huynh said this kind of co-op structure is becoming pervasive.

“More vintage shops are opening up with this idea because each vendor pays monthly rent plus commission, usually, so that you can fill up a bigger store with less of your inventory,” he said.

This also benefits the smaller vendors who want to sell but cannot afford to open their own shops, said Teresa “Teresita” Madrigal, 35, a former stylist in Los Angeles who just opened Restyled Vintage this April in her hometown of Watsonville and has worked sourcing vintage for over a decade.

“We were like why don’t we create a community of vendors and have that opportunity here in Watsonville that’s only available in Santa Cruz, in Monterey, in San Jose?” Madrigal said.

“I wanted to give them a house where they can sell in-person throughout the week while they’re doing their day jobs,” she said, “or if they’re doing this full-time and want to have a location where they can continue selling.”

According to Huynh, the vendors who sell in his shop are largely friends and friends of friends — people in the network of vintage sellers from the area and other nearby areas with a vibrant vintage community, like the Bay Area.

Olmeda said members of the vintage seller community tend to know each other and sometimes go thrifting together to find new items for their stores. Though sourcing vintage stock can be competitive, especially as the industry becomes more popular, she doesn’t see that as a bad thing for sellers in Santa Cruz.

If the city “becomes a vintage shop destination like [San Francisco’s] Haight-Ashbury is right now, that’s not a bad thing to me,” she said. “More stuff in downtown means more people in downtown, more people shopping. And that’s the great thing about vintage clothing or being a curator, and having vendors that I hand-picked myself, is that we all have different stuff.”

Madrigal says she wouldn’t be surprised if downtown Santa Cruz was full of vintage shops in a couple of years. She hopes Watsonville will eventually become a vintage mecca itself, and agrees that there’s enough room in the industry for everyone because there is just so much clothing sellers can source from.

“If you think about it, vintage is every 20 years, so right now we’re looking for things before 2003,” Madrigal said. “Next year, it’ll be before 2004. And that year alone probably has trillions of pounds of clothes.”

Also, she said, it’s better that it is small, local vintage sellers, rather than large corporations, who are tapping into the trend. “If not us, it’s probably going to be Target creating a vintage line,” she said.