The vintage revolution

By Alissa MacMillan

Q: I’ve read so much about fast fashion and the negative impact it’s having on the environment, but I find it hard to avoid. Any suggestions?

A: The reports about the harms of fast fashion are indeed grim, the working conditions, toxic chemicals, pollution, and waste: mountains and mountains of clothing discarded in landfill while ever more is produced at break-neck pace only to face the same fate.

Fast fashion – cheaply-made and sold clothes, mimicking passing styles, with quick turn-over, produced in countries with unimaginable working conditions – is all around us. But the humanitarian and environmental injustice has not gone unnoticed, especially by a younger generation. One of their responses to the crisis has been loud and clear: go vintage.

“The generations coming up are obsessed with it,” says Sally Kirby, owner of Cork-based Free Spirit Vintage ( “They are more educated about how many clothes there are in the world and that you don’t need to buy new.”

Apart from long-standing charity, antique, and vintage shops, the most recent interest started in Ireland mainly online – for example, with the website Depop – and has broadened and boomed in the last several years, opening up to other generations and those of us who prefer roaming racks to scrolling sites.

Kirby experienced fast fashion first-hand while working in retail. She witnessed the boxes of clothing arriving, “every day, day in and day out. I thought, ‘hold on a minute, this is actually nuts.’” Kirby started Free Spirit Vintage with some inspiration from her aunt, who sells antiques – they’ll have booths at festivals together and sell side-by-side, choice vintage pieces alongside her aunt’s rings and jewellery, which attract an older audience. Kirby has learned from her along the way, and tempted some of her aunt’s customers.

Some old biases are also falling away. “You can actually just get a normal jumper,” Kirby explains. “It’s not this big crazy patterned jacket you have to be walking around in.” Kirby sources vintage from “across the world” through many of her wholesalers around Europe. “When you see how much there is to choose from, you know you can never go back to fast fashion,” she adds.

Dublin-based Sarah Bergin’s company, Cultivate Vintage ( is also, for her, “a creative way to contribute to the circular economy and develop a business that would act as an alternative to fast fashion,” she explains. She likes how it supports small businesses and skirts the negative environmental impact, even down to eco-friendly packaging.

Vintage is also a passion of hers. “I love anything with a little bit of history to it, so selling vintage brings me joy,” explains Bergin. “I also love helping customers find a special piece that makes them feel great every time they wear it.” You can find “some wonderful pieces” and it’s a “way of expressing your personal style,” she adds.

Kirby’s company also echoes her philosophy: “you should be able to wear whatever you want, dress up however you want, let your free spirit shine. It’s really nice to own something no one has and feel good in it,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to wear your own thing.”

Going vintage might mean adjusting your habits. You won’t find a shirt in every size, and sizes may vary depending on the item. Kirby encourages charity shop shopping and car boot sales, where “the piles of clothes are massive.” It can also be cheaper, one reason people flee to fast fashion. But, as Kirby explains, you might think you need something this second, but there are “ways to put an outfit together without panicking and going into Pennies.”

Kirby suggests shopping with an idea of what you need. Think basics, like getting a versatile pair of jeans, a sports jacket, or a black dress you’ll wear with everything. “Experiment and accessorize. The more accessories you have, the more outfits you can put together.” Swap with friends and family, as you never know what might be hiding in a closet – some of those skirts from the 90s are all the rage.

When you are looking for one-of-a-kind pieces that will last, Bergin has a few tricks for shopping savvily. Examine the style and the look and feel of the fabric, which offers clues to its quality. And get knowledgeable about labels, where you can really tell the origin. “Vintage clothes labels will likely look different,” she explains. “Different types of font styles are popular at different times and often vintage labels are larger and more decorative than modern day ones. Some labels will actually have the dates of when clothes are made.” While vintage means it’s more than 20-years old, Bergin adds, “Buy vintage, buy second-hand, it’s all good!”

If you’re looking to get started, there’s the Milk Market in Limerick City, and more around than you think – Kirby often goes to a Friday market in Bantry and places like Poc Ar Buile, a pub near Midleton, has very popular vintage events. Often attached to festivals, check online or for flyers for all things second-hand. As Kirby notes, “There is always a vintage weekend somewhere.”