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This CEO got hooked on the thrill of vintage shopping — now she's overhauling the industry

The average person wears something just seven times before it goes in the trash — Shilla Kim-Parker wants to fix that.

Founder of luxury online thrift shop, Thrilling Shilla Kim-Parker

For Shilla Kim-Parker, who grew up in New York City with limited resources, shopping at thrift stores was the norm. But for her, that wasn't a constraint, it was an opportunity to experience the joy of discovering a unique item that felt like it was made for her.

And it was the desire to share the thrill of that dopamine hit that comes from finding an amazing vintage piece that Kim-Parker with the rest of the world when she started the online vintage shopping platform Thrilling. "One of the things that drew me to Thrilling is that there are more secondhand shops across the U.S. than Starbucks and McDonald's combined. It's kind of an overlooked segment of retail," said Kim-Parker, who is the company's founder and CEO. "It's almost like it's an invisible industry, and collectively they house tens of billions of hand-curated inventory that is sitting in digital darkness — 95% of [thrift shops] are completely offline." 

Kim-Parker's passion for vintage shopping and her concern for the fashion industry's contribution to the climate crisis led her to start Thrilling, which curates offerings from more than 1,400 shops across more than 300 cities, 95% of which are owned by women and/or a person of color. 

Named one of Fast Company's 2022 most innovative retail companies of the year, Thrilling is creating new sales opportunities for thousands of diverse small businesses across the country that are typically single-owner operated, all while making secondhand shopping fun, rewarding, and as easy as shopping from your couch. 

Kim-Parker comes from a family of small business owners: Her grandparents started the first Black-owned business, a dry cleaner, in their small town in North Carolina. With that DNA, when Kim-Parker saw America's small business owners being left behind and underserved by the ecommerce tech industry, she set out to address that gap. 

"The first part of our mission at Thrilling is to support mom-and-pop shops and local businesses that are the heartbeat and cultural center of every community and economy," she told The Cool Down. "The second part of our mission is to help popularize vintage shopping,  to make it more accessible for more folks around the world, as well as make it more of a habit for everyone."

"There are so many of these store owners and independent sellers who've actually already done the work of digging and finding some of the best, highest quality items that are in the best condition," she continued. "It's just a matter of helping folks discover those items and making them more accessible."

A Harvard Business School graduate and a former investment banking analyst with strategy roles at Disney and Lincoln Center, Kim-Parker also says being the mom of two young boys, ages 3 and 6, motivated her to make vintage shopping easier. 

"I used to love spending weekends diving into racks and hunting. When you become a working mom, you just simply don't have as much disposable time," she said. "So I wondered, how can I continue to shop the way that I wanted to shop and support the stores, but past the kids' bedtime when I fall asleep on the couch? Part of it was definitely self-motivated."

As Kim-Parker thought about the business opportunity to modernize the vintage and thrift space, she also got curious about how expanding access to and proselytizing the allure of thrifting could affect sustainability. What she found, she says, was appalling and painted a clear picture of why the fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to pollution globally. 

"The problem is so much worse than we even want to believe, and it's constant and it's ongoing, every minute of the day," Kim-Parker said. One of the stats that resonated with her is that the average person wears something seven times before it goes in the trash. "We could stop producing clothing today, and your grandkids' grandkids would have a fully stocked closet and look amazing," Kim-Parker said.

On top of that, 80% of all clothing produced goes into landfills or gets incinerated, according to CNN, including many donated items that often don't actually go to underserved people. And since most clothing is made from plastics incorporated into natural fibers, it's not biodegradable. 

But, Kim-Parker points out, if every American bought just one secondhand item this year in place of a new item, it would be the equivalent of taking half a million cars off the road.

And the good news is that the secondhand market is projected to grow to almost twice the size of the "fast fashion" industry by 2029, according to CNN. 

Shilla Kim-Parker's average customer is a 25- to 45-year-old woman who wants to find something that doesn't look like what everyone else is wearing and is motivated by sustainability. Items are sold and shipped directly from the stores themselves, and their inventory is inclusive of all sizes. Thrilling has collaborated with a number of high-profile designers, including Beyonce and Chloe x Halle's stylist Zerina Akers' "Black Owned Everything

So where should you start if you've never bought a thrifted or vintage piece? 

"I think it's great for the first experience to be going in person to a vintage or thrift store, because there's a magic to going to a local store and meeting the owner," Kim-Parker said. "Being able to try things on and realizing that thrift and vintage doesn't mean dirty or low quality or retro. There are very modern, contemporary looks and pieces that are extremely high quality that you can get for great value. The way generally folks fall in love with thrift shopping secondhand is going to in-person to support a local store."

Other tips Kim-Parker recommends for beginners:

  1. Shop Online

    In addition to Thrilling, try thredUP, Poshmark, or Tradesy (among others) for reduced-price clothing for all ages and sizes.

  2. Build a "Limited Closet"

    Celebrate and embrace outfit repeating! "I love a bold statement piece — one of my favorite pieces right now is a blue blazer with these red heart plastic buttons and bright red lining from one of our sellers who is Indigenous and has a store in New Jersey (see photo)," Kim-Parker said. "I will wear it three days in a row with not an ounce of embarrassment, seeing the same people day after day," she says.

  3. Mending or Tailoring

    Instead of trashing them, repair or alter slightly damaged or poorly fitting clothes or shoes. 

As she seeks to disrupt one of the most challenging industries to change, is Kim-Parker hopeful about the future? 

"I try to be," she said. "There's a lot going on today that feels dark — even outside of climate — in terms of our rights as women, as citizens."

"But we're always on a pendulum swing of history," she added. "Those before us have fought harder through darker times. So I believe there's enough of us with courage, who will not be silent, and who will do the right thing."

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