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  • Frankie Smith

New jobs, new passions: How flea markets are changing the fashion landscape

During the pandemic, many people turned their passions into occupations.

Britta Henson and Michelle Kapuscinski, who started their flea market booths during the pandemic, exemplify this job reinvention. They exemplify how success within the fashion industry is becoming more accessible.

Henson realized that she did not want to go back to her bartending job post-pandemic. She brainstormed ways to evolve her passion for fashion into a business in order to support herself, eventually leaving her old job behind and committing to two flea markets a weekend.

“I wanted to see if I could actually live off of my creations, rather than having to work a different job,” she said.

Henson’s passion for sewing blossomed as she made masks during the pandemic. It then evolved into sewing bikinis but now she makes everything from matching sets to mesh dresses.

Since she makes all of her pieces by hand, Henson has an extensive four-day process before selling at flea markets each weekend — all of which takes place in her one bedroom apartment.

“I'll go and get a bunch of fabric for the week. I come home, cut it all. Then I'll have a day where I'm surging. Then I'll use my regular sewing machine to finish it,” she said. “I try to give myself a day off before I go to the flea markets.”

Britta Henson in Downtown LA sourcing vintage deadstock fabrics. (Photo courtesy of Britta Henson)

As for the fabric itself, Henson sources her unique vintage deadstock fabrics from Downtown L.A. Typically, she said she sorts through the fabrics shoved in the back that no one wants.

“I just really like using old materials. I think it's interesting and it makes it look different. It's kind of vintagey but while still being modern,” Henson said.

Henson said she aims to make unique clothing more affordable. Her handmade bikinis are inspired by ones that usually retail for well over $100 but Shop by B sells them for about $70-$90.

“I feel like my customer is definitely the effortlessly cool girl who wants something unique and different because my stuff is handmade,” she said. “I like remaining affordable. A cool effortless girl who wants something that's kind of bold, but still wearable.”

Britta Henson looking through the rack of her affordable, handmade bikinis. (Photo courtesy of Britta Henson)

Kapuscinski’s interest in fashion started when she was young.

She explained that she came from a poor background where she grew up thrifting. She often upcycled old pieces to give them a new life.

“I was going to my mom's closet and changing her 80s dresses to make them more cute and sexy for modern times of early 2000s,” Kapuscinski said.

Although she was ashamed of it, many of her classmates considered her one of the best dressed in school. She said that fashion serves as an outlet to express her creativity. Later on, she began diving more into the vintage world.

Between her nine-to-five corporate fashion job, she rediscovered her love for vintage clothing and started doing small pop-ups where she would sell her vintage finds.

Michelle Kapuscinski at a pop-up in the Saint J Cyber Cafe. (Photo Courtesy of Michelle Kapuscinski)

In January, she took her business, Kiss and Tell Vintage, to the next level by committing to doing flea markets every weekend. In order to curate her highly specialized vintage rack every week, she usually sources her pieces from the Goodwill outlet bins or estate sales.

“You're wearing gloves and masks and you’re going through the stuff for a couple of hours to find something good. Later on, you need to check if the clothes have a hole or a stain,” she said. “It’s a lot of aspects for you to even find the perfect piece. You need to also ask yourself a few questions. If I'm able to put it on my rack and sell it and still represent the quality and the level that I want to have.”

Even though the styles of the early 2000s are popular right now, Kapuscinski likes to bring back the era she grew up in.

“I'm trying to curate something like my favorite era, the 90s, and I will always say that it's a bold, feminine masculine 90s look,” she said.

The Mission

As flea markets grow more popular in L.A., they are changing the fashion landscape. High fashion is becoming affordable for everyone. Flea markets also promote individuality and uniqueness.

“I think people really are looking for a more different thing,” Henson said. “Of course trends are always going to exist but we're getting past all wanting to look the same. It's such a special place where you can find really really unique items that no one else might have.”

Britta Henson in the Shop by B booth at the Silverlake Flea Market. (Photo courtesy of Britta Henson)

Flea markets allow people to discover a wide range of styles. At Kiss and Tell Vintage, for example, Kapuscinski aims to unite femininity and masculinity into one style.

“I love selling blazers that can also be your dress. I specialize in vintage Levi's 501s which are men's jeans, but they look so great on a woman's body,” she said.

Experienced flea market shopper, Blake Matrone, would agree that flea markets have allowed him to explore different types of clothes. He said that he often draws inspiration from other shoppers because the markets serve as a space for everyone to express their unique styles.

Additionally, as people resell items they thrift or find at estate sales, past styles are resurfacing.

“You're giving them a new life from someone who may have passed away or doesn't want them anymore,” Kapuscinski said. “You will find this 35-year-old woman who'll be like, ‘Oh my goodness, I'm rocking this piece’ and she feels so good about it.”

Michelle Kapuscinski in front of her curated 90s vintage rack at the Silverlake Flea market. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Kapuscinski)

An era of flea markets

Bringing back styles and vintage pieces from previous decades has aided in cutting down on fast fashion too.

A study by Rachael Dottle and Jackie Gu found that around 70% of the 13 million tons of clothing waste, ended up in landfills, with only 13% of it being recycled. Many flea market vendors buy clothing that may have otherwise been landfill, helping regulate the waste.

Consequent to the growth of these markets, buying second hand clothes has become more mainstream, adding to an increased awareness of sustainable fashion.

“I'm really seeing hope with these young 16, 15-year-old girls who would actually rather buy something used and vintage because they believe that it's a better choice,” Kapuscinski said.

In the past, reselling culture has been looked down upon, Matrone said. However, without them flea markets would cease to exist and more fashion waste would continue to end up in landfills.

“All the stuff that we are able to get at flea markets, that is stuff that people are spending their time, money and energy to go source for us, so we're just paying people the premium for their time,” he said. “Without them, those pieces would be gone and we would be left wearing fast fashion.”

With such a wide variety of styles, it is easy to find exactly what you are looking for. You may also end up paying less than you would at regular clothing stores.

In Los Angeles, the markets offer an alternative to mainstream fashion. But, they also give people a platform to follow their passion while also supporting themselves.

“I feel so privileged to live in L.A., because I feel like I couldn't do this anywhere else,” Henson said. “They're definitely changing the fashion industry. Giving people a platform who wouldn't necessarily usually have one.”

Social media, primarily TikTok, has contributed to this rise.

Matrone has a TikTok account where he creates content surrounding the markets and also shows his viewers what he finds. Many other creators produce similar content, sparking interest among their audience.

Starting a booth at one of these flea markets requires permits and creating a substantial about of product. Since almost anyone can start a booth, fashion is available to everyone, regardless of background.

“It really doesn't matter how old you are, your race, where you are coming from or what your background is,” Kapuscinski said. “Whether you are like a person who works in it, doing vintage markers on the weekends or you're a passionate person. Maybe it's just summer vacation and you want to do it. It's almost like it's open for everyone.”

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