‘Tthere’s nothing wrong with a man’s brooch,” says Stephen Bethel, co-founder of vintage clothing empire Beyond Retro, pointing to a 19th-century accessory pinned to his breast pocket. It’s shaped like a beetle with golden legs sticking out of its jewel-encrusted body, which was a big trend in Victorian Britain. “I feel incomplete if I don’t wear a brooch,” he says when we meet in a cafe next to the newest Beyond Retro in Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, in the heart of London.
With 15 stores in London, Brighton, Bristol and Sweden, as well as its first Finnish branch opening this month, Beyond Retro has been flying the second-hand banner long before sustainability became a buzzword. Yet 20 years after Bethel and his wife Helen Carter-Bethell opened the first store on Cheshire Street, off Brick Lane in Shoreditch, east London, it remains a blueprint for affordable, beautifully curated second-hand clothing. Bethel says the average price of, say, a faux fur coat or a dress from the 60s is still around £20.
As a teenager, I spent my weekends there sifting through piles of high-waisted jeans, open-toe pumps, cat-eye sunglasses, and endless tea dresses in the hopes of picking up a secondhand rock on a Saturday job budget. I still have a large green wool cardigan and a high-waisted red suede mini skirt bought at the time, both wearable due to the durable quality of vintage pieces.
There were other vintage shops – Rokit, Absolute Vintage, etc. – but Beyond Retro’s canary-yellow (recycled) plastic bags with a tattoo-style anchor logo – now, of course, replaced by brown paper versions – had a certain distinctiveness. Indie idols of my generation such as Karl Barat and Alexa Chung, they said they shopped there and bands played live in the store. From Peter Pan hats and collars to Breton tops, skinny scarves and faux fur coats, 2000s Shoreditch was to my generation what King’s Road, Chelsea was to the 60s.
“There was no grand plan to create the Beyond Retro aesthetic,” says Bethel, 53. “It was just a celebration of what we liked.” Part of the appeal of vintage pieces is that no two items are alike. “We’re not all Steve Jobs and only wear black turtlenecks,” he says.
As luck would have it, this noughties aesthetic has seen a resurgence thanks to Gen Z’s fascination with so-called ‘indie sleaze’ – Vogue describes it as “a messy amalgam of 90s grunge and 80s opulence“. There are Instagram and TikTok accounts dedicated to documenting the tattered band tees, skinny jeans and ballet flats worn by Amy Winehouse and Agnes Dane in the early-mid 00s.
“The fashion gods have been very kind to us,” Bethel says. revival. Having sold many tea dresses, Bethel describes the jumpsuit as an evergreen and says the school jacket is “something people can’t get enough of right now. So much has changed in the last two decades, but so much has remained the same.’
Other vintage retailers have never been Beyond Retro’s competition anyway, he says. They have always stood up to the “people from the high street” (online sales in the UK are predicted to account for just 20% of revenues next year). In March this year, Beyond Retro opened a store in Westfield White City, west London. Was he worried about expanding into a bright, shiny shopping center along with fast fashion retailers could tarnish Beyond Retro’s reputation for authenticity, not to mention sustainability goals?
“I have to admit that when you look to the side and see Victoria’s Secret, you think: it’s a long way from Shoreditch,” he says. “But I think the big challenge in life is to be open to new people and new perspectives. What can we do that the high street can’t? We can select relevant and emotional products. We have a team that looks for trends and thinks about how we can interpret them through vintage clothing.”
The second-hand market has grown in recent years – and is expected to continue to grow By 2026, 16 times faster than retailreaching worth $84 billion by 2030 – thanks in part to people shopping sustainably.
Beyond Retro is part of that, but what do sustainable fashion fans think of Bethel’s recent involvement in Kourtney Kardashian’s capsule collection for fast fashion leader BooHoo? He was asked to advise the reality star on sustainability and is listed as an independent expert on the BooHoo website, but the company was widely accused of greenwashing.
“I didn’t know who she was,” Bethel says. “But I said, ‘Hell, I’ll talk to anybody about what we’re trying to achieve and why we should try and achieve it.’ She has 190 million followers on Instagram” – by comparison, Bethel has a modest 1,245. “The way I looked at it was, if I can speak to her with passion, maybe someone in her audience will pick up on that.”
When I ask if she seemed interested and took his advice, he tells an anecdote about her protective entourage. “The real success of this whole thing wasn’t the collection, but the fact that there were tons of sustainability headlines,” he says finally.
While much of the high street has struggled to thrive, particularly since the pandemic, Beyond Retro has opened five stores in the past 12 months. It’s also part of a much wider second-hand clothing business – one that has undoubtedly benefited from it upcycling fashion – the practice of turning one item of clothing into something else – not just a “favorite” fashion.
A self-confessed “vintage geek,” Bethel became interested in clothing after his grandmother knitted him a traditional Canadian Cowichan sweater – “like the one in The Big Lebowski” when he was 12. In 1992, he founded the parent company Bank and Vogue, which buys clothes (and some other used goods) donated to charity, but which charities (mainly in the US) unable to sell themselves. Much is resold in the second-hand markets of Africa and Central America pieces not suitable for resale are shredded or recycled for use as rags or ‘wipers’. Other items are used to create new materials through the Bank and Vogue’s partnership with a textile-to-textile company, Renewcellor redesigned as part of the Beyond Retro collaboration (he’s working on his the sixth collaboration with the shoe brand Converse, such as with the discarded material used for the upper in the line of the classic Chuck 70s).
“Beyond Retro’s curator,” Bethel explains. “Two out of every 100 items of clothing we buy are sold in these stores.” In September of this year, the company also launched a subsidiary, Beyond Remade, which “takes recycled materials such as denim, canvas or suede” and uses them to create new items “inspired by vintage classics”. At a higher price point than Beyond Retro, these items, which are likely to appeal to a slightly older crowd, Relatives-y consumer, must be sold directly to the consumer, not in stores. Today, Bethell has a tan “jacket” from the new line.
The look of Beyond Remade is inspired by Bethel’s lifestyle. He and his partner, who live off the grid in Canada, have long grown their own vegetables — “tomatoes, turnips, about 1,000 pounds of potatoes” — and invested in the farm this summer with the goal of converting 75% of it. “It’s really fun to grow a medium-sized business, but you also have to be honest about the business itself – even if we’re creating a 10th of the carbon footprint of a new garment – we’re still creating something,” he said. says. “The whole rewilding project creates a carbon sink for our business.” A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. “I hope that these clothes can be worn as a uniform for the rewilders,” he says.
It is true that, sooner or later, the fashion industry has a bad reputation when it comes to sustainability, but Bethel remains hopeful. According to Beyond Retro’s website, it “aims to change the way we think about waste,” with used clothing playing a key role in building a circular economy. It’s also why he’s not worried about online shopping coming to vintage stores in the way that other fashion retailers have, despite the proliferation of resale sites such as Vinted, Vestiaire Collective, eBay and Depop. .
For Bethell, cooperation and like-mindedness in the second-hand market are key. “I’m reading Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation [by Paul Hawke] and I believe, as this book says, that healthy ecosystems beget healthy ecosystems. You can’t have a beech standing by itself because they communicate with each other – they damn well talk to each other! – And I believe that our turnover is very indicative of this. We’re not just Beyond Retro, we’re in an ecosystem of charity shops, Depops and eBays. And success lies not in the Darwinian conquest of someone by force, but in the interconnection of the organism in society.”
20 years later, Bethel’s obsession with vintage clothing shows no signs of abating. In the spring, Beyond Retro launched a buy-back program “so people can come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m done with this sweater,’ and they’ll get 40% off the retail price.” It’s just one of the ways he hopes to “close the fashion trash loop” and avoid sending things to landfill.
“Fashion has the power to inspire change in society,” he says emphatically. “One thing I told Courtney was, ‘I believe change is possible – it’s just work. It’s hard work – it’s a lot easier to use other materials – but it’s just work.” So my future is work. That and being on our apple farm planting trees.”