The CEO striving to make vintage, secondhand clothing as popular as fast fashion
This is an installment in a special series, Startup Year One, interviewing startup founders about the major lessons they learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
A Harvard College and Harvard Business School graduate, Shilla Kim-Parker launched her career as an investment banking analyst at J.P. Morgan. Kim-Parker went on to lead the strategy and business development group at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where she helped launch new business verticals including fashion, publishing, visual arts, food, and consulting.
Driven by environmental concerns, Kim-Parker saw an opportunity to create a space that would aid in the reduction of pollution in the fashion landscape. Passionate with a desire to help local small businesses—which are majority-owned by women—survive in a fiercely competitive, digital-first world by reaching new consumers worldwide, Parker cofounded retail startup Thrilling in 2018.
Thrilling scours vintage boutiques and secondhand stores nationwide, curating a selection of one-of-a-kind items while also supporting small businesses. The Los Angeles–based company promotes an environmentally friendly approach to fashion by encouraging shoppers to fall (back) in love with vintage.
On the heels of announcing a major partnership with Banana Republic, Fortune recently spoke with CEO and cofounder Kim-Parker to learn more about her business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and plans for the next year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: From investment banking with J.P. Morgan in London to leading strategy at Lincoln Center in New York City, opening a vintage clothing business seems like a dramatic departure from your previous work experiences. What inspired you to launch Thrilling? How does Thrilling source its inventory?
Kim-Parker: Throughout all the twists and turns of my career, I had been drawn toward the idea of building something with my own two hands, so to speak. While my jobs have all been all-consuming, whenever I had spare moments I would scribble down ideas, noodle over business plans, even conduct small pilots and experiments. The idea for Thrilling evolved over years, until finally, at 36 years old, pregnant with my second child, I felt compelled to quit my dream job at Disney/ABC to launch it.
I grew up secondhand shopping; for me, it’s simply shopping. It’s not only great value, but I absolutely love the thrill of the hunt. You’re finding gems that you know you’ll treasure forever, that are unique, interesting, well-made, and delightful.
I have also become quite energized about the impact of the apparel industry on the environment, and the relationship many shoppers now have with clothes; we have almost come to see them as disposable. Not only does the apparel-production process consume massive amounts of natural resources, the industry is one of the leading contributors to global warming.
We have honestly made enough clothing to last humanity for generations. It’s just a matter of making all that clothing discoverable, accessible, and appealing.
The final part of my motivation for Thrilling is that I am passionate about supporting small businesses. I come from small-business owners: My grandparents started the first black-owned business (a dry cleaners) in Kinston, N.C., in the 1950s. They battled harassment, discrimination, and a wall of socio-political opposition. Nevertheless, they survived and thrived for nearly 40 years.
Thrilling enables small mom-and-pop shops to sell online, reach new customers and geographies, and generate critical new sources of revenue, especially important during a pandemic.
When shoppers think of secondhand stores, they might think of consignment stores, and they might think of thrift shops. But Thrilling is billed as a more modern approach to secondhand shopping. What does that look like, and what is Thrilling doing differently to attract shoppers?
There are more secondhand stores across the U.S. than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined, and yet 99% of their inventory is completely offline. We created a technology and an operational process that allows us, working hand in hand with the store owner, to put their inventory online, often for the very first time. That means that whether you’re in Topeka, or Tokyo, or Toronto you can finally shop an amazing vintage boutique in Portland. Or if you’re looking for something in particular—a denim jacket, or maxi dress, or pair of boots—you’ll be able to search vintage inventory across the U.S. and find the item you need, and filter by size or color preference.
We also create collections based on season, or what we are seeing is trending based on search data. For example, we recently launched a vintage caftan collection, which was enormously popular. They’re perfect for hot summer months, and they’re an easy way to feel stylish. Other examples of recent collections: bridal, tie-dye, slips, plus-size.
Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic. How has business fared in the resale and vintage space? Do you find customers looking for certain types of clothes or styles over others?
Our sales have grown 50% month over month, every month since January. We have definitely seen that shoppers are voting with their dollars in terms of spending with companies that align with their values. They’re looking for eco-friendly alternatives to fast fashion without sacrificing style. Most of our stores are also women-owned or BIPOC-owned, and there’s been a growing awareness to not only support local indie shops but to also support traditionally marginalized communities.
No surprise, there’s been a trend away from formal event–oriented wear, but other than that there hasn’t been much change. Our shoppers have always loved bright colors and patterns, well-made designs, and unique artistry—anything that helps authentically express their personalities and individuality.
Thrilling recently launched a collaboration with Banana Republic to promote sustainability in fashion. But the Gap Inc. subsidiary could easily fall within the category of fast fashion, which is the antithesis of sustainability. What does the collaboration hope to promote and achieve?
Banana Republic was a small vintage shop in Mill Valley, Calif., in 1978, started by wife and husband Patricia and Mel Ziegler. It eventually became the first successful chain of vintage shops in the U.S., until Gap acquired them in 1983.
The company approached us with a sincere desire to honor their roots and support small mom-and-pop vintage shops across the U.S. Environmental impacts seem also top of mind for the company; Gap Inc. has announced initiatives to substantially improve their supply chain and production processes.
The collaboration consisted of Thrilling curating a collection, aligned with Banana Republic’s style guidelines, from our partner stores. Banana Republic would then use their platform and megaphone to help shed light on our store partners, and also generate sales of the collection.
We launched one month into the pandemic. At that time, Thrilling had announced that we would not take commission on any sales on our site for at least two months so that every dollar could go back to these stores who were all struggling to survive. To their credit, Banana Republic matched our offer, and they also gave up all commission on every sale for that collection.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Thrilling in the market?
I am hoping that secondhand shopping becomes a habit for everyone. And whenever an impulse or need to shop arises for any consumer, they think of secondhand first. And that it is not viewed as a marginalized activity, but just merely as “shopping.” It’s on Thrilling, and the other incredible companies in the space, to continue to make secondhand shopping as appealing, as relevant, and as accessible as possible so that everyone has no choice but to participate.