Q&A with Hilary Walker, owner and founder of designer resale shop BIVIO
In fashion capitals around the world, you’re likely to spot designer pieces everywhere you look. Fashion is a lifestyle in these cities, and one avenue for discovery (and scratching the shopping itch) is through designer resale shops, which are prolific in cities like Milan.
Hilary Walker, a native San Franciscan, is arguably the queen of Milanese designer resale, because she focuses not only on vintage garments and timeless pieces, but also recent-season, contemporary collections for women and men. With three BIVIO shops in the city, we reached Hilary to get the scoop on why designer resale is so good in the city, and what’s trending on the ground.
Q: Tell us a bit about your background. What led you to launch BIVIO?
A: I decided to launch BIVIO just as I engaged in what was basically “Chapter Two” of my time in Italy. I had spent 14 years here working mainly as a freelance copywriter and content manager in the fashion industry. Then I left for a year and came back in 2013, when I decided that if I was going to live in Milan “forever”, I wanted to do something different and bigger.
Q: What’s the designer resale and second-hand scene like in Milan and in Italy? Why do you think people have responded so well to your particular retail model?
A: Since I had lived in Milan for so long before starting BIVIO, I had always privately wondered why the second-hand shopping scene in Milano was so restricted and sorta…blah. Basically there were few upmarket shops and a handful of excessively precious vintage shops, where you could find all kinds of lovely things but not really for day-to-day wear or for a shopper who liked “the hunt.”
I had a vision for a place that was kind of “cool” but not in an intimidating way. Where people could easily sell their clothes and get paid right away, that offered a really large range of price points and styles. A place that could compete with fast fashion chains like Zara and H&M, but could also feel like a very “Milanese” spot, with a sophisticated and fashion-forward vibe for designer resale.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We just love clothes and want people to have fun shopping for them.
Q: You must see thousands of items every week—what insights have you learned about designers, materials, and quality? Do you see a difference between items made now and items made in the past?
A: Oh, you learn so many things, doing this job. Working in the second-hand sector, and doing it all in person—touching the items, examining them, seeing what things get brought in and by whom—it’s just so interesting from so many perspectives.
There are many “upmarket” or even “luxury” brands, for instance, that were it not for their label, would really seem like Fast Fashion pieces once taken out of their original context. Once they’re out of their boutiques and their packaging, they don’t hold up. I won’t get specific.
There are other brands, like Max Mara, that you can basically recognize from a mile away, without even looking at the label.
Q: What about authenticity? How can you tell if something is genuine or not—what are the obvious tells? Do you encounter questionable things often?
A: Oh lord, it’s a nightmare. It truly is. There are of course, a ton of fakes that are really easy to spot, and yes, people bring them in anyway. But things are getting harder and harder these days, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. And you don’t have to just look out for fake “luxury” like Louis Vuitton and Chanel, but fake Nike, fake Ralph Lauren, and fake “niche” brands that maybe the majority of consumers haven’t even heard of!
It keeps me awake at night, it truly does. I always tell my buyers, if you have a doubt, just pass. You don’t have to “prove” it’s fake, but it’s always better to have one fewer authentic piece that one more fake one.
Q: Which brands have the best resale value? Which brands or designers are highly in demand in the second hand market?
A: Well, goodness, things have changed since we opened in 2013. The most extreme example would be Gucci, which up until 2015, was not particularly in-demand. Now, someone could bring a pair of dirty old shoelaces with a Gucci logo and we could sell them.
On the flip side, really minimal brands like Jil Sander or Rick Owens have definitely become less desirable, especially with our younger clients. We are also seeing lots of demand for Italian brands that really peaked in the 1990s, like Stone Island and Napapirji.
Q: What role does environmental sustainability play in your work? Do you feel partly responsible for reducing the wastefulness of the global apparel industry?
A: It’s funny, when I first started BIVIO in 2013 and was writing press releases and the copy for our website, all the Italians told me to sort of tone down the “sustainability” part, because, I suppose, it wasn’t particularly appealing or trendy or stylish. Ha. Now it’s a word on everybody’s lips.
We redistribute hundreds of thousands of items of clothing every year, all without shipping or trucking or exploitation of human or natural resources. Nearby people bring their own things into a shop, we select it, buy it and re-sell it to another nearby person who has walked into our shop. It’s pretty anachronistic but it’s literally the only way to call fashion truly “sustainable.” I think people are starting to care, I really do.
And I hope that seeing how much stuff people have that they don’t use makes people think more carefully before getting on to Asos or whatever and buying another pair of cheap jeans—that, by the way, we won’t buy back from them if they try to resell.
Q: What makes BIVIO special? Are there any details that are unique to the four shops vs. other designer resale shops?
A: I think BIVIO is special because it was the first contemporary designer resale shop (rather than vintage or consignment) in Italy and I think a bit of the unique vibe we have comes from the fact that I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area and sort of still think of myself as basically a writer, so I definitely have a different mentality from someone who has spent their career in the fashion or retail industry.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously, we don’t look at fashion as though it’s some vital part of human existence. We just love clothes and want people to have fun shopping for them.
I have a very personal style, that could maybe be described as “an off-duty Mary Poppins in a late 70s Woody Allen movie.”
Q: Would the business have the same magic if it wasn’t in Italy or in Milan? Proximity must be a huge boon to BIVIO.
A: Mmmm, I don’t think so. I think BIVIO is in a very fortunate and happy position because Milan has a real excess supply of inventory. With the fashion industry being here there are just so many people with tons of access to cool stuff. I get asked all the time if and when I want to open in another Italian city.
My answer, from day one, has been that I want five stores in Milan (we’re currently looking for our fourth) and one in Florence, which also has strong ties to fashion. A lot of the luxury and designer production is in Tuscany and with events like Pitti Uomo and so many of the brands being Florentine in origin, it just makes sense. Plus, the tourists. We love them and the feeling is mutual!
Q: What advice would you give to someone who has never experimented with second hand or designer resale? Common misconceptions?
A: I hope this doesn’t sound awful, but I think the basic concept that people misunderstand is that: your stuff isn’t really “worth” anything. I mean, sure, you paid money for it, but for the majority of apparel and accessories, once these items are taken out of the shop and brought to your house, they really don’t have any intrinsic value. The kinds of pieces that really retain value or even appreciate with time are so few that I could count them on like, one hand.
Also, with the proliferation of outlets, of discount websites, of platforms like Vestiaire or Depop, what people expect to pay for used goods can be very different than what people expect to earn by selling their clothes.
What often happens at BIVIO is that people decide to not go through with the sale to us (and this happens a lot), not because what BIVIO is going to charge for their stuff is too little (to the next buyer), but because getting one third of that asking price is too little. I think we do a pretty good job in terms of hitting the sweet spot where pricing is concerned. We give the seller 33% in cash or 50% in store credit, up front, no consignment sales (waiting) necessary.
That being said, if we want to have physical stores in great locations in a cosmopolitan city like Milan, open seven days a week, and staff at the shops who are competent and paid fairly, we can’t operate with smaller margins than that.
Q: What’s your personal style philosophy? Are there any principles that you live by?
A: I have a very personal style, that could maybe be described as “an off-duty Mary Poppins in a late 70s Woody Allen movie.”
I don’t wear leggings except in yoga class. I don’t wear stuff with writing on it. And I don’t wear black. Other than that, I’m open to just about anything.
Q: What do you like to wear? What are your favorite brands or designers?
I don’t normally gravitate towards specific brands or trends, but I love color and quirky stuff. My staff knows that I like stripes and polka dots, shirts with high collars and bows and anything with an animal on it, so they’ll usually put weird stuff like that aside for me.
My staff is great, they know my taste better than my mother: the last batch of stuff they put aside for me was just yesterday: a vintage Missoni wrap skirt, a Paul Smith sweatshirt with an owl on it, a pair of gold Prada boots, a striped T-shirt by Stella McCartney, and a pair of silk pajama pants by Laura Urbinati. I bought all of it.
That was an atypical selection though, because there was nothing “Unsigned,” meaning pieces with no label at all, which makes up the majority of my closet.
Q: Are there any emerging designers that you particularly like or plan to watch? What’s hot in Milan right now?
Me? I don’t follow any specific brands really, but the last couple things I bought not at BIVIO were a pair of evening pajamas by For Restless Sleepers—I love their stuff—and a pair of “friulane” (Venetian-style velvet shoes) by Vibi Venezia. I have a total weakness for knitwear, so I like a little local brand called Sartoria Vico, which I can never order because their website sells out so fast!
Q: As an American in Italy, but a longtime expat and Milan insider, what are your favorite spots in Milan to eat, take aperitivo, and shop (for gifts, books, gourmet food)? Favorite bars? Are there any places you would suggest our readers not miss if they visit?
A: Oh gosh, well definitely come pay BIVIO a visit, and I love the shops in and around via Santa Marta, like the concept store Wait & See or the tableware shop Funky Table. Donatella Pellini still makes really particular jewelry, very Milanese, as does Atelier VM, which is a whole other aesthetic but also very Milanese.
Pasticceria Cucchi is always a good spot for a coffee or an aperitivo and a little nosh. I love drinking a cocktail at Rita on the Navigli, and Dabass is one of my favorite evening spots at the moment.
My all-time favorite thing to do is go browsing at the bric-a-brac rummage shop called Il Mercatino tra Noi e Voi, which is in a basement on a side street not far from Piazza Republica. It’s always worth a trip. They don’t sell clothes, but hey, basta clothes!
Oh also, one Sunday a month there’s a cool market called East Market, but I never go because, well, I work Sundays.
Check out BIVIO on Instagram!
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