In the back of Allen Cao’s SUV sits a pile of sweaters, jackets and other retro raiment. It’s a thrift shop on wheels: Think the hottest food cart, but with clothes.
“It’s like scavenging,” Cao, 21, said. “It takes a good amount of time searching for these.”
The menu contains items such as “Got Carded Again” (a cardigan) and “0 to 1,000 Real Quick,” a play on one of the rapper Drake’s hits. The latter, a sweatshirt commemorating Penn State’s 1,000th game, is “sick,” as Cao, a senior in Penn State’s entrepreneurship program, describes it, even if the outcome of the referenced game was more literal for the team’s fans.
Cao names each item before selling it.
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“I just make up something random,” he said, laughing. He scours the internet and thrift shops for the gear.
But Cao’s swag caravan just does the drop. His vintage clothing resale business, Vint Condition, began on Instagram, and its story plays much like the platform’s Snapchat-like feature: one quick hit after another.
What started as a class project in October has become a profitable enterprise, one that launched a website last week and has margins of 40 to 50 percent, Cao said. His one-time “side hustle” is now on four major college campuses, with a fifth in the works.
“I knew there was value in vintage clothing,” he said. “It’s different. I know college students don’t usually go on Poshmark or go to thrift shops. They buy stuff that’s easy; they go downtown. So with Instagram, I was pretty much putting it where it’s accessible for them. They just have to type two words, and they get it.”
Those two words, “gimme that” in text parlance, makes for the fingertip-friendly shopping experience that predominates Cao’s demographic, or his main customer base. “People scroll Instagram no matter what,” he said. “It was one of the platforms I liked to use.”
The online consignment and vintage clothing industry has boomed. Mass branding of the early 2000s began to give way to throwback looks and sui generis styles, correlating with the rise in social media platforms. In the age of filters, standing out is de rigueur.
The death of the logo, meanwhile, is partly due to others, namely those from the 1980s and ’90s, rising from the grave — something Cao, an enthusiast of throwback apparel, noticed when starting the business. The brand’s slogan is, after all, “wear your history.”
“I like wearing stuff that stands out,” Cao said. “This whole year, I’ve been more hands on with the mindset that I want to do something. The past two years I’ve been doing a lot of networking, I’ve just been learning, but I wasn’t doing. So I wanted to use this year to do it, and whether it fails or not, that’s OK — it’s all a learning process.”
But despite Vint Condition’s quick success, its tale threads around a family endeavor, one that began before Cao was born. The son of Chinese immigrants, Cao came to the United States with his mom, Hong Qiu, when he was 4 years old. His dad, Jian Hui Cao, came over five years earlier.
“The opportunity here was better,” Cao said. “Pretty much like any other immigrant story.”
His parents opened up a takeout restaurant in Reisterstown, Md., a suburb of Baltimore. Three years later they moved to the Philadelphia area to open a chain of nail salons. Neither attended college.
But for Cao, business was in his blood.
“They just always had an entrepreneurial mindset in terms of starting restaurants and small businesses,” he said. “I was always encouraged by my parents to start my own business one day.”
Set to graduate in May, Cao is interviewing with a tech startup in San Francisco, but says he wants to keep his “side hustle” no matter what happens.
Despite being months-old, his business has grown up, too. Instagram, once his go-to, is now used for promotional purposes, and sales have since shifted to the website. He contacted a friend to design the company’s mint leaf logo, and is thinking about offering branded apparel featuring it in the future.
But still, it’s a hustle. Most of the models are his friends. A self-taught photographer, he takes the photos himself.
“This is all part of the learning experience for me,” he said.
In the first three weeks, he sold five items. Then football season started rolling. The team made the Rose Bowl. Sales picked up.
“That was when I was like this is legit, people are starting to buy it who aren’t my friends,” he said. “But doing it matters more than anything else.”
After an article was written about the venture, Cao showed his parents. College is never too late to start a business, he said — or impress Mom and Dad with an ambitious class project.
“They’ve always been supportive,” he said, laughing. “It probably made them feel like I’m not wasting my time.”