At a warehouse in Houston, Texas, Topper Luciani walks among stacks of discarded clothing on metal racks. Jeans, flannel button ups, windbreakers, sweaters, old college T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts line the walls.
This, he says, is the future of e-commerce.
Luciani is the founder and CEO of Goodfair, an online retailer selling used clothing to fervently eco-friendly young people. Customers order ‘bundles’ — T-shirts, flannels, and jeans sold in a set — like three windbreakers for $20. Shoppers pick the size and type of garment, but the color, style, and personality of the clothes are a surprise until they arrive in the mail.
Goodfair is not Luciani’s first company. He’s been building businesses that sell second-hand clothes for nearly a decade. “Some people who succeed as entrepreneurs are just really smart and hit it out of the park their first time,” Luciani says. “Some people are just really tough. I think I fall in the second category. I’m comfortable living in extreme poverty, I’m comfortable having pretty much no shame. All of these things are really valuable.”
“I just continue to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving forward,” he adds.
Perhaps more importantly, Goodfair has also saved over 1 million garments from going into a landfill, and prevented 1.1 billion gallons of water from being used to manufacture new clothes.
“Even as a small company, we can make a big impact helping the environment,” Luciani says.
Out of 100 billion garments produced annually, almost 60 percent end up in the trash a few years later. To keep up with the demands of fast fashion, brands themselves even destroy their own clothing: Burberry admitted to burning$37 million worth of merchandise per year in 2018. Replacing those clothes with new items drives more environmental cost: One kilogram of fabric requires creating 23 kilograms of greenhouse gasses.
And that’s what Luciani is out to combat — one sweatshirt at a time. The Goodfair motto is simple, he says: “No new things.”
For Goodfair, the timing is spot on. Demand for secondhand goods is expected to double from $24 billion in 2018 to $51 billion by 2023. Poshmark, one of the biggest online used-goods retailers, went public in January, ThredUp is expected to in later 2021.
But Luciani’s journey to success was a long and bumpy one.
Luciani started his first company in 2004, a fashion brand called Sir Drake. When the financial crisis struck in 2008, the brand went out of business.
“Reflecting upon that failure, my greatest weakness was manufacturing. So it really led me to not want to manufacture anything ever again,” Luciani says. “Back in 2008, it was less about the environmental aspect, and all of the reasons why sustainability is so critical today, but more a function of my own weakness.”
So in his next business, he sold used goods. Luciani started with rare neckties, scouring eBay for deals and reselling them for higher prices. He discovered an entire economy of second hand clothing.
“I started finding all of these textile recycling centers. These are giant warehouses that sort clothing into different categories, and then export them to Africa, South America, and Asia,” Luciani says.
An epiphany struck: “I’ve got to be the person to put these facilities online,” he remembers thinking. “That was 2009. The times since then have been my trials and tribulations of trying to do that, through deep failures, deep reflections, and adjustments.”
Since 2009, Luciani has launched three companies built to sell used clothing — Ronnies Ties, Nifty Thrifty and TagPop — and closed the doors on all three. But those failures provided him the tools to succeed with Goodfair today, Luciani says.
He can tick off a laundry list of lessons learned: “One aspect of it is business fundamentals, another aspect is timing, another aspect is team, another aspect is proximity to the supply chain, another aspect is the right investors and the right mindset of those investors,” Luciani says. “And all of those things were landmines that I have the shrapnel in my legs from.”
Each business was the teacher of a different lesson, he says. Selling ties taught him about the difference between a product and a platform: “Ronnies Ties was really good, it was a successful, profitable business, but I couldn’t scale it.”
Next came the operational complexities of sourcing and selling used garments at scale.
“I started Nifty Thrifty, which was an online vintage store, during the era of Nasty Gal. It was a really cool concept, and I learned a lot about e-commerce. And I had a great mentor and partner through that. But ultimately, I couldn’t get it to work,” he explains. “Then, for TagPop, I finally understood how to sell used clothing at scale, but that was where I learned some really valuable lessons in partnerships, picking the right investors, branding, and operations. With TagPop I did all of those things wrong.”
But the biggest lesson Luciani learned was to invest in his personal growth, and think deeply about his internal mindset.
“Throughout this entrepreneurial journey, in order to develop tools for that, I’ve also had to develop self-help tools,” he explains. “I’ve basically been on this spiritual quest, which has helped me develop the internal tools to deal with the failures, to deal with the rejections, to deal with the days where there is no money in the bank account and no gas in the gas tank, and you just figure out a way to keep going.”
Although he’s read “Principles” by Ray Dalio and “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle multiple times, Luciani says the best teacher is failure itself.
“There are so many lessons that we hear verbally, but until you are out in the field stepping on landmines, it is very hard to pick those lessons up,” Luciani continues. “With Goodfair, I took all of the lessons learned, and reflected deeply.”
His belief that thrift shopping would someday become digital — like every other segment of the retail industry — kept him going.
“I believed in the mission so much. I was just really, really early.” By 2016, climate activism began to rise, fueling new interest in sustainability-driven startups. Up until that point, the focus of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists had centered on buzzy DTC brands.
“Before the sustainability tipping point, used clothing had less than zero social status,” he says. “There were all of these consumer brands that were vying for the same customer — a coastal elite earning over $100,000 — and the rest of America was being underserved.”
In the era of Greta Thunberg, Luciani says the timing for second hand e-commerce is finally right. And the lessons he’s learned over the past 10 years have prepared him to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Aside from the cultural tailwinds of sustainability, we have not even scratched the surface of how big online thrift can be,” he says. “And that’s just in the apparel sector. My vision is not unlike a used Amazon. In the way that Bezos started with books, that’s the way I started with apparel. There are a monumental number of products in the waste stream that can be sold with this method.”
For Luciani, there are treasures to be found among the trash, if you know where to look.