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Rags to riches for Barnsley vintage clothing wholesaler

A vintage clothing enthusiast has converted his small student enterprise into a global Barnsley-based business which sells to brands such as Urban Outfitters and Lush, international buyers and independent retailers.

John Hickling started selling his charity shop finds on eBay about 12 years ago and now runs a company which employs 14 people and operates a 23,000 square foot warehouse and distribution centre supplying more than 200 wholesale customers with recycled, upcycled and remade clothes.

Sales at Glass Onion Vintage have increased ten-fold within the last six years, and look set to increase again as John and his team expand their customer base and court new suppliers as far afield as the USA.

John said: “I am off to the States next month to try and develop relationships with clothing recycling companies over there as new US legislation is about to make it illegal to put unwanted clothing into landfill; so they expect much more to enter the recycling industry process.

“Recycled clothing is becoming big business globally – vintage has evolved over the years and interest in good quality rescued or re-fashioned garments has become more mainstream.

“Plus, I think the impulse to reduce waste, make the best use of resources and develop a greener economy is becoming integral to all aspects of our lives.”

Business expansion at Glass Onion Vintage is now being supported by Barnsley Business and Innovation Centre (BBIC) through the Enterprising Barnsley programme, which is funded by Barnsley Council.

The company, set up by John in 2006, moved to its new HQ at Strafford Industrial Park, in Stainborough last year, after outgrowing its previous home at Barugh Green.

Its existing customers include High Street giants Urban Outfitters, River Island  and Lush cosmetics, to whom Glass Onion supply vintage scarves to wrap shoppers’ handmade purchases in, as an alternative to plastic or paper bags.

Glass Onion Vintage sources over 20,000 kilograms a month from major recycling companies across the UK and Europe. John and the team have gone into these partner companies and trained staff to spot potential vintage items.

Glass Onion then processes – recycles, upcycles and remodels – vintage jeans, jackets, dresses and skirts and sells them on in ten kilo bulk packages to a range of vintage clothing retailers and market traders.

The company also sells direct to the public through a series of pop-up ‘kilo sales’ held from Bristol to Edinburgh. These events attract more than a thousand people a time, keen to browse and buy clothes by the weight. One of their next vintage sales will be held in Brixton, London on May 23.

Glass Onion also sells via its website to Japan, Sweden, Holland and Chile amongst others. Exports represent about ten per cent of sales today and John aims to double this figure in the next couple of years.

John started trawling Sheffield charity shops for classic clothes with his friend when he was a student. At first they sold their finds on e-bay then the pair began to hire a van every weekend and drive to London to sell on Camden Market.

John said: “It wasn’t a business as such, we just loved doing it and it was a way of making a bit of beer money instead of getting a bar job or something like that.

“We had no idea we were doing the groundwork for a future business – getting to know what sells, understanding the market and the product, plus developing important relationships with our future suppliers and buyers.”

John set up Glass Onion Vintage in 2006, while his friend decided to take a different career path. The company plans to create two or three new jobs in the next few years as sales increase.

Kevin Steel, Enterprising Barnsley’s business development manager at BBIC said: “Glass Onion Vintage have identified a niche in an international market for recycled goods and very quickly maximised the specialist know-how and contacts they have under their belt.

“They are vintage clothing pioneers and we look forward very much to seeing this Barnsley company grow further with the recycling industry of the future.”

Glass Onion Vintage works with other local businesses too. For example, it routinely sends 500 denim jackets to a South Yorkshire laundry for washing and hundreds of shirts and dresses to a sewing factory for re-working – to create new vest tops, narrower jeans or shorter garments. It also uses a UK dye house to re-colour some items.

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