On a recent afternoon, a group of about two dozen Chicago high schoolers descended on Village Discount Outlet, a thrift store in Albany Park. They’re members of the Von Steuben High School Thrift Club, co-founded by senior Philip Tran last year.

He says it’s taken off: “It went from maybe a measly 20 members to 60.”

Hardly the first, and probably not the last, to discover thrifting, the Von Steuben students say buying clothes from secondhand shops is appealing on a number of fronts. Some talk about rejecting fast fashion in favor of the more sustainable practice of reusing gently used clothing. Others say it’s a low-risk way to develop their sense of style and a good option for saving money.

Philip says his own thrifting habit started because his family couldn’t afford to buy new clothes from the mall. “I can’t lie. I used to be embarrassed of it,” the 17-year-old says. “But I see at least now it’s become a lot more socially acceptable and popular.”

New to thrifting? Philip and fellow club members offer these tips:

  • “Be thorough. You need to check every aisle, go through every rack, every piece of clothing, even the floor sometimes because people drop stuff.”

  • “Have patience. It might be a while before you find something you like.”

  • “Bring headphones … You won’t realize the time has gone.”

  • “Wash your clothes.”

Students from the Von Steuben High School thrifting club take a field trip after school to The Village Discount Outlet Store to go thrifting as a group on October 05, 2023.
Philip Tran, on left, heads to the Village Discount Outlet with his classmates and friends. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Philip leads club members on the 10-minute walk from school to the Village Discount Outlet on Lawrence Avenue. It’s their first official field trip of the year. Philip started the after-school club last year with a friend after learning that other Chicago Public Schools had thrift clubs of their own.

“For some of them, it’s their first time thrifting here and it’s really exciting to see because you’re introducing them to this whole world of sustainable fashion,” Philip says.

Students from the Von Steuben High School thrifting club take a field trip after school to The Village Discount Outlet Store to go thrifting as a group on October 05, 2023. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
Philip Tran, left, and other Von Steuben students browse the men’s section. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Philip says he’s been thrifting his whole life. His family couldn’t afford to shop at conventional retail stores, so they would turn to thrift shops like the Village Discount in Albany Park.

He has theories on why Gen Z has embraced thrifting: It’s cheaper and more sustainable. Younger people tend to be more conscious of their carbon footprint and want to find unique pieces that set them apart.

The Von Steuben High School Thrift Club shopped at the Village Discount Outlet thrift shop on Oct. 05, 2023.
Vincent Tran checks out after figuring out his way around the thrift shop. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Thrift shops can be intimidating and overwhelming – especially if you don’t know what to look for. Freshman Vincent Tran, 14, says he turns to his classmates for shopping and styling tips. He bought a cream-colored polo sweatshirt during the trip.

“I’m sort of just exploring. I like this color scheme of grays and navy blues and black and white,” he says.

Teachers for the thrifting club look at clothing at The Village Discount Outlet Store.
Von Steuben Principal Jennifer Sutton, left, and teacher April Tondelli. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Von Steuben Principal Jennifer Sutton and teacher April Tondelli browse the racks while their students shop around.

Tondelli is the club’s advisor and runs a thrifting account on Instagram to try to spread the word among adults. She says teens tend to be more open about it.

“People sometimes think thrifting is for Halloween outfits or something for a costume party, but all of my regular work clothes are all thrifted,” she says. “So just putting that out there, that you can really thrift for your everyday life.

Students from the Von Steuben High School check out their clothing at the Village Discount Outlet Store.
Deena Sun, a 15-year-old sophomore, is an experienced thrifter. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Sophomore Deena Sun says thrifting is a great way to experiment with different fashion styles. You have to treat it like a treasure hunt.

“It takes a little time, but at the end of the day, it’s gonna be so worth it because you put your own time into that,” she says.

The 15-year-old often buys oversized clothing and relies on a tailor to get the perfect fit.

“I always go to the men’s section because they have really nice oversized pants. At one point I even found women’s pants up there … they were Michael Kors and, oh my gosh, they were so nice,” she said.

Students stand outside the Village Discount Thrift
Students in the Von Steuben Thrift Club gather outside Village Discount Outlet as they wrap up their thrifting field trip. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Thrifting isn’t exactly a new trend. Tom Foley, executive vice president of the Village Discount Outlet chain, said they’ve been in business for over 60 years. But he says thrifting is always changing.

“These days there’s such a wide variety of styles,” Foley said. “Anything goes, it’s very eclectic and very cool when you see some of the things people put together.”

Students from the Von Steuben High School thrifting club take a field trip after school to The Village Discount Outlet Store to go thrifting as a group on October 05, 2023. Manuel Martinez/WBEZ
The Von Steuben thrifters show off what they scored before heading home for the evening. Few left empty handed. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Several teens say Village Discount is their favorite thrift shop. Here are other recommendations from Von Steuben’s Thrift Club.

  • “The Unique on Kimball and Elston is one of my favorites because it’s convenient and they just have really nice clothes.”

  • “Whenever I feel like spending a little more money, there are second-hand stores in Wicker Park like Buffalo Exchange and Ragstock.”

  • “The Salvation Army … it’s very expensive so I try to only go when they have their half-price days which are only on major holidays.”

Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.