Zawe Ashton on Embracing Pre-Loved Fashion and Finding Your Authentic Style

Zawe Ashton was ahead of the curve when it came to second-hand shopping. After spending her formative years on the high street, like most teenagers, the actress discovered her pre-loved passion for fashion when she went to college in London in the early 2000s.

“Second-hand treasures were the currency,” Zawe Ashton tells me over the phone, reminiscing about those college days. “Vintage was suddenly cool and we spent our time putting together outfits from different eras and browsing vintage and charity shops.”

This fascination with second-hand shopping only intensified when she later moved to Manchester and found endless inspiration in the city’s bustling northern quarter. Ashton worked at one of the area’s largest vintage shopping malls, where she found some of her favorite gems to date and began experimenting with her style.

“As a young drama school student, I was really starting to experiment with roles and I started finding characters in the vintage that I was buying,” she recalls. “I found some really valuable stuff that I still have today – a vintage 80s cheerleader outfit that would probably take me a while to slip in now,” she laughs. “Another special find is my Jimmy Choo clutch bag. At the time I had been nominated for a British Independent Film Award and at the time lending clothes was so new to me and I didn’t have a stylist , so I just relied on the kindness of fashion houses and designers that I had formed personal relationships with.” After borrowing a dress and shoes from a brand, she needed the perfect bag to go with it: she found Jimmy Choo’s dream clutch on eBay and picked it up en route to the red carpet.”It was a special pre-loved moment,” she recalled. “It made me realize you’re in the end responsible for dressing you for these events, so you can be more imaginative.”

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Being one of the first champions of second-hand designer fashion has made the actress the perfect person to pitch eBay’s campaign for its new authentication process, which ensures that any bag over £500 will be now subject to rigorous control in order to strengthen consumer confidence.

Following previous successful watch and sneaker authentication projects, as of this month eBay is now working with a team of authenticators who will physically inspect luxury handbags by hand, as well as by hand. using specialized machines. All designer bags for sale will first be verified by an authenticator, verifying that they match the listing and inspecting quality, from seams to zippers. All bags will then receive an Authenticity Guarantee Card to prove their status, and sellers offering returns enjoy the same verification protection as buyers, allowing users to buy and sell with certainty.

“I definitely bought a few failed designer pieces [in the past] and I wish I had some sort of warranty to help with that, especially when buying second-hand online or for the first time,” Ashton says of the partnership.

Of course, today, buying pre-loved fashion and contributing to a circular fashion economy is more mainstream than ever, as we all seek to live more sustainable lives.

“Trends change so quickly now,” she says. “You can start to get carried away, rather than taking the time to explore what your own sense of style and expression might be.

“The younger generation is really targeted by these fast-paced trends. So if there’s anything I’d like to say to this generation, it’s take a moment to find your authentic expression through the way you dress, and while you’re doing that, you might as well really help the planet you are about to inherit.”

Currently, the fashion industry is the second most damaging industry for the planet. The sector represents approximately 8-10% of global carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wastewater. Alarming statistics indeed.

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Ashton is all too aware that being more environmentally conscious with our habits has never been more vital – and that challenging misconceptions about second-hand shopping is key to promoting conscious shopping.

“Trend cycles have accelerated over the past 10 years and we’re conditioned to use it to stay relevant,” she says. “Sometimes people are reluctant to walk away from the crowd, which I totally understand, but it’s okay to walk away from that.”

Celebrities wearing vintage on the red carpet have done wonders for the reputation of second-hand clothes; they are pieces with character, history and a uniqueness that is simply impossible to replicate when buying new. But, with so much out there, where do vintage newbies begin?

“Before love doesn’t have to be drudgery or hard work — it just means you’re authenticating your own consumer journey,” the actress explains. “You can become more authentically yourself when you think more consciously about our planet, which goes far beyond just shopping.”

“Finding inspiration is a great start,” advises Ashton, who draws inspiration from a variety of sources — from stars whose style she admires, like Alexa Chung and Grace Jones, to the punk era or French cinema. “There are so many apps and sites to browse through images of different styles and eras and see how people put together different pieces.”

In addition to shopping used, Ashton strives to be more eco-friendly in other ways. The British actress likes to support sustainable brands and make her existing wardrobe work harder, fixing older pieces that could use a little TLC.

“I also try to buy less and have a more conscious approach,” she says. “I know it’s really hard to do that because we’re all different heights, dress sizes and physiques. But often times you can get custom pieces. It’s about changing the psychology around the shopping; those who were into fast fashion before could now invest in a piece or two that they know will last. That’s the mix I’m trying to achieve, as well as renting and re-dressing on the carpet red, because it really sends a message.

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When it comes to repeat outfits, stars such as Cate Blanchett and Emma Watson, and even royals like the Duchess of Cambridge, have been known to wear dresses regularly to big events, highlighting the importance of making the most of what We already have. So does Ashton feel responsible for leading by example?

“We’re really on code red right now and everyone has a responsibility,” Ashton says. “Everyone has their role to play. I think you can’t ignore the fact that if you have a public personality or profile as part of your job, you can’t deny there’s a faster way to get that vital message out there. I am a work in progress; I’m really enjoying the journey of working out how I can work those parts of my job in a different way for the better.

“There is also a lot of responsibility on big companies, because the individual citizen cannot do much. I hate how you can feel incredibly guilty if you make a mistake and end up spiraling and feeling bad for your own impact. But you have to remember that big business is actually still responsible for the majority of the problems we face.

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While things are definitely looking up and we are thankfully seeing more and more brands putting the planet first, there is still a long way to go. “It’s up to the fashion industry to answer questions on their own responsibility,” agrees Ashton. “It’s great to see that access to rental has improved, [as well as] the quality of the rentals, the activities offsetting their footprints and the range of brands available. This will only encourage more people to take this route. I really hope it continues to grow.

As for Ashton’s personal journey? Everything is centered on the state of mind. “It’s about changing my psychology and helping to change other people’s. I turned an old pair of tights into a headband the other day,” she laughs. “It’s amazing what pops up on your radar when you start changing your psychology. Once you start thinking about the terrible landfills, the toxic chemicals and the people who are being used to make these clothes in the most excruciating conditions , you will rethink everything.

“It’s really a work in progress that continues to evolve. If there’s a last-minute panic buy you make for a vacation, wedding, or interview, you can make up for it by buying second-hand items next time or opting to rent. Wear the garment again or adapt it to become a timeless piece. It is not a question of making the individual feel guilty, because there is enough of it. I’m definitely not perfect and I certainly haven’t figured it all out yet, but know that my mindset is really changing and that’s the most important thing. We couldn’t agree more.