Islamabad: Owning a branded pair of sneakers is considered a luxury item in Pakistan. As a sneaker aficionado, Nofal Khan faced a serious challenge when it came to buying branded shoes that are not ultraexpensive. Thus began his deep dive into the thrift shops that deal in high-quality goods.
Khan had always been fond of sneakers. “But a standard pair of Nike shoes in Pakistan can cost up to $200 due to the import duties and taxes. Also, the stores here don’t have the Nike Jordans or Air Force 1” styles, he said, describing his struggle shared by many Pakistanis. This challenge of finding branded yet affordable shoes sparked an opportunity for three friends to create a sustainable fashion startup. That is when Swag Kicks was born.
The three young entrepreneurs and co-founders Nofal Khan, Hamza Sheikh, and Mateen Ansari decided to make it their mission to bring affordable, high-quality, branded shoes to the masses in Pakistan. Each member has a unique set of skills and expertise. Khan, a serial entrepreneur, had previously launched several successful startups and ran a thriving digital agency. Abid had vast experience trading preloved fashion on a global scale, while Ansari specialized in scaling operations.
Founded in 2020, Swag Kicks brings to Pakistan preloved fashion (a previously owned or secondhand fashion item) from across the world. “We source authentic preloved sneakers and streetwear, wash and disinfect and sell them at a fraction of the price of brand new products,” Nofal Khan, the co-founder and CEO of Swag Kicks, told Gulf News. These items are slightly or sparingly used, he says.
The company has served over 100,000 customers and has 25,000 items, including sneakers, bags, and clothes and accessories, listed on the website. The Karachi-based secondhand clothing online retailer is providing authentic, affordable preloved fashion at affordable prices to young Pakistanis who want to dress fashionably but do not have access to or cannot afford global brands. With climate change a growing concern, younger people are increasingly drawn to sustainable fashion.
Swag Kicks offers consumers a range of options to make informed purchases based on the condition of the sneaker, with a 10/10 rating indicating near-mint condition and only slight signs of use, and an 8/10 rating reflecting signs of wear and tear.
“This condition-allocation system allows our customers to make educated purchases,” says Ansari, one of the co-founders. The store’s diverse collection of more than 60 sneaker brands includes rare finds like Solomon and Doc Martens that are not typically available in Pakistan, he says.
Making thrifting cool again
The co-founders say their vision is “to make thrifting cool” again. The adaptation was never a big issue in Pakistan which is “inherently a thrifting nation” according to Khan. “We have always had open-air thrift bazaars or landa bazaars in every big or small city for decades. So, the thrift adaptation was always high. With the changing global trends, even affluent Pakistanis have now adopted the thrift lifestyle.”
Pakistan has a strong thrifting culture, with weekly colorful bazaars and secondhand markets across the country, brimming with all kinds of items from clothes to furniture to home decor, where people go in search of unique and affordable finds.
This culture is now slowly transitioning from physical stores, or landa bazaars (flea markets), to online platforms with the rise of e-commerce, making secondhand shopping more convenient and accessible. More people are now considering thrift shopping and affordable options after the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing spiralling inflation. Some shoppers are also motivated by factors such as reducing waste and choosing sustainable products.
Pakistan - biggest importer of secondhand clothing
Swag Kicks is capitalizing on this growing trend of thrifting culture and reducing waste in Pakistan — one of the biggest importers of used clothing in the world. This trend has nearly doubled due to rising inflation. During the fiscal year 2020-21, imports of secondhand clothes rose by 83% to 732,623 metric tonnes and were worth $309 million.
In the first 11 months of this fiscal year 2022, imports of used clothing increased by nearly 47% compared to the same period last year. Globally, the secondhand clothing market is growing faster than traditional retail and is estimated to be worth around $84 billion by 2030.
Detailing the process of sourcing and ensuring the quality of second-hand clothes at Swag Kicks, the company’s CEO said they mostly acquire products from suppliers who buy containers full of imported wear from the US, Canada, UK, and Europe. The store has the “exclusive privilege to cherry-pick from the stockpiles” he says. “We choose the good quality supply and list them online after going through an extensive cleaning process.”
Pakistan’s one of the biggest sustainable fashion stores has set some ambitious goals. Swag Kicks wants to become the world’s largest thrift company. “Our long-term vision is to be the largest thrift company in the world by leveraging our tech and ability to procure quality thrift supply,” says Khan.
The store will aim for global dominance both in D2C (direct-to-consumer) and B2B (business-to-business) thrift and vintage circular fashion business after becoming a leader in Pakistan’s fashion retail space. Another key goal is to reduce the carbon footprint and keep fashion items away from landfills by giving them a second life. “We are giving Pakistanis a means to express themselves via original branded fashion at affordable prices.”
$1.2 million funding raised
The sustainable fashion platform recently raised $1.2 million in its seed funding round led by i2i Ventures, with participation from Techstars Toronto, CrossFund Hong Kong, Rose Lake Ventures, STAK Group, and others. With the latest funds, Swag Kicks aims to expand its footprint in the digital thrifting landscape. The majority of the funds will be utilized to build a state-of-the-art preloved sneaker and clothing facility that will consist of the company’s proprietary processes.
“From sorting, washing, disinfecting to product photography, restorations, reworks, and refurbishments of the sneakers and apparel, this facility will be the first of its kind in the world to process thrift and vintage for resale,” Hamza Sheikh, the startup co-founder, told Gulf News.
Misbah Naqvi, the co-founder at i2i Ventures which invested in Swag Kicks, says what impressed them most was the “team’s big vision within shifting consumer trends and macroeconomic uncertainty.” Naqvi says: “The secondhand clothing market in Pakistan is large, but the supply side is very fragmented. The Swag Kicks team is able to operate at scale because of the elaborate back end they’ve built, including an in-house warehouse SaaS product that has tremendous potential.”
Role of tech and ThriftOps
Technology plays a crucial role in managing the Swag Kicks store which is based on 1/1 inventory (single unique item in stock) and a circular fashion business model. At the core of its business is ThriftOps, the company’s proprietary technology designed to propel growth in the circular fashion economy. ThriftOps serves as the company’s “backbone” which helps manage inventory, quality checks, automated pricing, and order and warehouse management.
“What used to take us 40 minutes to process an order, now only takes 4 minutes with ThriftOps,” Khan said, citing the benefits. ThriftOps is being developed as an artificial intelligence (AI) tool to be the operating system for reselling secondhand clothing and accessories. This tool can help push item listings on platforms such as Shopify, Depop, Poshmark, Facebook Marketplace, and eBay, he says.
By bringing affordable and sustainable fashion to the masses in Pakistan, the startup is not only meeting a growing demand for high-quality preloved goods but also contributing to the reduction of waste, addressing both social and climate challenges. With the recent injection of funds, the co-founders are poised to scale their operations and expand their reach both locally and globally, making thrifting cool again and revolutionizing the way we think about fashion.