Whether it’s a rejection of fast-fashion or the result of being stylish and broke, a huge number of South Africa’s cool kids are crossing the street to avoid major clothing chains and are rather digging in piles of someone’s discarded garments.
It’s reimagining your dad’s bomber jacket from the 80s with a flat cap and sneakers. It’s hauling out your grandma’s floral-printed skirt that hasn’t seen the light of day since 1969. It’s the hand-me-down that’s been handed down since WW2.
Every year, 13 million tons of clothes get trashed. Here in SA, we’re accustomed to passing items around until they’re unusable, but in America and Europe, it’s common for people to pick up cheap threads, wear them once or twice, and chuck them.
So what happens to all those clothes that get dumped? They get packed into giant bundles and shipped off to places like South Africa, where buyers purchase the second hand clothes by the kilogram. These giant bundles of clothes get sold on the streets of the country’s major CBDs, with a road usually dedicated to the vendors and their piles sprawled over the pavement.
Shopping at the piles is fast and frantic, and involves a lot of active digging. A glimpse of the world’s most beautiful fabric could get lost in a single churn; one can’t be too precious about what you might find here. Fitted velvet dresses, funky bomber jackets, florals and flared pants, there really is no limit or boundary to what’s on display. It’s anyone’s game. Among the giant piles of fabric is buried treasure, and you’ll find it if you’re willing to excavate.
This has become part of a thrifty business model that’s clothing the young and beautiful of South Africa in threads that are old and sometimes ugly. That’s part of the statement. Those who are willing to churn through the whirlwind street that is the piles get to purchase some incredible pieces and curate the wrack at their next pop-up. With no fixed location and no steady supplier, thrift curators are styling the streets of SA by making the second-hand thread shopping experience a lot less frantic.
Soweto’s Dhopa Dhopa are a duo bringing the second hand rail shopping experience to their social scene, TINZ and In Bloom Clothing are styling out the streets of Durban. One Cape Town curator, Lauren Britts, uses her collection, Out The Closet, to promote inclusivity, gender fluidity and body positivity. The beauty of these clothes is their enigmatic history. Their time period might be guessed by their style, but the story of who owned them before or bought them first will remain a mystery woven into the fabric forever, taking on new stories from new owners. It’s a sustainable business model that allows owners to curate their own aesthetics and supply those around them with a one-of-a-kind vintage piece at a great price that will never be seen on anybody else, except maybe someone’s gran.