BORN TO SHOP
One morning, a few months ago, you may have been wakened by that anthem of feminine frivolity, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna to Have Fun, which was used as a backdrop to an early morning radio story about a group of Whitehorse women at a clothing exchange.
I was there.
And, as was relayed over the airwaves, we shared many laughs.
There was some hooting, some ooh-ing and ahh-ing. It was a good way to get free clothes.
And it was a blast.
It was something else too. Something Lauper’s song didn’t quite capture: It was political.
That sunny afternoon, eight women met at a girlfriend’s apartment each loaded with a garbage-bag of clothing, or more, that, for one reason or another, wasn’t being worn anymore.
And from a giant pile in the middle of her living room floor, we rummaged and we weeded and we tried stuff on.
Almost every stitch of clothing in that pile was in great condition.
After all, even though this was gift-giving out of garbage bags, we weren’t about to offer up trash.
Most of the clothes had, at one time or another, been intensely loved, or at least desired, but had unfortunately been judged unsuitable by its owner.
That meant there was a lot of ‘selling’ going on of favourite outfits, like puppies in need of a good home.
That day, I adopted two wool sweaters, a little black dress, a pink tie-dye sundress, two T-shirts and a yellow bandana.
Others at the party cleaned up on jeans, which, as every woman knows, are a pain to shop for, and even shoes.
One friend brought a load of sweatshirts home to her husband. Everyone left with something, even the radio reporter.
It’s safe to say that every woman there — most of them much snazzier dressers than I — loved the idea of the exchange.
It was like being in high school again raiding our best friend’s closet.
But this time, she had more clothes, more sizes, and a friendly panel of women to serve as our mirror.
Our plan was to offer up anything that wasn’t claimed by us to Kaushee’s Place and the Salvation Army.
That got me thinking.
Although I never asked, I bet some of us who happily carted home a load of hand-me-downs that day probably had never purchased a used piece of clothing from the Salvation Army — or any other thrift store, for that matter.
The likeliest one, besides me (a Sally Anne devotee), was the hostess, a former Salvation Army volunteer, who proclaimed in the midst of all our girly fun: “I think there should be a moratorium on the production of clothing.”
A moratorium on the production of clothing!
Could you just imagine?
At first there would be rioting. But soon, as is the nature of our system, there would be capitalization.
The boutiques would transform into used clothing marts and the stores would distinguish themselves: One would sell used clothing at rock-bottom prices; one would advertise itself as having the least-worn clothing; another would boast clothing that had once been the priciest; one would have the best quality; another the hottest name brands, and, finally, there would be stores that sold clothing that had once been owned, but never worn, a fact authenticated by that priceless piece of evidence — the dangling price tag.
There would be just as many apparel stores as there are now. However, nothing in them would be new.
As a chronic collector of hand-me-downs, it’s not hard for me to imagine a society of people dressed in used, or even shabbier, clothing.
I imagine it would just become trendy.
Maybe you remember a time, not too long ago, when used clothing was ‘in.’
I sure do.
About six years ago, in one of the trendiest clothing boutiques in Toronto, I browsed through an entire section of used T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of small town hardware stores, high school soccer teams, gas stations and logging companies.
I was shocked to find out the old-style mesh/foam trucker caps had made another comeback, as had ‘80s-era ski jackets.
But, as with any trend, the popularity of vintage clothing led, paradoxically, to the mass production of it, and most of us ended up buying a new pair of jeans, pre-ripped and faded that lasted just long enough for the next fad to take over.
The used look is ‘out’ now except among hippies — and people like me, who trudges stubbornly onward in the frayed, brown, corduroy GWG jacket that I rescued nine years ago from my best friend’s uncle — who had donated it to our yard sale.
But that doesn’t mean people aren’t buying used.
Consider the popularity of Value Village stores and, in the Maritimes, the Guy’s Frenchys phenomenon.
Guy’s Frenchys opened its first store in Digby, Nova Scotia, in 1972 when used clothing was a relatively new concept.
Since then, 17 more have opened in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, “processing thousands of pounds of clothing each and every day,” according to the company’s website.
Many of these stores are literally warehouses filled with giant categorized bins of quality used clothing with name brands like Gap, Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic.
The cost is comparable to the Salvation Army and the price of each item is preset and never varies, regardless of the name brand.
Frenchys has attracted more than a few devoted followers.
During trips around New Brunswick and Nova Scotia this summer, I heard tales of Guy’s Frenchys bus trips and road trips.
I even heard of something called “Frenchys arm,” apparently caused from rummaging for hours through its massive clothing bins.
Not everyone shops Frenchys for political reasons. Some do it because they can’t afford new clothes, some like the variety, some are cheap and some, like me, just can’t see the logic in buying new when there are perfectly good, perfectly inexpensive used clothes that still have some life in them. (OK, and I’m cheap).
Whatever the motive, the effect is revolutionary.
Buying used is becoming acceptable and organized and more and more clothes are enjoying two and three lifetimes now instead of one.
The backlash, of course — and this is already happening across the industries — is that new clothes will be made more cheaply, with thinner fabrics and looser stitching, so that they can’t possibly last one lifetime, let alone two.
A society filled with people wearing second-hand, cheap clothing is not something I would wish for.
For now, in downtown Whitehorse we have a good variety of second-hand clothing to choose from between the Salvation Army’s thrift store and two consignment shops.
The way consignment works is that you bring in your gently used clothing and the store gives you a percentage profit from its sale.
Consignment stores are more expensive than the Salvation Army, a not-for-profit organization that has everything it sells donated and its proceeds put towards Salvation Army charities, such as the local homeless shelter.
They are also more expensive than Frenchys, which is large enough that it can buy its used clothing in bulk from distributors in the United States.
But consignment stores are still much cheaper than buying new, and the quality, locally at least, is like-new or close to it.
One of the local women’s consignment stores, Sequels, carries some high end clothing, including a few racks of brand new name brands such as Esprit that probably attracts a younger clientele.
The store has a chic interior that makes you feel like you’re on an extravagant shopping spree. And there are lots of clothes.
Another reason to support Sequels is that it helps unemployed women in the territory by partnering with the Employment Central to buy outfits that they can wear to job interviews or new jobs.
The Employment Central account at the store was started by Rotary, but has survived because of the generosity of customers, particularly the Yukon’s MP Larry Bagnell, who leaves the consignment profits from what he delivers from Parliament Hill in the Employment Central account.
Donna Sippel opened Sequels five years ago as an avid consignment shopper and has watched the pre-loved clothing business flourish since then.
“I’ve seen in the last few years a marked acceptance of it,” she says.
And-Again, which opened more recently and sells more than just clothing, definitely has more of a thrift shop appeal, which is just fine for shoppers like me.
And-Again owner Janice Lattin suggested that for people who are interested in buying local, buying used, supporting certain charities, and cleaning out their closets, consignment shopping is just the thing to do.
Bring in your consignment items, she says, and when they sell, donate the money you’ve collected and use the tax receipt for a rebate at tax time.
Maybe the act of shopping at a used clothing store doesn’t seem like a political act to you, but it appears it might be hard not committing one once you get there.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.