The Faster Way to Fashion: An Afternoon Spent Thrifting

On a sunny Saturday morning that contrasts the cold, gray and rainy days that have preceded it, I meet up with Karmen Vega in the parking lot that connects our apartment buildings. We exchange our slightly awkward hellos—this is the first time we’ve met face-to-face, and around us hangs a slightly uncomfortable air of “I’m about to hang out with someone I don’t know at all for the next hour or two.” Despite this, we smile and begin our trek to the nearby Goodwill Outlet.       

“I go thrifting about once a week,” Karmen tells me as we walk along a busy overpass. She has to redirect me when we come to a steep and grassy hill, and tells me that she usually carefully walks along the chain-link fence that connects the top of the hill to the bottom. We sidle our way down to a less-populated road adjacent to I-64, where the noise of speeding cars makes it so that I have to ask Karmen to repeat herself several times.

“I didn’t go thrifting by myself until I was in high school, but growing up, my mom always bought our things thrifted. It’s just what we did,” Karmen beckons me to step over a high concrete curb instead of going the long way around the guardrail that sits in front of the Goodwill’s entrance ramp.

For Karmen, thrifting her clothes and household items (she tells me that all of the pots, pans, and dishware in her apartment are thrifted) is just what makes the most sense. She hasn’t been to a mall or what she calls a “store store” in about a year, maybe a year and a half. At these kinds of stores that sell clothes so cheaply, Karmen says, there’s no way there wasn’t “some form of slavery” involved in their production—and she’s not wrong.

Thousands of miles away from the brightly-lit storefronts of popular clothing stores like Forever 21 and H&M are the people who spend hours every day making the clothes that retail for low prices like $12 or $15. These people, of whom 80% are women between the ages of 18 and 24, are likely receiving extremely low and unlivable wages and working for long hours in workplaces wherein they are not provided safe spaces and constantly receive threats of violence. The clothes produced in these countries, like Bangladesh and Vietnam, aren’t made to last for a long time. Rather, this clothing’s poor quality sustains the culture of consumerism and purchasing that feeds the awful working conditions of those in underdeveloped countries.

This unethical aspect of what has been coined “fast fashion” is what has turned so many young people on to the practice of thrifting. Every time you purchase an item of clothing from a branded store, these corporations receive the message that these unsustainable fashion practices are profitable and that they should continue to produce clothes in such a way. When you buy clothes secondhand, not only do you find yourself with a fuller bank account and some unique clothing items, but big clothing retailers never receive that message in the first place.

Karmen noticed that thrifting was becoming more hip and trendy a few years ago. She says that when oversized “mom jeans” and styles from the '80s and '90s came back into fashion, her favorite thrift stores became more picked-over and populated with millennials. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you consider the history of thrift stores as places meant for poor, working-class people and the contempt felt by upper-class citizens for these stores that they claimed sold dirty and unusable items, the irony of white, upper-middle-class teens thumbing through the racks at their local Savers is not lost. And even though thrifting is now the trendy thing to do, Karmen says, people sometimes still look at her funny when she tells them she bought something secondhand, as if where she bought it somehow makes it dirtier.

We walk into the Goodwill, and almost immediately, Karmen points over to the end of one of the long rows of trinket-filled bins that line the room. Standing there are two girls, probably college students, who are clean-cut and well-dressed. They differ from the slightly grubbier appearance of the rest of the store.

“You see people like that in here a lot, who obviously have a lot of money,” Karmen tells me.

As we begin to dig through the various knick-knacks, Karmen asks me if I go thrifting regularly. Suddenly embarrassed, I glance down at the Target-brand jeans I’m wearing (made in China) and the sweater my mom bought me from H&M (made in Myanmar). I admit that, no, I don’t really go thrifting often; my only real experiences of thrifting have been searching for an ugly Christmas sweater to wear to school and searching the racks for eligible costume pieces for plays and musicals. Needless to say, I’m going to need Karmen to guide me through this thrifting process.

I spot a shiny, polyester stuffed Santa Claus identical to one I know is sitting in storage in my parents’ attic. “Oh my god!” I pick it up and show it to Karmen, explaining the sentimentality behind the find. She laughs and says, “Yeah, a lot of the time [thrifting] is very nostalgic.”

We make our way up and down the rows, picking up a shirt or a jacket every so often and holding it up to try and guess if it will fit or not. Karmen holds up various items—a dented silver bowl, a laminated poster with a slightly off-center slogan about honesty printed on it—and tells me what purpose she can imagine them serving as décor.

By the time we come back around to the front of the store where Karmen’s cart will be weighed and priced by the pound, she’s picked out a mirror for her bedside table, a black turtleneck, a red collared shirt, and a flowy white shirt with rainbow stripes on the sides that prompted her to ask me if I thought it would make her look like a clown (I didn’t). The cart weighs 2.6 pounds, and Karmen hands over $2.57 to pay for her finds. We step out of the store, climb back over the concrete curb, and make our way down the road and back up the grassy hill by way of chain-link fence. Admittedly, my fingers are feeling a bit gritty and there’s definitely some dirt and dust trapped beneath my fingernails that wasn’t there when we first entered the Goodwill Outlet. But that doesn’t matter to either of us.

When we arrive back at the lot between our apartments, our goodbyes are a fair bit less awkward than our hellos had been. We smile and part ways, Karmen with new pieces to add to her wardrobe and myself with new appreciation for the art of thrifting and its numerous benefits.