The first time I noticed the stigma connected to the use of second hand clothing in my home country, Ecuador, was when I bought a second hand black velvet jacket in a charity shop. This shop was run by the wives of diplomats from Europe and the United States, and none of my friends knew it even existed. I do not remember where I got the ‘tip’ that one could find amazing, unique and incredibly cheap clothes there, but as soon as I heard about this place, I went there and my obsession with old styles and second hand clothes began. I was 15 years old.
As promised to me, I found my beloved black velvet jacket and paid almost nothing for it. When I arrived home with it and told my mother where I got it, her reaction was surprisingly negative. The latter means that she first asked me not to tell anyone that I had gone shopping to this place, and second, to hand her the jacket to disinfect and wash it. Needless to say, this social stigma carried by second hand clothes results in the nonexistence of vintage clothes shops in the city. Also, one can find only very few second hand markets. The most famous second hand market in Quito used to be a bull ring 70 years ago, and then became a place “where one could find from a needle to an elephant” Nowadays, most of the market vendors in Plaza Arenas are middle-aged single or divorced women from low socioeconomic status who are the heads of their families, thus responsible for providing a living for their kids. On the other hand, the Plaza Arenas once had a reputation for selling stolen goods, and some people would go there to check if their recently stolen cell phone or camera, for example, was being sold there. I have borne witness that people actually have found stolen goods there and had to buy them back from the thieves. However, at the moment things at the market have become much more institutionalized and many vendors are paying taxes and the shoppers are getting invoices for their purchases. It was hard to imagine that happening in Plaza Arenas years ago, since the retailing of second hand items was always considered part of the informal work sector, with market vendors not being able to access employment rights and sometimes being caught in criminal networks which stole and then sold things in this market.
In the meantime, and in the other side of the world, Amsterdam is sort of a second hand clothes paradise. A world of small vintage shops, second hand clothes markets, clothing-swap events, big companies specialized in vintage and second hand clothes and even garbage hunters looking for used garments. The city is practically buried under a sea of clothes which circulate over and over again through commercial and noncommercial circuits, some as part of recycling efforts and others as part of a huge industry of importing and exporting of second hand clothes. As a matter of fact, according to a UN report of 1996, the second hand clothes industry was worth 1.410 million dollars.
In the smallest scale of this industry are those called ‘garbage hunters’, who travel through the city searching for objects that have been left in the street, even when they are still new and usable. Garbage hunting is also known as ‘treasure hunting’ and a lot of individuals in the city do this on a regular basis as a ways to make a living.
The next stop of the found treasures is the open air markets, especially the iconic Waterlooplein and the Noordermarkt. These travelling objects suffer several transformations on their way to the market. From a beloved possession to garbage and then they are turned again into a commodity.
On a bigger scale, second hand clothes are exported from The Netherlands to Europe by vintage clothing companies that handle tons and tons of clothes, classify them and then sell them to vintage shops in several countries. Such sorting process possesses certain characteristics that have to do with ideas about fashion, style, recycling and business.
One can find dozens of clothing recycling bins in Amsterdam. Big, green containers are distributed in different places in town. “Clothes with a future” is the slogan which attempts to promote not just recycling, but solidarity with those “less privileged” societies and it is written on every bin.
When the clothes are collected from these bins, the charity organizations have quite a big bulk. Because the volumes are huge, these institutions sell the clothes to recycling companies, which allows them to get funding for their various projects and to pay for the space they occupy in the city with the bins. Once the clothes arrive at the recycling companies, a new classification is made and the clothes are graded according to quality. The lowest grades go to India and Pakistan, where the clothes will actually stop being clothes and turned into towels, cleaning cloths and similar items. The next grade goes to Africa in general, where other traders will buy them to then sell them to market vendors pressed in small packages of 45/50 kilos. The following group of clothing is considered to be of very good quality and is sent to Eastern European countries and the Middle East. Finally, the best quality is for the Western European countries and this category is called “cream quality”, which is considered “the best of the best” and it represents 5 to maximum 10% of the total amount. This way, the clothes that once had the status of ‘donations’ transform yet again into commodities.
Then there are the small efforts of many individuals and groups to promote the swapping of clothes as opposed to buying them, in order to fight the pollution that results from the massive amount of clothes discarded by people and as a way to protest the terrible working conditions in which ‘fast fashion’ is produced by big clothing companies. Such events are inspired by anti-consumerism ideas. Swapping parties and events are organized regularly in the city. Additionally, the personal stories connected to the clothes that are most of the time absent when one finds these items on the commercial circuits, become very important at these spaces. One can find out when the piece of clothing was bought or acquired, where was it used or why was it being rejected. There are many meanings that we attach to objects and particularly to clothes, and they are more obvious when the item is given to us directly by the previous owner. A friend told me that in Germany, vintage enthusiasts prefer to refer to these clothes as ‘pre-loved’ instead of second hand, which goes to show that second hand clothes hold a particular story, a sort of biography which is also expressed in the multiple transformations they go through while they travel through places, bodies and meanings.
However, the biography of second hand clothes is one which transcends the limits of Amsterdam and The Netherlands, as these objects continue migrating to different parts of the world constantly as part of this hectic circulation of clothes triggered by the abundance of these objects in cities like Amsterdam. If these clothes were to travel to my home country, another meaning would be attached to them and it would be filled with stigma.