Thrift fashion is not a new concept; in the past decade, we witnessed how second-hand clothing evolved from being an under-trend to a solution.
A couple of years ago, for instance, Lovebirds used to be a vintage shop — until they turned into a brand for minimalist clothing that is at the helm of this fashion subculture today. Amrita Khanna, its co-founder, had launched the store in Delhi in 2010, giving cognisance to a burst of offbeat artists, each one strikingly different in appearance from the other. This was perhaps my first lesson on individuality. As a novice in the magazine business at that time, I was being trained to spot trends, the brands that were designing those trends, and who was influential. I never questioned that line of thought, just followed it. Looking at a reflection of myself in a vintage, white suit with shoulder-pad details (something I could never have discovered in a high street store) was when fashion, for me, became intertwined with the process of self-expression and finding a purpose.
It takes time for audiences to adapt to alternate ideas, and today, we are rethinking our choices and returning to the old ways of making less, buying less, and to the art of curation. Thrift fashion encompasses recycling used clothing, selling unwanted garments and buying pre-owned pieces at a lesser value. This prevents clothing from ending up in landfills, thus reducing its carbon footprint and maintaining circular fashion ecosystems. “Curation” has become a serious business buzzword, and creative thinking is allowing values to align with execution. With repetitive fashion trends becoming too common, owning a garment that nobody else has can be a rare gift.
Championing mindfulness are sisters Tashi and Tara Mitra. They have decided to stop buying fast fashion and have chosen the more sustainable route of shopping for secondhand clothing. Tashi Mitra, 27, graduated in 2016 with a major in philosophy from Pomona College and is currently working at a life-skills education non-profit, Dream A Dream. Tara Mitra, 23, is a student at Wesleyan University, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and philosophy.
In an exclusive feature styled by them, the siblings speak about how a shift in perspective has led them to make more informed choices….
What are your thoughts on environmentally conscious fashion?
Tara: The fashion industry’s impact is vast and varied, from labour exploitation to climate change. Fast fashion has become popular for its affordable prices, but many don’t realise that this affordability comes at a price. Marginalised communities end up feeling the violence of fast fashion through long hours and low wages. They even experience climate change more intensely because of phenomena like gentrification. The market allows for alienation, allowing us to forget about the origins of our clothes, the people who make them and the plants that provide the material.
Tashi: Despite an increasing awareness of injustice and lack of environmental sustainability, the fast fashion industry continues to grow. What we often tend to forget or ignore, is that with every off-the-rack shirt that we wear for two months before it is lost in the depths of our closets, we are complicit in destroying our environment. Today, the fashion industry accounts for around 10 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions and is responsible for massive water consumption and micro-plastic pollution of the ocean. Until we recognise the role each one of us plays in creating these large-scale realities, we will remain unable to create a healthy and thriving world.
How long has it been since you stopped buying fast fashion?
Tara: I stopped maybe somewhere between 2016-2017….
Tashi: It’s been four or five years, between late 2015 and early 2016.
What led to your decision of not indulging in fast fashion anymore?
Tara: I remember Tashi mentioning that she was only going to buy thrifted clothes because of the violence inherent in fast fashion. That really stayed with me since I had become attuned to labour exploitation in the animal agriculture industry through my work on human and non-human relationships. I realised that being vegan was not enough, especially since I had the privilege and ability to do more. Giving up fast fashion wasn’t difficult because the outfits felt too generic; everyone having the same clothes is not exciting.
Tashi: Throughout middle and high school, my idea of fashion was entirely based on the trends I picked up from television and the movies. I loved Forever 21 and H&M and would excitedly shop at these stores every time that we travelled. Things changed when I was 18 and went to Pomona College in Claremont, California, for undergraduate studies. It was in Claremont that I first discovered thrift stores. Initially, I was just blown away by the variety of fabrics, prints and patterns. Each piece was really unique and affordable. With time, I began to understand the impact of the relentless production of fast fashion, leading to labour exploitation and environmental destruction. I could see how the culture of having new wardrobes every year and the obsession with trends was incredibly damaging. I started to view my clothes as an extension of who I am and what I believe in, which don’t change with the seasons. I now buy pieces that I know I will love and cherish for most of my life.
Has your education been a catalyst in your changed outlook towards fashion?
Tara: My education opened my eyes to the hierarchical structure of society, where some have a lot more privilege than others. I realised that my privilege comes with the responsibility to minimise the harm I perpetuate. I was also exposed to ideas about commodification and alienation where, according to Marx, commodification brings products within the realm of “things”, separating them from the realm of life and beings. Buying thrift has also been a way of reconnecting clothes (objects) to life (both people and non-human beings like plants and animals).
Tashi: Definitely! Education has helped me recognise the ways in which we are interconnected and how my consumption patterns perpetuated exploitation. My philosophy major gave me an opportunity to consider the implications of my actions and my responsibility towards making ethical choices in fashion and otherwise.
Why second-hand clothing?
Tara: Second-hand clothing means that I do not support large corporations who operate on the sole basis of accumulating profit at any cost. As discussed earlier, the costs are real and felt by real beings, and those are costs I am not willing to bear on my conscience. Second-hand also means that there is a story behind every product, a place they once lived, people they once adorned and represented. The past lives of those clothes stay with them even when they aren’t made obvious by thrift stores, but there is something beautiful about living with the whole life of the clothing.
Tashi: For me, the biggest reason for buying second-hand or used clothing is that it enables me to stop voting with my money for big corporations that are killing the planet and people, for profit. If we all bought used clothing, we could create a recycling community, preventing large-scale pollution and loss of habitat created by the limitless production of garments.
How did you clean out your wardrobe once you made the decision? Did you still hang on to old clothes?
Tara: We donate and give away the clothes we no longer wear; we need to share the love! However, there are some pieces that are very hard to part with, especially the ones that are second-hand or thrifted. And even some fast fashion purchases from long ago, since I don’t have the need to look for a similar thing again.
Tashi: I still have some clothes that I bought six or seven years ago from brands like Zara. I never felt like I had to get rid of those clothes to make a statement because that would have only created more waste. I tend to hoard clothes, and it takes me a long time to get around to giving away the things I no longer wear often. But every year, Tara and I go through an intense cleansing, and we donate our clothes.
How do you think your not buying fast fashion affects the larger picture?
Tara: We need to do the best we can in alignment with our values. We will never be able to do everything, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do it at all. Even for one person, the amount we buy in a year adds up. By withholding our consumption from corporations, we are withholding that much money and popularity from those companies. Therefore, while we do not contribute to the demand for fast fashion (Forever 21 has actually closed many locations in the US and worldwide because of their lack of business), we also promote small businesses and thrift stores through our unique aesthetic. When I see exciting clothes that are one-of-a-kind, it makes me want to get my own (different) one-of-a-kind piece and I think others might feel the same way. It makes the clothes feel special.
Tashi: While it’s just a drop in the ocean, my decision to stop buying fast fashion means there’s one less vote for these big corporations. I hope that as more of us who have the privilege to make this decision do so, we can create a culture of a recycling economy, one that’s based on compassion for the earth and all living beings.
Has not succumbing to changing trends and fads changed the way you look at yourself and fashion in general?
Tara: Adapting to slow fashion has helped me express myself the way that I want to, the way that I am. This is also to do with my age, and I am learning more about myself every day. Thrift has allowed me to personalise my style since I have to make other people’s clothes my own. I think my gender fluidity has also been given space to be explored through my fashion since I am always looking at ways to make clothes personal to my body and my identity. I realised that just because someone has parted with a piece of clothing, it doesn’t mean it isn’t great for another.
Tashi: Yes, definitely. I think moving away from trends helped me develop a sense of self-confidence and self-expression that I didn’t have before. My clothes have become a way in which I express my creativity and who I am.
Do you share clothing and have favourites from each other’s wardrobes?
Tara: Yes! This is the best part. We share all the things we can both fit into, like shirts, tops, some dresses, and shoes (we have the same shoe size). We rarely share bottoms since our bodies are different. Because we buy things that don’t have replicas, it is always fun to share. Our clothes do different things on our bodies; it is exciting to see the way the same shirt can look so different and yet equally striking on each of us. I don’t really know how to differentiate between our wardrobes so choosing favourites is difficult. I love all our finds! I found these amazing black boots with heels at Savers and wear them all the time. Some of the Grandma Would Approve shirts are gorgeous and so versatile too, like the black shirt with a laced white collar from Aima Vintage, or shirts that Tashi bought from the streets of Bali that are amazing and colourful. It’s hard to pick.
Tashi: Yes, we share most of our wardrobes, particularly shirts and tops. It’s fun because with me being in India and Tara in Connecticut, every time she comes home for her vacations, we have an expanded range of clothes to choose from.
Do you buy designer wear? If so, which brands do you prefer and why do you choose them?
Tara: I buy only from small designers who produce on a small scale — like a designer from Coorg who designs blouses, from Dastkar and from Indian artisans who create beautiful clothes and jewellery. I try to stay away from non-vegan clothing and shoes (such as leather, silk) and only buy those from second-hand sources in order to prevent adding to the demand for newly made non-vegan products.
Tashi: Yes, but designer wear is usually a treat because it tends to be more expensive. My aunt Radhi Parekh runs a gallery in Mumbai called Artisans’ Art Gallery and Shop, and I often meet designers and craftspeople through her exhibitions. In fact, one of my favourite pieces is this sheer Shibori tie-dye sari created by Ryoko Haraguchi that I bought at Artisans. I love Eká and AlterEgo. I choose these designers based on their values and practices; it’s important that they are committed to transparency of their supply chains and labour practices.
When you stopped buying fast fashion, did it also involve lingerie? If so, what are the alternate options for lingerie and sanitary in slow fashion?
Tara: I don’t ever wear a bra, so that has not been a problem. And I haven’t had to buy other underwear in a really long time. I will admit, I have bought three items from Savage x Fenty, but I love Rihanna, and I have seen her attention to social justice and philanthropy work. She really knows how to make clothes for diverse bodies that differ in shape, size and skin tone. I have bought corsets from Dodo thrift shop too.
Tashi: For bras and corsets, there are several vintage and thrift options available. However, due to hygiene concerns, there are challenges with underwear. I try to buy underwear that is made of sustainable material, like at Tailor & Circus.
What are your thoughts about individuality and how does buying pre-owned clothing affect that?
Tara: I think western individuality has gotten too much attention; we need a balance between community and individuality because it allows us to be more empathetic and connected. However, expressing my individuality through my aesthetic is really significant to me. It is a space where I can express my queerness and identity that is malleable, wearing more masculine strong lines, aggressive colours at certain times and more fluid cuts with pastels at others…. My identity is not stable and nor is my clothing, and that is what is fun.
Tashi: With vintage and thrift clothing, each piece is unique. You’re not buying these off the rack with countless other copies. You’re also not buying them because you’ve seen someone famous modelling them. So, in a sense, buying thrift gives us an opportunity to discover who we are and how we want to express ourselves authentically outside of what’s currently trending.
What would you suggest to a slow fashion novice?
Tara: Just have fun with it. You will find what you are looking for. It just requires more effort. I had been desperately looking for rain boots for a few months while in college, and somehow walked into a thrift store in New York that had one pair whose design I liked, and they happened to fit me! It’s more exciting to find something in that way; it feels like it was meant to be mine!
Tashi: You don’t have to do it all at once. Start by slowing down, being more mindful about what you’re buying. It’s okay if you can’t cut down on fast fashion one hundred per cent but do what you can, given your circumstances and constraints.
Any words of wisdom for your generation?
Tara: Live mindfully, be aware of your positionality in the world, do what you can within the limitations of your influence. Recognising our agency and privilege and using them for social justice when possible, goes a long way, both ideologically and practically.
THRIFT BRANDS AND SHOPS