Growing up in the 1990s, Linnotha and Lumri Jajo fondly remember shopping for secondhand clothes at women-run stores in their home town of Ukhrul. Clothes were sold out of bundles instead of on hangers or shelves. Each shop would keep several piles of clothes that they rummaged through to find dresses, jeans, jackets, shoes and bags. “Secondhand shopping is all about having a good eye. It’s a slow process of sieving through clothes and checking for damages,” says Linnotha, now 32. “But we were never short of good clothes.”
In the Northeast Indian state of Manipur, where Ukhrul is located, secondhand clothes have long been accepted. Not so elsewhere in India. As Mumbai-based Namrata Iyer, a 21-year-old design student who started The Local Thrift in March 2020, puts it, “For most Indians, secondhand clothes are meant for poor people.”
However, the pandemic has prompted a change in attitudes. Researchers into consumer behaviour have noted a trend for responsible buying — a new frugality and appreciation of “voluntary simplicity” — in urban India. Combine that with rising environmental consciousness among India’s urban young, and the conditions are ripe for a new appreciation of the importance of secondhand clothing in a world of finite resources.
In the Northeast of India back in the 1990s, there wasn’t much else on offer for the Jajo sisters. Foreign retail stores and businesses made few inroads in the 1990s despite economic liberalisation in 1992 that enabled foreign direct investment. Military operations and curfews also curtailed economic activity in the state, which was troubled with insurgencies. That left little room for the local economy to grow at the pace of the rest of India.
For clothes, locals in the state of Manipur have relied for decades on apparel from the street markets of Hong Kong and Bangkok making its way through Bangladesh or Myanmar, both of which share long and porous borders with India’s Northeast. Even more abundant are bundles of used clothes sourced from charities in the West and Asia, nations such as South Korea, proving popular among the region’s predominantly indigenous tribal communities.
Fast forward to 2019 when secondhand “vintage” clothes began dropping all over Instagram, a trend that the Jajo sisters were among the first in India to turn into a business with the launch of Folkpants, their boutique label. “Folkpants reflects our values and experiences, not to mention our love for fashion,” says Jajo, who co-founded the store with her sister after several encouraging garage sales at their home, now in New Delhi.
Although the first few drops sold out quickly, their business really surged forward after the Covid-19 pandemic forced the country into a strict lockdown in March 2020. “Our followers grew from about 3,000 to 11,000 in just a few months,” she says.
Folkpants’ collaboration with Smoke Wear.
© Prakrit Rai
It wasn’t just Folkpants. Dozens of Indian online thrift sellers contacted by Vogue Business report booming business during the lockdown. Their customers ignored early-pandemic health advice that emphasised the dangers of surface spread of the virus (it’s now recognised that Covid-19 is primarily airborne).
Nagaland-based stylist Asenla Jamir says she delayed the launch of Otsü Clothing Co. because of the pandemic until she realised that other stores were selling out their drops. “I was very sceptical since secondhand comes from different places and people wouldn’t want to wear it especially because of the pandemic,” she says. “But they didn’t care about it. In any case, secondhand items are sanitised in a laundry or at home by soaking it in hot water, salt and Dettol liquid.”
In recent years, fast fashion has grown at exceptional speed in the Indian market, boosted by the increase in urban middle class consumers. McKinsey has projected India’s clothing market to be worth $59.3 billion by 2022, the sixth largest globally. India has also emerged as a competitive sourcing hub in Asia, with an abundance of raw materials and plentiful cheap labour.
But young Indian consumers are increasingly aware of the environmental and humanitarian costs of fast fashion. Sustainability is a growing concern, especially among younger consumers. The surge of interest in secondhand fashion is a global trend. A 2019 report by analytics firm Global Data and online store Thredup estimated that the used fashion market will be worth $64 billion by 2028 — contrasting with the $44 billion fast fashion industry. In fact, India is already a major importer of used clothing, much of it known as “mutilated” because it is considered unwearable and is recycled into yarn to be re-exported worldwide.
Namrata Iyer sells Indian ethnic wear through her Instagram account, The Local Thrift.
© The Local Thrift
No one is expecting an overnight transformation of attitudes in India. Unlike the US and the UK where thrift stores have been around for much longer, shopping for secondhand clothes remains a niche phenomenon. Namrata Iyer sells Indian ethnic wear most successfully on her Instagram account, The Local Thrift. “That’s sold out because they are unique handmade pieces that you’d otherwise spend a bomb on,” she says.
Change is in the air. Slow as it may be, she notes a shift in consumer consciousness among the 18-24 age group of online consumers in metropolitan cities, who are very environmentally conscious in their lifestyle choices.
Meanwhile, in the Northeast, thousands of migrants, who have had to study or work in the bigger Indian cities for want of education and jobs back home, are returning home and experimenting with their knowledge and craft. Online thrift could emerge as a game changer for the region. “With our business, we’re able to provide an opportunity and exposure to so many young people in our home town, with diverse talents from modelling to photography,” says Jajo. “Moreover, we’re helping out the secondhand vendors for whom this is their only livelihood”
Delhi-based designer Vanlaldiki Varte, however, cautions against overenthusiasm for used clothing, given its record of undermining local garment production in West African countries. “It’s also really bad for Indian textiles,” she says, referencing the threat to the hand-woven textiles sector in the Northeast. Myntra and Ajio, two of the biggest Indian online fashion retailers, declined to comment for this story.
Finding the right balance remains a challenge. Otsü stands out as a label that blends ethnic Naga tribal design with Western vintage wear. For Jamir, who studied at India’s National Institute of Fashion Technology, upcycling secondhand clothes offers the best of both worlds. “I don’t go for a bulk order but handpick 10 to 15 pieces that will be perfect for the collection I’m planning,” she says. “With more individual stores popping up inside neighbourhoods, I can pick up better pieces that complement my designs.”
Lockdowns are now easing across India, with markets and shopping malls open for several months. But online thrift, to date, continues to flourish: Jajo says Folkpants drops still sell out rapidly.
“The kind of customers we have know what they want and wouldn’t mindlessly purchase anything,” she says. For Folkpants and a generation of new online secondhand specialists, the pandemic has been, as Jajo puts it, a “blessing in disguise”.
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