Jeans in every shade of blue are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling, while colourful dresses are hung on rails. Jaunty half-sleeved shirts vie for attention alongside their more formal counterparts, and jackets in cotton, denim, leather and tweed catch the eye. Abayas and nightgowns hang loose even as a tightly bunched-up package of mysterious garments beckons enticingly. Some of these clothes are available for as little as Dh1, others for Dh15 or even Dh5, the common denominator being that they are all second-hand. Welcome to Abu Dhabi's thrift shops – vintage spoils, musty smells and all.
'Ready made' is key
If you live in or have visited the capital, chances are you've passed by these stores several times, oblivious to the cut-price treasures that lie within. Dozens of them are located along the four-kilometre stretch along noisy, bustling Hamdan Street, one of the oldest areas in the city. You can spot one alone in a corner, or a string of them lined up next to each other. Oh, and don't forget to check behind buildings. Just look out for the words "ready made" in the shopfront names, and that should indicate an abundance of second-hand gear available within. Some of these stores have been around for decades, and new ones sprout up from time to time.
Bodega, for example, is a few months old, and brings to Abu Dhabi the fascinating Filipino tradition of ukay ukay. In the context of thrift shopping, this translates to "rummaging through" from Tagalog, and represents the act of searching mounds of attire to find the perfect item for you. The hybrid store offers a mix of cheaper ukay ukay and premium second-hand brands, and is run by the welcoming Asma Manlukataw, who demarcates the items clearly by placing the cheaper in piles on the floor and the premium pieces on hangers.
She tells The National that activity peaks weekends, with a throng of shoppers making a beeline for that mysterious bundle mentioned earlier. "You can see the crowd, you cannot even pass through the store," she says. Every Thursday evening, Manlukataw ceremoniously unwraps the ukay ukay bundles, which she notes seem to be the most exciting part for customers. "If they found out that the product is opened, already they interest," she says.
The thrifting culture
In the Philippines, the practice of ukay ukay began in the 1980s, while Tokyo has such a thriving thrift-shopping culture that it is referred to as the thrifting capital of the world. In the United States, thrift shops are a $14.4 billion (Dh52.8bn) industry that has grown 21 times faster than regular retail over the past three years. The United Kingdom is home to street upon street of charity shops, such as those that donate to Oxfam and the British Heart Foundation. Evidently, thrifting is a global sensation, and Abu Dhabi is no stranger to the concept.
While Bodega is a newbie, it is surrounded by thrift shops that have been around for decades. Jamal Kamal Ready Made Garments Shop lies a hundred down from Bodega, tucked into the side of an apartment block on 5th Street.
Before you even enter, you are greeted by garments that spill outside. The trail continues as you walk in; this is a modest-sized space, but every inch houses piles of clothes. Behind a desk sits owner Jamal Khan, who has run this shop for 20 years.
Bargaining a must
"The good-quality pieces go fast," says Khan, whose most expensive garment to date – a sparkly white dress – sold for Dh120. "For the rest, maybe some of which are flawed, or the colour isn't nice, or there's a button missing, those sell for cheap – like two or three dirhams."
Prepare to bargain in these shops for that is the norm. Here, shopping is more than just about taking home a product; it's an experience. The better the haggler, the lower the price he or she can snag. "They have to bargain," exclaims Khan. It's at once an observation and a lament, but the fact is that the owners don't mind; they seem to expect it. "They must, must, must bargain. They don't take it like in the mall … there are even people who say: 'Baba, give it to me for free,'" he says wryly. Manlukataw adds: "As long as I have my profit of two or three [dirhams], I want my product to move." However, unlike the crowds that gather every weekend in anticipation of the Bodega bundle, Khan says business has slowed down. "It was booming just three years prior today," he says. "Now the place doesn't get 50 people."
In her approach, Manlukataw prioritises customer experience above all else. With a pristine space, a dedicated fitting room and faith in her buyers, Manlukataw is building a loyal base for herself.
“I even have one customer who asked me to reserve.” It’s an unheard of concept for a thrift store, so what was her response? “I reserved it. For her, I did.” From rental requests to promises to pay later but buy now, she has heard it all, but she believes being diplomatic and accommodating is part and parcel of the business, and will guarantee her success. “I know how to handle my customer, this is the most important.”
An eco-friendly activity
Also important is the need of the hour that stores such as these address. The environmental effects of the fashion business – the second most polluting industry – are alarming. The overuse of natural resources, the mass production that goes on in sweatshops and the carbon footprint of the transportation of garments contribute to the industry's detrimental consequences. Manufacturing clothes, treating textiles and producing artificial dyes also produce a significant amount of toxic by-products.
And then there’s all the waste. Consider: on average, 15 per cent of materials are wasted at every stage of the production process, from fibre to finished garment. Of the 400 billion metres of textiles produced each year, about 60bn metres end up on the factory floor. Textiles such as polyester and other synthetic materials do not decompose in a scalable timeline in landfill sites, while wool emits methane, a major contributor to global warming. Ninety-five per cent of all textiles are recyclable, but up to 75 per cent of them end up being trashed anyway.
Thrift shops, by definition, help keep more items out of landfill. With so many garments looking for a new home, thrifting just seems like the smart choice. It's an activity that combines perfectly wearable clothes, reasonable prices, support for local businesses and environmental-friendliness, so perhaps we should all look upon vintage as a winner.