Digging for fashion finds in Tunisia's famous 'fripes'

Dior for a dollar, Sabyasachi for a song – Tunisia's secondhand markets are a clothes hound's paradise

The thrill of the hunt — digging for the perfect vintage denim in one of Tunis' fripes.  Photo: Erin Clare Brown / The National
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"Ladies, ladies, ladies! Get yourself a dress – three dinars – you'll be wed tomorrow!"

The call is from a young man in a jaunty tracksuit, behind a table where a gaggle of middle-aged women are sifting through mounds of womenswear.

Fatma Aissa, 22, rolls her eyes. She's come to the Ezzouhour fripe – one of Tunisia's open-air secondhand clothing markets – looking for love at first sight, but with a blazer or a pair of leather trousers, not a man.

As she digs through a mound of printed scarves at a table near by, her friend and business partner, Wided Asly, 20, tells me that, just like love, the first rule of the fripe is simple: "Don't look for anything specific. Let the right thing find you."

Fatma and Wided, who run Goya Thrift, an Instagram shop of fripe finds, tell me they bonded over their love of fashion when they met studying business at university. Wided says it took some doing, but "Fatma converted me to the fripe".

"Growing up it wasn't something to be proud of," Wided says. Her family loved to thrift, and like an estimated 70 per cent of Tunisian families, relied on second-hand clothes to fill their closets. "I was kind of ashamed," she says.

Most of the clothing in Tunisia's fripes originates in Europe or the United States, where much of it is donated. A complex, often informal, network of brokers and dealers buys, imports and sorts the clothing for type and quality, then sells it in 100 kilogram bales to individual hawkers. Hundreds of neighbourhood fripe markets exist across Tunisia.

Fatma says her family turned their nose up at the fripe, viewing it as low class, but, as a curvy teenager who did not fit neatly in either straight or plus sizes, she saw the fripe as a kind of fashion playground to find her own style on her own terms.

"I was always really proud to find pieces that fit me well and that I felt comfortable and confident in," she says.

As purchasing power wanes in the pandemic economy, more and more Tunisians are relying fully on the fripe to keep their families clothed. Tunisia's National Institute of Statistics estimates the prices of new clothing and shoes have gone up by nearly 50 per cent in the past five years while salaries have stagnated or fallen.

But it is not just necessity that drives the fripe economy: patient sifting can be rewarded with high-end finds, such as an Hermès scarf, Jean-Paul Gaultier striped tee, or original Levi's 501s hidden among the cast-off bowling league T-shirts or decade-old cargo shorts, all for just a few dollars. Fatma says in recent years she has started to see more and more wealthy people digging through the tables.

"Everyone goes to the fripe, but not everyone will tell you they do."

Fatma and Wided are not necessarily scouring the piles for big-name brands, but are drawn to colour, pattern, and material.

"The most important pieces aren't Chanel, they're ones that make you discover something new in your personal style," Fatma says.

She is rummaging through a table of men's trousers when she unearths a pair with dramatic front pleats. Her eyes widen. It is only after she wraps the waist around her neck to check for size – "rule number two of the fripe: know your size" – that she realises the trousers are Armani.

At the fripe, I learn to browse with my fingers as much as my eyes. My hands weave through a pile of men's suit jackets and blazers, skipping past the polyester and tunnelling deeper until I brush something magical and latch on. After a few good tugs I unearth an Italian cashmere blazer in a jaunty check and 90s boxy cut. I put it on. "You look like such a boss! So intimidating!" Wided says.

I hand the salesman 3 dinars ($1.06), and am awed.

Fatma tells me she got into the fripe "for the love of fashion, the love of digging", but that as she and Wided built their brand they became more attuned to the ecological impact of thrifting. The UN Environmental Programme estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and puts an incredible strain on water resources.

"The ecological waste of fast fashion is huge," Fatma says. "Right now, with social media, especially TikTok, the trend cycles are so short and waste is so big" as teens try new looks and discard them a few days or weeks later.

"Since I started thrifting I've stopped buying fast fashion," Wided says. "If you fripe you can still get that trendy style but you can put your own touch on it."

After our success at the menswear table, the two weaved through stalls selling late summer fruit, fresh sardines, knick-knacks and plush toys just outside the main clothing market when Fatma careened around to unearth something tucked on a table between electric toasters and a few pairs of sandals. Her target: a pair of white Converse All Star high-tops, size 39.

"I've been hoping to find these for months," she says in a reverent whisper.

She inspects them closely for wearability. The canvas has been scrubbed clean, the eyelets are all there, although the previous owner graffitied the midsole with a permanent marker.

"Some teen has lived her best life in these," she says with a smile as she fishes five dinars out of her coin purse and hands it over to the vendor.

She says those stories inspire her as much as anything. "I don't know who you are, I don't know what you went through, but I'm imagining it. I really see the clothes like people – they had lives before, and I am excited to take that story on."

Updated: October 09, 2021, 1:14 PM