My love for thrift markets was born not out of choice, but out of sheer necessity due to meagre financial resources during my college years, and whenever I had a few shillings of surplus funds you would either find me at the Ngara Market or at Gikomba on an early morning carefully digging through the piles of clothes the hawkers had laid out on the sidewalk.
Photography – Charles Ngomo, Royal Reel Photography
Now let’s talk about Ngara. Some of the street vendors, if not most, were operating their business illegally without a license. And every single evening I went shopping, sure as clockwork, the City Council officers would hit at prime shopping time, firing off their tear gas into the masses in the market, while the hawkers would grab their goods and scatter for safety in
all directions. The unlucky few would be hurled into a police van. We were always on our toes, ensuring our transactions were quick; I am talking about swift bargaining, rapid packing and payment – and the shopper would always make sure to have small money at hand as the few seconds wasted looking for change could be the moment they struck. It all used to happen so fast, but luckily there would be some shelter nearby where we could hide and save ourselves from the sting and burn of tear gas in our eyes.
I didn’t mind that excitement at all – and after a couple of days, like a moth to a flame, I would be back to discover new stylish and unique pieces and get high on my lucky finds. But in retrospect I admit that I probably should have been a bit more careful about the risks I was taking.
Those were the days…
Fast forward. A couple of years later, I moved to Europe for fashion school. So much ease in shopping was afforded to me. I mean, straight from Ngara to Oxford Street and Bond Street in London, Champs Elysées in Paris and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, to name a few. The glitz and glam was overwhelming, but strange as it is; I missed the excitement, challenge and surprises that came with thrift shopping back home.
Mixing designer and high street pieces with thrift finds is something many Kenyans are very good at to the extent that I may call it a key element of Kenyan fashion.
Some of you may be surprised to know that probably around 60% of the pieces I pick up still have their original labels and are unworn. And sometimes you may even stumble across designer labels, like an awesome hat I once picked up for a tiny fraction of the original price. In any case, no matter what you bring home from your thrifting experience, you have saved yourself a lot of money, have had fun and expanded your wardrobe with unique stuff. Thrifting was the only option I had back then, but now it’s a choice, and I have found comfort and ease in shopping at a variety of markets safely away from the drama and hassle I was once so fond of.
The most oft-repeated question I get is why I rarely wear local designers. But trust me, I actually do. I love Tanzania’s Eskado Bird and Sheria Ngowi Ghana’s Titi Ademola and Mimi Plange, Nigeria’s Iamsigo, South Africa’s Gert Johan, Kenya’s Katungulu Mwendwa, Lalesso, Adele Dejak, Kiko Romeo – to mention just a few. It is however a perennial problem that indigenous textile industries and designers across many African countries are still unable to compete with the lower cost of second hand clothing. And with the majority of people struggling with a cash flow in the red, thrifting is their only option. Let us rock our favourite designer brands as often as we can, keeping in mind that wearing mtumba is not a tale of woes, since tens of thousands of our compatriots are earning their living in this industry as well.
Today I am wearing two major pieces which have both been thrifted, which, as I guess most of you know by now, is one of my favorite ways to expand my wardrobe.
choker and shoes as seen here