20th Mar2017

Do You Catch My Thrift…?

by admin

Disclaimer: I write this as a lay person. I am a stray observer of the amorphic microcosm that is Braamfontein, wherein it is possible to see someone wearing a dashiki or Eileen Fisher kaftan, and someone else wearing a suit, all on the same street. I do not pretend to be privy to the mandate of those who adhere to particular aesthetics as part of a movement or trend (seeing as how my own dress sense resembles that of a particularly unstylish 12-year old). I do not pretend to understand the dynamics of these exclusive and kyriarchal communities, but give only evaluations and opinions.

What was once shopping out of necessity, largely due to the cost of purchasing clothing items at mainstream retail stores has morphed over the years into a noteworthy cultural phenomenon. Historically, religious and charity organisations such as the Salvation Army and Hospice Wits created thrift shops for individuals and families who could not afford to shop at up-market retail establishments. The proceeds of these sales were directed towards raising funds to help the needy, and the needy would generally be the people purchasing these clothes. In this way, thrift shops served as a unique means of recycling, and facilitating a relationship between the needy in their respective communities, allowing people to help one another without even needing to know each other. It seems to me that this cultural dynamic saw longevity through having what we can call a market for these second-hand goods; because, as long as people found themselves in dire and precarious socioeconomic positions, there would be a need to shop at thrift stores. Furthermore, with people being inherently consumeristic and holding ownership over clothing items and the like, there would be a need to dispose of them. Thrift shops allowed people to get rid of their possessions, knowing that they would no longer be hoarding, that these items would be sold at reasonable prices, and that the proceeds would go towards helping people in difficult situations.

The nature of thrifting, however, has evolved immensely. People now show a preference towards thrifting for the aesthetic value of the garments they might purchase. Thrifting has now been reclaimed as a means of counterculture and being alternative, and finds many parallels (and contradictions) with other aesthetic and taste-making movements such as Hipsterism.

Economics

Historically, thrifting found itself developing out of a need for people to find decent clothing at reasonable prices. This clothing happened to take the form of second-hand items donated to religious and charity groups for the sole purpose of helping those in need. I think it is safe to contend that this is no longer the biggest influence (if any) for individuals to opt for thrift shopping. The economics play on a marginal part of this, in that many students are looking for affordable clothing that is not only in good condition, but is aesthetically pleasing and vastly different from anything owned by anyone else. While thrifting, for the most part, harbours these economic considerations; one is also highly likely to find students with considerable buying power opting for thrifting. Their reason for thrifting differs in that they thrift because they can. Equally, thrift shops seem to have also done away with a business model that requires them to donate their profits to the needy. There is no longer an inclination towards this social justice and responsibility. This can further be attributed to the fact that organisations such as the Salvation Army and Hospice Wits no longer claim monopoly or ownership over this means of retail. This speaks to the current atypical culture attributed to thrifting. Further, is the irony behind complaints that I’ve heard that thrift stores are not necessarily as reasonable as they ought to be. This is largely because they have become fully-fledged businesses, boutiques that use the idea of thrifting as a selling point because it speaks to economics and buying power, culture and the aesthetic value of clothing, as well as the status one derives from simply looking different. It needs to be noted that for all intents and purposes, these establishments are businesses with expenses and overheads (however low), and a profit motive.

Counterculture

Traditionally, people would not want to be caught dead in someone’s hand-me-downs, either because they belonged to someone else before, or because they didn’t look new. Thrifting as counterculture has gone as far as reversing this, with a certain status and value being imbued to the aesthetic quality of certain clothing. This largely derives from the seemingly repetitive nature of media and fashion. This could be Bruno Mars channelling 90s R&B, to clothing that would have been worn by our parents as youths. This return to vintage fashion is not a new thing, and thrifting seems to be a by-product of that. Counterculture is essentially about opposing what mainstream producers of media deem to be the acceptable standards of anything. The irony rears its ugly head when we have to note just how mainstream even vintage fashion has become. Retailers that shouldn’t have this fashion in this utopian idea of counterculture in society are also selling and profiting from these trends and clothes. The counterculture and opposition to aesthetic hegemony also hits a brick wall when there are levels of kyriarchy displayed within counterculture. Kyriarchy generally concerns the othering and rejection of certain people within an alternative community that also finds itself being othered and kept in liminality. There is a degree of shaming even within these communities because for them to exist and thrive, there must be a mainstream or hegemony to oppose, even within their own ranks.

Thrift shops have been showing up more and more, but it could be argued that their existence also finds difficulty, particularly when a retail giant can mimic the aesthetic quality of their clothing, and making more of it because of their inherently greater capabilities, whereas thrift shops must rely on alternatives means of acquiring this clothing.

It seems then that innovation is essentially if one seeks to stay and thrive in this sort of business. I recently came across a particularly interesting case across Wits University’s East Campus. A small thrift shop run and managed by for youths named Amos, Teboho, Gila and Sello, called the Thrift Vintage Shop (T V Shop). I consider it prime real estate due to its adjacency to two educational institutions with students who possess an interest in thrifting.

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Their business finds its survival in selling not only clothes but a variety of snacks as well. Amos argues that this is to afford peace of mind to the individuals who choose to frequent the shop. They also have a loyal and attentive market of regular customers who patronise the establishment often and have a relationship with the managers of the store. The owners of the store also play an array of music, with a preference towards classical music. Their case is noteworthy because it works. In the short space of time between my visits, their stock seems to have expanded, both the clothing and the food. At one point they even lowered the prices of some of their snack to appease their customers. Amos states that starting the business required raising an amount of capital, and a degree of courage, opting to start their own enterprise, as opposed to working for someone else. Their business also finds survival through the fact that they are passionate about thrifting as a culture and only see it growing more, and that their clothing-snack variety sets them apart from everyone else in the same business.

Thrifting is not what it once was, and it shows no signs of turning back. It has abandoned its roots as being solely for charity, and has served as a means for people to group themselves aesthetically, and now allows youths to generate an income for themselves.

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28th Mar2012

Freakonomics

by admin

When I started reading Freakonomics, the prescribed textbook for my 3rd year B.Com Finance student friend, I was a bit skeptical. As skeptical as I am of much else her course has to offer. I am a Humanities graduate. And as I read, “Morality (I read: Humanities), it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work- whereas economics represents how it actually does work” (p. 11). I felt my skin curl and geared up possible defenses for the Human Sciences.

And there it was in the next sentence: “Economics is above all a science of measurement” (p. 11). I then heard Dr Mehita Iqani’s voice in my head declaring: “Let’s not forget, science is a constructed concept”. So I continued reading sceptically, debating each argument with a humanitarian counter-argument. What could this American economist have to offer to an African Humanities scholar, to African Economics? I am no economist, but I know the US dollar currently costs me R8… something. So surely our economics are to be understood differently to theirs. And then…

I just don’t know very much about the field of economics. I’m not good at math, I don’t know a lot of econometrics, and I also don’t know how to do theory. If you ask me about whether deflation’s good or bad, if you ask me about taxes- I mean, it would be total fakery if I said I knew anything about any of those things (p. viiii).

This is what a “John Bates Clarke Medal, and a stack of (other) awards-winning, Harvard undergrad, MIT PhD Economist” was saying. So I kept reading.

This isn’t a book about economics; it is a book about freakonomics. “Yes, this approach employs the best analytical tools that economics has to offer, but it also allows us to follow whatever freakish curiosities may occur to us. Thus our invented field of study: Freakonomics” (p. 12).

A field of study that I later discovered explores not only economics, but a range of other “freakish curiosities” such as humanity in general: “How humans get what they want” (p. 5). Or are these one and the same thing? Any Marxists in the room? Unlike philosopher-turned-founder of classical economics, Adam Smith, Steven D. Levitt is economist-turned-founder-of-classical philosophy erm… freakonomics. His is a lesson about cheating, corruption and crime: ‘the hidden side of everything’ as the title of the introduction reads [by the way the DA is surging up Jacob Zuma’s past sins now that Malema is kind of out of the picture]. Anyway, the basic premise of arguments made is as follows: “Experts use their informational advantage to serve their own agenda” (p. 12).

Not to repeat previous standings, the book utilizes economics’ measurement tools to analyze and explain ‘well, more interesting topics’. Among these riveting topics are: “What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real estate agents? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? Where have all the criminals gone? What makes a perfect parent? Would a Roshanda by any other name smell as sweet?”.

Needless to say the book juxtaposes unorthodox similes. For example it correlates the unanticipated drop in crime rates in the US in the 1990s to Norma McCorvey’s (Jane Roe) abortion case in the 1970s. An observation no other ‘expert’ noted. The book also argues that although spending a lot of money on election campaigns may increase a candidate’s chances of winning (by say 1 percent), “the amount of money spent by the candidates hardly matters at all” (p. 9).

In Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt – in collaboration with Stephen J. Dubner – created a masterpiece: funny, witty and finally thought-provoking. The reader is left with a brand new outlook on life and a constant urge to ‘assume nothing and question everything’.

Matshidiso Omega Moagi holds a BA in Media Studies and Industrial Sociology from the University of the Witwatersrand. She graduated from Wits in 2011.

 

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