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Good Info‘There’s joy and connection in searching for secondhand fashion gems’

‘There’s joy and connection in searching for secondhand fashion gems’

Creativity and fun are part and parcel of the secondhand and ethical fashion treasure hunt, says stylist Aja Barber. And not only that: rethinking our relationship with clothes can be a ‘gateway’ to exploring environmental and social challenges, she says

Preloved fashion is booming amid a cost of living squeeze and a rise in eco thinking. Once niche, the secondhand market is now on course to take 10% of global sales, while eBay has just axed fees for sellers of preloved garms.

In our Second Nature series, we unzip this growing trend and meet the preloved pioneers who are helping to send it mainstream. A million miles from its moth-eaten, austere reputation of yesteryear, they see preloved as stylish, expressive and fun.

Aja Barber is a writer, stylist and consultant who has become one of the leading voices on sustainability and fashion. Her work explores privilege, wealth inequality, racism, feminism, colonialism and how fashion can be reimagined with all these things in mind. US-born and now based in London, she’s the author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change 

Aja Barber

Aja Barber knows a good secondhand find is worth the wait. When famed Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten sent a psychedelic collection featuring Verner Panton’s iconic prints down the runway for spring/summer 2019, Barber thought to herself: “Those pieces are beautiful – there’s no way I can afford them, ever.” But after four years of diligent searching, she found a coat (pictured below) from the collection on secondhand platform Vestiaire Collective.

With its pattern of gradated waves slinking its way across a royal blue background: “It’s really trippy and special – a collector’s item for sure,” says Barber.

The author kept her secondhand purchases a secret from her peers as she grew up, but now she’s a proud advocate. “The majority of my designer clothing has been purchased secondhand: there is no other way,” she says. “And I actually spend less money now than I did [when I shopped fast fashion] because I’m not pushed to constantly consume. Once I get that certain thing I’ve been looking for, I’m really happy. There’s so much joy and connection in the thrill of the hunt.”

Everything in Barber’s wardrobe is now tightly aligned with her ethics, and she styles her secondhand finds with pieces from independent ethical brands, like The Emperor’s Old Clothes, who custom made her a dress (pictured above) from secondhand floral print fabric by Marimekko. That kind of collaboration – and a strong sense of community – are central to Barber’s approach to fashion.

A cherished check dress (also pictured, below) by Indian brand NorBlack NorWhite pops in the spring sunshine, the brand chosen by Barber in her efforts to champion global south designers. “That is how we can shift the power back in the direction of those who actually reside where the majority of our clothes are manufactured,” she says.

‘There’s joy and connection in searching for secondhand fashion gems’

Barber cherishes her bright check dress by Indian brand NorBlack NorWhite

Barber encourages her audience, which is mostly on Instagram and Patreon, to consider the most vulnerable and underrepresented people in the fashion supply chain when building their wardrobes. “Consumerism keeps us pacified and keeps us from thinking deeply about these systems,” she notes. “Ultra-fast consumption gets us into the mindset that we have to buy five new dresses to participate in every microtrend. It’s a distraction.”

She has experienced the distraction a constant stream of new, cheap clothes provides herself, and part of her own awakening happened on a walk through a mall after a volunteer shift in a charity shop in her 20s. “That was an eye-opener: witnessing the sheer amount of stuff that people are trying to shift. I looked at everything in this mall and I thought: ‘All of this is going to be somebody else’s problem one day’,” she says.

For that reason, Barber is sparing even in her secondhand shopping. Buying preloved shouldn’t be a green light to buy and discard as much as you like, she points out – but part of a wholesale mindset shift. “One of the key parts of not buying fast fashion for me is making sure every element of my life is beautiful in other ways,” she writes on Instagram. “The clothing I have now is so beautiful in quality that I’m not pushed to buy things I don’t need. And if it’s not serving me any more, I put it back into the ecosystem to serve someone else.”

One of the key parts of not buying fast fashion for me is making sure every element of my life is beautiful in other ways

For Barber, the joy and creativity to be found in secondhand and ethical shopping is a gateway to awareness of issues adjacent to the fashion industry, such as environmental and social justice. It’s a fun way to have a serious impact. “When we look at the issues that are plaguing our planet, like the climate crisis, so much of that is hard,” she says.

“But changing how we dress isn’t. When you can give people the tools to be really excited about their clothing and their style, they can do big things. It starts with your clothing and before you know it, you’re composting and talking to everyone with ears about it.”

Images: Aja Barber photographed for Positive News by Will Sanders

The facts:

  • 30

    eBay UK has seen pre-loved fashion listings increase by nearly 30% year on year

  • $

    Globally, the $177bn (£138bn) secondhand clothing market is expected to nearly double by 2027, three times faster than the overall market, according to US marketplace Thredup

  • 82

    82% of items sold on resale site Vestiaire Collective replace a first-hand purchase, its research suggests

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