It’s boom time for second hand clothing as crisis bites

I grew up in Kenya at a time when Rivatex and Kicomi were household names.

Apart from a bubblegum pink crimpline trouser suit bought in London by a friend of mother’s who worked with the East African Airways as an air hostess — as female cabin crew were then known —I wore only clothes bought in downtown Nairobi as Christmas or birthday gifts.

As a teenager, months of good behaviour and pestering my mother sometimes yielded the Sh100 needed to buy a coveted pair of flared, embroidered jeans but I certainly never wore second-hand clothes as prices were eye-watering at the upmarket thrift shop which my friend Mary-Ann favoured for its variety of styles in used chic.

With the liberalisation of the textile sector in the early 90s came the container-loads of imported second-hand clothes that would contribute to the virtual demise of the industry and now my teenage nephew Joe-Louis wouldn’t dream of buying a new pair of jeans if he can get six used ones for the same price, possibly imported from Belgium.

Les Petits Riens is a social enterprise that collects used clothing and household items for sale to raise funds to fight poverty and social exclusion in Belgium.

Fifty per cent of the clothes donated are shipped to developing countries with the rest being sold through its network of outlets here, making a profit of 1.2 million euros last year.

Although most Belgians can afford to shop for clothing on the high street, and most do take advantage of the regulated summer and winter sales where prices can drop by as much as 70 per cent, the demand for second-hand clothing both here and abroad has shot up and with it, the theft of donations from containers placed in the neighbourhoods by organised gangs.

Profit-making enterprises have also entered this lucrative business, establishing collection points for freely donated clothing that is then sent to sorting centres in developing countries where labour is cheap.

Hawkers are another source of incredibly cheap clothes and leather goods but for the fact that the wares on offer are new, enjoying a drink at my local café is an experience not much different from sitting at a pub in a Nairobi neighbourhood.

The hawking business here is dominated by immigrants from Mauritania and Senegal who do the rounds of the many pubs where they have an established clientele.

My supplier of gym socks and tee-shirts is from Senegal and belongs to the Mourides, an Islamic religious movement founded over a century ago that is also a global trading company with an estimated membership of three million worldwide.

For a Mouride newly arrived in the diaspora, membership guarantees a place to stay, credit to trade and social support.

Commerce between members is based on trust and the Mouride’s word is his bond such that goods can be ordered from a member based in Guangzhou, China, delivered to a member in Brussels and the money paid to the supplier’s family in Senegal.

The Mourides in the diaspora have been sending back almost $20 million annually, about a fifth of the direct foreign investment received by Senegal, and have also funded the construction of schools, dispensaries and a modern hospital in their holy city of Touba.

The summer sales are on with bargains to be picked up at crisis-defying prices but for those who like Mary-Ann have a fondness for designer chic but not the means to shop in the boutiques on the upmarket Avenue Louise, there are shops on the high street that specialise in second-hand designer clothes and accessories sold to them – and not donated – by those wealthy followers of fashion who change their wardrobes every season.

Here aspiring fashionistas can pick up last season’s designer wear, albeit at prices substantially higher than those in the chain stores.

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