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Photo: Danni Bishara / Design: Tina Tiller
Photo: Danni Bishara / Design: Tina Tiller

SocietyJuly 12, 2023

The mission to make secondhand shopping more inclusive

Photo: Danni Bishara / Design: Tina Tiller
Photo: Danni Bishara / Design: Tina Tiller

As more New Zealanders embrace secondhand shopping, plus-size people continue to be overlooked by retailers and left out of the broader conversation.

When Marina Povey worked as a lawyer, she had a well-established corporate wardrobe that became a uniform of sorts. But after landing a new role in HR with a more relaxed dress code, she needed some new workwear. Having pledged to only buy secondhand clothes for the entire year, she discovered immediately that most op shops and vintage stores had hardly any plus-size clothing available. “I’d trawl through racks and pull everything out just to find that nothing is nowhere near my size and it just felt like such a waste of my time,” she says. 

“It was a real struggle to find anything secondhand, and I just know that if I was smaller I wouldn’t have struggled so much to make that change.” 

As the impact of fast fashion becomes impossible to ignore, Povey is far from the only person making a conscious decision to try and reduce the amount of new clothing she consumes. “The amount of clothes that churn through firsthand clothing stores is just staggering, really. And I definitely contributed to it in the past – I have so much stuff in my wardrobe that I’d never worn and it was just brand new.” And as someone who also sits outside of “straight” sizing (8-14), Povey is also not alone in her struggle to find secondhand clothing that actually fits – the average NZ woman is size 16

“It can be quite demoralising as a shopper,” she explains, detailing outings where she would spend hours perusing op shops to return home with nothing, or attend preloved clothing swaps where the one plus-size table would be teeming with straight-size people looking for a baggy bargain. It’s a feeling that secondary school teacher Hazel Anson can also relate to. “I would love to buy secondhand fashion more,” she says. “But it’s just not a choice that is afforded to people who don’t sit within mainstream sizing streams.” 

Hazel Anson would love to buy more secondhand clothes. Image: Supplied

Whether it’s secondhand or firsthand, Anson says that plus-size people still remain left out of the fashion conversation entirely. She remembers when Cotton On first came out with a curve range, and posting on her social media about being excited to be able to buy affordable and on trend clothes. “I had all these people coming at me saying it was unethical, unsustainable and not somewhere I should be supporting,” she remembers. “But people forget that plus-size people don’t actually have the luxury of making these sorts of choices yet.” 

Instead, Anson says that plus-size people are subjected to a “holy trifecta” of tickboxes that are very difficult to check off. “You’ve got size, affordability and ethics,” she explains. “If you want to purchase your size as a plus-size person, and you want to do it ethically or sustainably, then the affordability is just way out of reach. If you want to shop your size affordably, then ethics is out of question. The three will never add up for our community.” Add to that the need to express your own personal taste and style, and the luck of the draw element, and secondhand shopping becomes a near impossible task. 

Online can provide better luck for plus-size secondhand shoppers, with platforms like Trade Me, Designer Wardrobe and Facebook Marketplace allowing people to search for clothing in their size with ease. But even then, says fellow shopper Alexcea Apostolakis, the clothes don’t always reach the people who actually need them. “The majority of the messages I get when I’m selling clothes online will be from smaller people saying ‘Hey, I know this is a size 20, but how would it look on like a size 12? Would it be like a cool, oversized fit?’ I never reply to them.” 

Some of the thousands of ‘oversized’ offerings on Trade Me

It’s an interaction that highlights another issue with secondhand and vintage shopping – the prevalence of clothing being sold as “oversized” to straight-size people, and the trend of baggy, cropped, belted garments being draped over straight-size models on Instagram. “The term ‘oversized’ is something that really frustrates me, especially when you see it thrown around by retailers,” says Apostolakis. “Because what they are talking about is a thing that’ll fit me, or might even be too small for me, and yet it’s called oversized. It’s a really poor choice of words.”

For Samuel Robinson, podcast producer at The Spinoff and public advocate for more plus-size merchandising, the “oversized” trend only re-emphasises the exclusion he already feels when secondhand shopping. His main motivation for op shopping in Pōneke was not sustainability, or trend, but necessity. “I was on the benefit and I needed an entire new wardrobe but I couldn’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars,” he explains, “I went to the op shops looking for basics to fill out my wardrobe, but I couldn’t find anything, ever. It just never happened for me.”

With that in mind, he says he finds the oversized thrifting trend deeply frustrating. “If someone is a smaller size and is buying an op shop item for the oversized look, that might be one good find out of 10 for their day out shopping. But for a fat person to go into that same store and finding something that size? That could be their good find for the year.” 

The dearth of plus-size secondhand clothes might be explained by what several shoppers described as a scarcity mindset. “How can you ever part with something when it took so long to find it in the first place?” says Apostolakis, who admits to having a “whole suitcase” full of clothes in her garage that she feels are too “risky” to part with. Povey feels much the same way. “If I buy something and it fits me, and I like it, I’m not going to donate it, I’m going to keep wearing it. All those nice clothes in those bigger sizes? They’re all being held onto tightly.” 

Alexcea for Crushes. (Photo: Danni Bishara)

Anson says the issue is also that there are just not many plus-size options being made available here. Few local brands are truly plus-size (extending to 30+), she says, and that ones who are – including Flamingo Fridays, House of Boom, Augustine and Ruby and Rain – can be counted on one hand. Affordable chain stores like Kmart and The Warehouse have inclusive sizing ranges, but the style often leaves something to be desired. “I don’t know what is going on in their design departments,” Anson laughs. “But they seem to think we just want a rubbish sack.” 

Still, there are spaces emerging where plus-size shoppers can enter and know full well that something in their size will be waiting for them. Anson recently held a preloved clothing stall at Gently Loved markets in Auckland – an event specifically for plus-size people – and describes the “incredible” experience. “Everyone who walked in knew that they were able to actually engage in finding things. They weren’t facing this battle of trying to find a single thing that fit them and hope that they like it. Instead it was well looked after, accessible op shopping.” 

Karangahape Road vintage store Crushes is also hoping to make secondhand shopping more inclusive, starting with a plus-size thrift haul event on Thursday. The idea came from a conversation that Povey was having with founder Rose Hope in store one day. “I was by all the racks and thought about how good it would be to be able to go into a shop, know that I’m buying secondhand, and know that I don’t have to rummage for hours or just go look at the shoes,” says Povey. “So it was mostly just aligning the stars for myself.” 

Crushes on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. (Photo: Facebook)

Hope says that Crushes’ mission is to prove there are ways to consume that “don’t cost the earth and her people”, and is always grateful for the conversations prompted by customers like Povey. “Everyone should have the right to shop sustainably and ethically by shopping secondhand,” she says. “And we realised inclusivity needs to be spelled out real nice and obvious in store – here’s a space that is safe for you to shop. If you really take that seriously, you shouldn’t just be relying on diverse models on your Instagram to carry the message.”

The thrift crawl will also see other Karangahape Road icons such as Vixen and Paper Bag Princess bring out more of their plus-size stock to an accessible spot, with several stores changing their tag colour to make it even easier to spot plus-size bargains. “A lot of times you’ll find the plus-size rack is tucked in the back in a dusty little corner with broken coat hangers on it,” laughs Apostolakis, who also features as the face of the event. “It’s just about making it really accessible and really obvious that there is stuff for everyone.”

Of course, one event and the occasional markets isn’t going to change decades of plus-size people being overlooked by retailers. “It’s an awesome start, but it has to be about keeping that mahi going beyond the event and making lasting change rather than it being tokenistic,” says Anson. “Retailers need to make sure that when they say they have curve sizing in stock, it can’t just be mid plus-size range. Stopping at 20 is not accessible – going up to 30 plus is really important and having more than five options to choose from is also really important.”

Anson believes the focus still needs to move away from individual choice, and onto the large corporations continuing to produce things unethically and unsustainably. “The whole conversation around ethical buying and secondhand is actually putting the onus of sustainability in the consumers’ hands,” she says. “But if those consumers don’t actually have any options available to them, I find it really sad that we’re pointing the fingers at each other and not actually looking at the practices of fast fashion houses like Shien, H&M, Zara and Topshop.”

Alexcea for Crushes. (Photo: Danni Bishara)

There also remains the importance of plus-size representation in fashion, particularly crucial at a time where ultra-thin models are making a comeback and sizing standards appear to be regressing to the size zero ideal. For Apostolakis, who was once told by a former boss at a local fashion boutique that he wouldn’t have hired her if he knew what she looked like, becoming the face of a plus-size thrift haul has huge personal significance. “That really lit something under me – fuck that, I have every right to be a person in fashion who looks like this.” 

Even if just for one night, she is excited to be able to shop alongside people who look like her. “I realised I don’t think I’ve ever gone shopping with another plus-size person, which is super weird,” she says. “It’s going to be so cool to dress up with other people who are my size.” It’s also just a chance to unearth some preloved gems – and Apostolakis is manifesting one garment in particular. “I had this really sick maxi denim skirt and I gave it away, and now maxi denim skirts are having a big moment so I’m really looking hard for one of those.”

Because above all the complex intersections of affordability, size, sustainability, ethics, and style, Apostolakis says everyone deserves the chance to express themselves, their joy, and their creativity through fashion if they want to. 

Or, as Robinson simply puts it: “We just want to wear our cute little outfits too.”

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