Document Journal: The Sacrament of the Secondhand

Amid the crowds of the kilo sale, Shahidha Bari bears witness to the perennial art of passing down and picking up



The Round Chapel—a horseshoe-shaped building in the London Borough of Hackney—is accustomed to keen congregations on Sundays. Built in 1871 as a nonconformist church for dissenting worshippers, its grounds have long been deconsecrated. These days, it’s a trendy venue for hipster weddings and pop-up crafts fairs whose probiotic juices and artisanal candles regularly attract crowds of chattering young things. I arrive there on a Sunday in February, joining the crowds gathered for the eagerly anticipated “kilo sale” that day. “You need a ticket,” a woman in the queue informs me sympathetically, noticing my cluelessness and pointing to the QR entry code on her phone. I glance at her, and I am confused—not about the entry requirements, but because she’s young, a teenager, wearing bootcut jeans and an oversized rugby shirt. It’s a familiar preppy look that I recognize immediately from the mid-’90s, and it takes me a moment to register the irony with which she intends it.

The queue comprises around a dozen young people: ragtag and bohemian, with big mohair coats and trailing scarves, faces freshly scrubbed or marked with the vague mascara trail of the night before. They are a change, certainly, from the earnest worshippers who once frequented the chapel, but these visitors are no less fervent in their ministrations. They arrive punctually, clutching empty tote bags, and queue faithfully. When the doors open, they’ll be met with a divine sight: rails and rails of secondhand clothing. Under the chapel’s lofty ceilings and intricate iron latticework, rows of hangers are haphazardly arranged, with clothes as bright as candy wrappers dangling from them. I purchase a ticket and climb up into the gallery to watch the frenzy unfold below. This, I think, settling down, is what we mean by the spirit of the age. Here is the heart of this city.

I like to imagine the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who lived to witness the first part of the 20th century, might have agreed with me. “An arcade,” he observed, “is a city, a world in miniature.” His Arcades Project, which began in 1927, was a kind of card catalog compiled from his reflections and observations as a flâneur meandering through the 19th-century shopping arcades of Paris. All of life, he thought, could be found in the cafés, repair shops, brothels, and boutiques housed in these bustling indoor boulevards shielded by a glass roof. Benjamin was convinced that capturing the culture of the arcades would be the key to understanding modernity from the ground up. To uncover the life of the arcades would be to bestow a “prince’s kiss,” a magical act that would reveal everything about the nature of capitalism and consumption. It might also, he thought, illuminate something mysterious about the nature of commodities, the stuff that we desire, and the relationships they forge between us. What, I wonder, does it say about our times that the stuff young people desire is secondhand?

A kilo sale is a pop-up market where secondhand, vintage, or used clothing is piled high (or arranged along the length of a groaning rail) for miscellaneous hands to rifle through. When the doors open at 10 a.m., the crowds rush in, expertly eyeing their way to the good stuff and politely elbowing their way to the checkout, where their items will be weighed and priced by the kilo. This accounts for the empty tote bags wielded by the young people in the queue—you do well to come armed.

I peer down and assemble a mental inventory: a Super Mario Brothers t-shirt faded over the years, a polyester shell suit that looks as if it audibly crinkles to the touch, a denim blazer with double patch pockets, a jewel-colored velvet jacket worn at the cuffs, a floral cotton skirt visibly softened by so many washes, several football shirts from teams now fallen out of favor, tank tops, bell bottoms, distressed jeans, suit pants with neatly pressed front pleats, an Aran knit sweater, a cable-knit cardigan, a boyfriend coat, dozens of crop tops, a pair of spotless high-tops, and a sadly scuffed tennis shoe cast in among the medley.

“I’m inclined to think that there is something really important about the secondhandedness of the secondhand: the idea of a material form of transmission, a garment that literally passes through many hands before it reaches our own.”

Later, when the crowd thins and I venture downstairs to tiptoe through the debris, I inspect the labels. There are garments from all the classic British High Street stores, some vintage and long forgotten, many simply felled in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007: the classic St Michael label of Marks & Spencer; the now-defunct Debenhams; the homely C&A, BHS, and Littlewoods stores of my childhood, popping up again like tiny specters. It feels like a resurrection of sorts to see these names, so unloved for so long, outgunned by the big fast fashion stores and online brands, now eagerly snatched up by stylish young people. At the back of the chapel, the bronze pipes of the 19th-century organ tower benignly over the scene. I start to think that something incalculably precious was lost with the demise of those familiar old stores, and what I’m witnessing here is a quiet revolution. For all our anxieties about fast fashion and the thoughtlessly acquisitional impulses of Gen Z consumers, lured by trends on social media and cheap online retailers, here I see them determinedly leading a counter-movement, pursuing a different economy of clothes. They are unpersuaded by homogenous notions of the “fashionable.” Here, they hungrily seek out something utterly idiosyncratic. And they prize the old, unseduced by the relentlessly new.

Recently, kilo sales have become commonplace in this city. In the weeks after Hackney, they are scheduled for a church hall in Camden and a shipping container pop-up in Brixton. How should we read this phenomenon? The resourcefulness of young people looking for cheap clothing in an economic downturn? Yes. An increasingly voracious appetite among the young for sustainable forms of consumption? Almost certainly. And adjacent to that, a deeper sense, perhaps, that something is profoundly amiss—immoral even—about the cultures of fast, disposable fashion on which the garment industry has thrived for so long. The data is straightforward: Fashion, a global industry worth $2.4 trillion a year, accounts for nearly 20 percent of industrial water pollution and 10 percent of carbon emissions. Of more than 100 billion items of clothing produced each year, 20 percent will go unsold, to landfill or incineration.

The Sacrament of the Secondhand