From Shameful to Classy: Elites Capture the Second-hand Clothes Market

A fripe market in the Kram neighborhood on December 24, 2020. Photo by Malek Lakhal.

For urban elites, second-hand clothes and shoes have traditionally been seen as shameful and a marker of low class. But in recent years, many have begun to proudly wear clothes from the “fripe”– second-hand clothes that often originate from donations in Global North countries. Fripe clothes can now be ordered on carefully curated Instagram accounts such as Aubaine, El Mamou, or bought in real stores such as Filupo in La Marsa or Thrift Shop in Menzah 6. Some of these look like high-end brand stores while others evoke the atmosphere of European vintage outlets.

“I remember lying a bit about the clothes I got from the fripe when I was in high-school. I would say I borrowed them from my sister or that an aunt living abroad brought them to me,” recalled Lamia Mechichi, 35, who recently launched, Moojira, her online “friperie”.

“It was shameful. I myself thought that it was a bit dirty at that time. But ten years later, as soon as I got my first salary, I became an addict,” said Kenza Merdessi, 27, a regular at the fripe market of Ariana.

A fripe market in the Kram neighborhood on December 24, 2020. Photo by Malek Lakhal.

According to one poll, 70 percent of Tunisians rely on second-hand clothes, so the evolution of this needed market into a boutique industry—with its inevitable price inflation—resembles a sort of “gentrification.” Yet, Katharina Grüneisl, a PhD candidate in Urban Studies and Human Geography at Durham University whose research explores the urban implications of fripe markets in Tunis and Sfax’s neighbourhoods, draws a contrast between the housing market and the clothes market.

“I would not call it gentrification. The term gentrification comes from a specific context, that of housing and rental markets in Europe, and we must be careful and ask ourselves why we are importing it to other contexts. I would call it change in the cultures of consumption,” Grüneisl told Meshkal.

Behind this cultural change among the middle class and upper class lies an economic necessity.

While dozens of European brands, such as Bershka, Pull and Bear, or Massimo Dutti opened stores in Tunisia in the past decade, the 43 percent decrease in the value of the Tunisian dinar when compared to the Euro over the last ten years has made the imported clothes they sell unaffordable for most people, even those who consider themselves part of the upper middle-class.

“I am an ‘executive.’ My salary is good. I am privileged in many respects. Yet if I go to a mall, I can barely buy anything but basics,” said Yosser Ben Salem, 27 who works in the film industry.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, the prices of clothes and shoes have increased by 48.7 and 48.8 percent respectively since 2015.

For Rim Benrjeb, a journalist, the economic necessity of the fripe is clearer.

“Of course, I could build a discourse around how I love discovering things at the fripe. I could turn it into an exotic hobby or something of the kind. But, at the end of the day, I need the fripe. I simply cannot afford to buy only new clothes. Even in the most random stores, a good pair of shoes will cost no less than 200 dinars,” Benrjeb told Meshkal.

The need for distinction—a social signifier described by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste—often obscures the economic necessities fuelling the turn to second-hand clothes by elites. Owners of Instagram accounts selling second-hand clothes insist on the “ethical”, “sustainable”, and “ecological” character of their activity, often adding an earth or recycling emoji to their biographies which are mostly written in English. In fact, online brands like “Barbecha” claim that “in addition to selling vintage and second-hand products, the team creates a real awareness of responsible fashion and the dangers of fast fashion.”

Usually, the items sold in these online stored are “hand-picked,” as online thrift shop Goya, puts it, at fripe markets such as those at Hafsia, Bousalsla, or Ibn Khaldoun. The small scale of these businesses allows for the individualisation of each item, which will be photographed for advertisement, sometimes even worn by amateur models or the Instagram owner herself.

Fripe de Luxe” and Instagram Accounts: The New Spaces of the Fripe

Lamia Mechichi, who launched her brand Moojira in October 2020, is among the dozens of people, mostly women, who launched Instagram accounts and/or Facebook pages to advertise the second-hand clothes she is selling. For Katharina Grüneisl, whose research focuses on the different moments where value is created in an industry where the product starts out as waste, and then gain value through sorting operations, these accounts distinguish themselves as “they maintain the chain of value creation where it is technically supposed to stop, at the level of consumption.”

“There has always been people who resold goods they bought from the fripe, after repairing them for instance, either in stores or in more informal circuits. The difference is that, today, the tools are different; people use new technologies, social media etc. They are more visible,” Grüneisl said. “Although there is a genealogy of fripe consumption that is very Tunisian, these accounts are picking up on vintage clothes narratives that come from Europe and play them out in Tunisia.”

One sign that some of the culture is being imported is the increasing use of English words in the sector, such as “second-hand” instead of “fripe”.

Mechichi’s brand, Moojira, is a good example of this new approach to reselling fripe clothes. Her Facebook page features flashy, colored animations informing clients of her latest events, videos and pictures of her trying on the merchandise and even a rap song promoting her brand.

“Moojira is the pit where I put all of my frustrations with the advertisement industry, my passion for fripe and my passion for selling,” Mechichi said, explaining that her approach to business developed when she went to Berlin in 2019.

“They have beautiful flea-markets and second-hand stores there [in Berlin], whereas, in Tunis the fripe stores are mostly cold and depressing,” Mechichi said.

Mechichi launched Moojira, after being fired from her job at an advertisement agency during the Covid-19 lockdown in Tunis. She has shopped at fripe markets for years and she remembers the very first fripe shirt she bought when she was in middle school in the 1990s. Although she agrees that, in general, buying from the fripe has become less shameful than it used to be, her experience at advertisement agencies shapes her understanding of the sector.

“It is an industry where a lot of people come from the upper classes, and some of them have contempt for the fripe. When they see you wearing something nice, they immediately ask where it was bought. If you say: ‘from the fripe,’ you sometimes feel their disdain. It is not clearly stated, it is often in the eyes, in the body language, yet it is unmistakable,” Mechichi explained.

She said she experienced disdain herself when launching her project.

“Some say it to your face; some understate it. They think it is distasteful and low to sell fripe, more so since I am a woman in a male dominated market,” said Mechichi. “I could call Moojira an online store and slide a few English words here and there to make it sound more proper, but I don’t want to do that, I want to say it as it is: fripe. In fact, I would be very happy to have my own nasba [the stall that sellers install]in the markets”

A fripe market in the Kram neighborhood on December 24, 2020. Photo by Malek Lakhal.

Mehdi has been in the fripe business two decades. His father and grandfather also worked in the sector. He opened his “fripe de luxe” store in 2019, in Kheireddine. Everything he sells there is second-hand, yet they all have the appearance of being new, a result of careful hanging and presentation.

“There are stores that are specialized in “fripe de luxe” now,” Mehdi said. “This whole business started on Facebook, about ten years ago. People started creating Facebook pages to sell what they found, which later led to stores like this one”.

Being in the fripe business means depending on a global web of supply chains. Mehdi, like all his competitors, buys what is called “bala”, which means a bundle clothes and literally comes from the word for “balle” or “ball” in English. Mehdi buys bala from wholesalers in Ezzahrouni, Hafsia and Bab Souika.

The chain begins in Europe or America, where donations of clothes, shoes, toys etc. are collected and exported to Tunisia. This first step of the business is, according to Grüneisl, often done by Tunisian diaspora living in Europe. After their arrival in Tunisia, the clothes are sorted in specialized factories according to gender and age, then type of clothes and lastly, quality. The highest quality items are normally sent back to Europe to supply vintage stores. Second- and third-rate clothes are sold in Tunisia, while the worst quality items are transformed into isolation material for construction. Once sorted, items are then assembled into balas and sent to wholesalers in Ezzahrouni, Hafsia and Bab Souika for sellers to buy.

“I only buy premium quality bala, whereas the majority of fripe stores buy balas of different qualities so that everyone can afford to buy from them,” Mehdi explained.

Usually, the fripe clothes reach final consumers in street markets, where sellers install heaps of clothes on dismountable stalls. But Mehdi’s store is a clear example of how the fripe market is evolving to adapt to new needs. Leaving the stall and its unsorted heap behind, he created a store with a clear segment of the market in mind: “people who are wealthy, who understand brands and don’t have time to rummage through stalls for hours,” as Mehdi described it.

But Mehdi’s business decision is also informed by his awareness of the cultural transformations behind clothing.

“The new generations have a different mentality. They want to dress well, not just dress,” he said.

And dressing well, for many, has come to mean dressing at the fripe, not just for the sake of prices but also for quality.

“When it opened in Tunisia, Zara was like Gucci. People thought of it as an almost luxury brand. But now everyone knows it’s bad quality,” said Lamia Mechichi. Zara opened a branch on the main avenue of Habib Bourguiba in Tunis back in 2009. “If you want good quality, clothes that last, you have better chances at finding in the fripe than in malls.”

Those brand stores are also now seen as not ecologically or socially friendly as people are increasingly aware of the hidden waste and costs of the fashion and textile industry.

Ibn Khaldoun at the Heart of Class Friction

The changes in the perception of second-hand clothes among the middle and higher classes is not just creating new, more segmented market spaces online or in stores. It is affecting the original spaces of the fripe —the physical markets themselves. One of the markets where these changes are felt is the daily fripe of Ibn Khaldoun, in the suburbs of Tunis. Ibn Khaldoun is known as a “fripe for rich people” according to a ranking of the best fripe markets in Tunis. As Katharina Grüneisl notes “the people who frequent Ibn Khaldoun tend to be wealthier than the people who live in the area.”

“The social complexity of the fripe is greater than the social complexity of the neighborhood. It is the kind of place where if it was not for the fripe, upper middle-class people would not set foot in there,” Grüneisl added.

According to several merchants Meshkal met in Ibn Khaldoun, the price of some bala can reach 1000 dinars these days. Ten years ago, the same balas cost half that price. But prices rose also because more wealthy people flock to the Ibn Khaldoun market, creating class friction in the market.

A fripe market in the Kram neighborhood on December 24, 2020. Photo by Malek Lakhal.

Rim Benrjeb the journalist, for instance, who used to be a regular shopper at Ibn Khaldoun, said she is not comfortable there anymore because the custom of price bargaining has disappeared, since wealthy buyers are ready to pay high prices.

“Once, I asked a seller for the price of a coat. When I expressed shock at the three-digit figure he asked for it, he just said he could be selling it for double or triple that price and his big clients would not bat an eye. Some of these merchants, they only work for a certain clientele: those who come to the fripe with their Hummers and Mercedes,” Benrjeb told Meshkal.

For her, this is a change that has affected her relationship to the vendors and the market.

“These people never bargain, never negotiate. I used to negotiate prices, and there was real intimacy, real fun doing that with a seller,” she said, noting that now, however “there is class contempt in the fripe. You can actually hear the women say it, as they go through the clothes. They say that the rich took everything from them, even the fripe.”

For Benrjeb, the fripe market is not just a place to buy clothes but a social space with certain features that have been lost.

“Everyone should be equal at the fripe as they rummage through the clothes to find good pieces. But even that, the rich took it away.”

Sami is a vendor who sells shoes and toys (two illegal categories of merchandise according to article 11 of the  1995 law on friperie which classifies them, along with hats, sneakers and hand bags as waste) along the tracks of Ibn Khaldoun, the terminus of metro line 3. Meshkal asked him about the change in social dynamics that Benrjeb has witnessed in the market.

“Some clients, all they see are stalls of shirts that look alike with quite different prices. They feel cheated and keep asking for lower prices. Only they don’t understand the quality differs, that balas are not bought at the same prices,” Sami said.

Regarding the distribution of balas in Ibn Khaldoun and in the rest of the country, Sami conceded that “merchandise is not distributed equally.”

“Everyone knows for example that the merchandise sent to Kef or Beja is not the same quality as the one that will go to La Marsa or Ezzahra,” he said.

Zooming out of the capital, the stark class lines that are appearing within the fripe sector seem to be occurring at a national scale as well. As might be expected, wholesalers send lesser quality and therefore less expensive clothes to poorer regions. However, that does not stop upper-class people from the capital going to those markets.

As Grüneisl notes, “some people from the capital go to fripe in places like El Kef to buy clothes, in part because it is less expensive, but also because they believe that sellers there don’t know brands well,” meaning there is a better chance those sellers could let go of a luxury piece for a very low price.

This is an example of what economists call an asymmetry of information, where either the seller or the buyer knows more than the other and skews prices accordingly. This practice relies on a belief that sellers who live in the poorest regions are too ignorant to know  the value of the items they sell, unlike those in the capital who now are aware of the brands most sought after as three-digit figures align for Doc Martens or limited edition Adidas sneakers. This appears to follow a pattern of regional discrimination, a sort of regionalist contempt against those seen as ignorant in comparison with clients and sellers in the capital.

Far from being the undifferentiated market where anyone can find the ultimate gem they are looking for, fripe is continuing to further segment and specialize according to markets while seeing its prices inflate, to the detriment of people whose shopping there is not a matter of hobby or fun but that of necessity.