The Hills Have Style: The Rise Of The Robust Thrifting Culture In Northeast India

Untitled design (78)

I had taken every possible precaution that modern technology had to offer—an alarm was set, Instagram notifications had been turned on; a Google Pay account was also set up. And yet, when the image of a Prada crossbody bag appeared on the digital thrift shop Mirinwon’s feed, my assiduous preparations to secure it were no match for the deftness of seasoned thrifters; some of whom had managed to type ‘book’ in the comments before my phone had even buzzed to alert me of the new post. So much for even trying!

Manipur-based Ngahon Tungshangnao, who set up Mirinwon in 2019, laughs, “It’s a common complaint I receive from my audience, but it’s one of those gripes that makes me feel good because it means people like what I curate.” Growing up in Urkhul, Ngahon deeply loved his bucolic life in the countryside but also had a predilection for high fashion, like most of his city-bred peers. But back in the ‘90s, foreign retail stores couldn’t make inroads into the northeast due to internal strife and the resultant military curfews. So the region’s sartorially-forward aspirants had to rely on their ingenuity to catch up to their contemporaries’ unhackneyed wardrobes. This led to the development of a robust thrifting culture in the region.

And So It Begins

Even though the Northeast has seen a torrential influx of retail stores and international brands since then, most shoppers continue to bank on secondhand stores for their wardrobe upgrades. Two years ago, Linno and Lumri Jajo began curating a mix of second-hand and vintage pieces under their boutique label Folkpants. They were amongst the first on the country’s thrifting scene. Through their meticulously curated Instagram feed, the sisters seek to trounce the very presumption about thrift stores that relegates them to an inferior status in the uninitiated eyes: the presentation. Subverting the idea that thrift shops are slovenly, unorganised spaces, the Jajo sisters harness the power of beautifully shot images to reel audiences in. “It’s possible to look good even in secondhand clothes. We work with professional photographers, models and make-up artistes to showcase that,” they say. A scroll through their feed convinces us of their theory.

Smashing The Stigma

The popularity of secondhand online shops is soaring at a swift pace, and an anomalous case study presents itself in the form of Luu Liu, a vintage lingerie label started in February last year by Manipur-born best friends Celia and Jang. Their Instagram follower count currently stands at 51k, markedly higher than almost any other thrift store in the country. This is surprising, considering the stigma around wearing used intimates, especially pre-worn underwear. Their handle showcases tasteful corsets and gorgeous lace bustiers, and the duo had to take the tough but necessary decision of changing their account settings to private to ward off unwanted attention from leering perverts. Does the limited access hamper business in any way? “Not as much as a limited mindset does!” they promptly shoot back. “We receive a ton of questions regarding hygiene, and each time, we patiently explain how we send out pieces only after laundering and steaming them. Sometimes, it’s also the parents who don’t allow open-minded buyers to wear pre-owned lingerie.”

Is Inclusivity Excluded?

Shillong-based stylist Sujala Newar, who set up The Local Vintage in 2018 after wrapping up a successful stint with various prominent publications, confesses that it’s hard to be size-positive since she sells one-of-a-kind vintage pieces that often come in a singular style and size. “It depends on what I find on my sourcing trips and the era of the pieces. Oversized jackets were all the rage in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so we find bigger sizes from that era. Pieces sourced from private collections are usually the same size throughout the collection,” she explains.

While the online model has so far worked for them, it remains to be seen if thrift stores will resist the allure of physical stores once the pandemic ends. “Many individuals have adopted a new lifestyle during this time where they’re looking for ways to be more sustainable and conscious,” the Jajo sisters chime in again. “As thrifting becomes more accessible and reliable, consumers, in turn, become more aware and accepting. We’ll stick to operating digitally but hope to connect with fellow thrift store owners and regularly organise pop-ups in various cities when it’s safe for people to gather again,” they conclude spiritedly.

Photographs: Shubhi Singh; Sujala Newar; Benee Laishram; Chingrimi AS

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content