Tonya Medina is 72. When rheumatism takes its leave, she would strut at an athletic clip, and with the highest voltage, rhinestone glitters and all, into the ballroom of the mall for the regular twice-a-month Seniors’ Ball with her favorite dance instructor.
When not fluttering on a cha-cha or boogie on the dance floor, she would at times spend daytime with friends from high school wearing a hip-girl wardrobe—signature jeans, floaty tops, and dangling earrings whose playful brilliance competes with her hearty laughter.
Her designer handbags always made a strong statement, and like most fashionistas, she would not keep repeating herself. The handbags should match the stiletto high-heeled shoes. With no rheumatism to keep her interned inside her house, she would always be seen chrome-plated.
Tonya Medina has glamor good luck working overtime for her.
And she thanks her stars for the ukay-ukay stalls where she gets most things exactly what she wishes for to be a fashionista at times when spending lots of cash to look and feel good may not be practical.
Ukay-ukay is a Philippine store where previously-owned apparel—thrifted clothing, bags, shoes, and other accessories—are sold at rock-bottom prices that easily fit an average person’s pocketbook. The prices are so ridiculously low (women’s blouses, in perfect condition, can be had at P5 each) that a buyer tends to hog everything his cash can buy fast and loose, and use these items in an edgy, indigestible style mix—looking very Las Vegas.
Based on the Philippine verb hukay which means “to dig,” and halukay, meaning “to sift through,” ukay-ukay is also English for “dig, dig” which can likewise connote wag-wag, (to dust off an item of clothing by holding one end of it and vigorously whisking it in the air to eliminate dust particles).
Other affectionate names for ukay-ukay shopping trips are SM (segunda mano), a pun on the SM chain of stores, and UK (imported from the United Kingdom).
The ukay-ukay phenomenon started in the 1980s in Baguio City, where to this day, is the shrine of such fleeting fashion. Natural calamities were frequent occurrences in those times. The Philippine Salvation Army would send used garments, hand-me-downs, cast-off clothing items, and other household goods to the refugees as charitable assistance to the victims. People’s response to the calls for help was so great.
Soon enough, traders sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity in these goods, bought them in bulk and sold to a wider public at very low prices. The initial customers were those at the low-income bracket, but as ukay-ukay became the byword for trendy, affordable clothes, the more affluent group looking for low-priced branded items would be seen rummaging at various ukay-ukay outlets.
Every stall becomes a pit stop for a fashion chance hit. There is always a fair expectation to just get lucky, find a real bargain, and if one looked hard enough, one might find a surprise, a bit flawed item but nevertheless a gem. At such a price and with some stylish dexterity, the hassle can be worthwhile.
There will be people who would turn up their noses, although circumspectly, and regard going to an ukay-ukay outlet as utterly unthinkable. All that eyebrow-raising and tsk-tsking, however, would not bother a true-blue fashionista out for some pairs of tight low-rider vanity jeans.
Despite its negative connotation, pre-loved clothes at ukay-ukays are one-of-a-kind (you don’t bump into someone on the street wearing exactly the same style as you do). Besides, ukay-ukay patronage helps maintain ecological balance by recycling used clothes instead of buying new ones from the malls.
True enough, the trade has had commendable merits. They satisfy customers’ need for easy on the pocket yet trendy clothes; fashion designers troop to these outlets for new creative ideas and designs; and they also increase an LGU’s revenues and likewise provide business people a simple, low-capital yet lucrative income source.
A few kinks showed up which posted alarms in some quarters. Clothes in thrift stores appear clean, however, it is good sense to wash them before wearing and to rid the garments of that particular ukay- ukay smell. Vinegar is the recommended cleaner and disinfectant, and iron the items on both sides. Unwashed second-hand clothes could cause dermatitis, scabies, and fungal diseases.
The commercial importation of second-hand clothes to sell at ukay-ukay stores is prohibited since 1996 under Republic Act No. 4653 to safeguard the health of the Filipino people from probable health hazards and to maintain the dignity of the nation through the prohibition of importation of used clothing and other discarded items from other nations. Because only the importation is prohibited, as soon as the shipments are cleared for entry it legalizes their sale.
The system is highly flawed, of course. There are reports of bribery within the Bureau of Customs; smuggling schemes through misdeclaration or underdeclaration are not new. But while the ukay-ukay trade is a sure moneymaker for some, it blunts further investments in other trades and slows down the development of the local textile and garments industry since it is more lucrative to engage in the ukay-ukay business with not much sweat.
Fashions come and go; ukay-ukay stores make sure their customers are well supplied with the latest styles from the bagong bukas boxes and let the bureaucrats worry about whatever else.
Tonya Medina, toting a Kenneth Cole bag, insists the common sense works.
Additional photos by Diana B. Noche
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