a project by Annie + Jessica Hamilton



Vintage-clothing-enthusiast Gabby Huber has worked in one of Australia’s largest charity thrift stores for the last 7 years, giving her a unique perspective on the fashion industry - one that most people don’t see.

To celebrate National Op-Shop Week in Australia, we sat down for a coffee with Gabby to discuss the life-cycle of our clothing and what actually happens after we chuck our clothes in the charity bin…

Annie: Hi Gabby! I’m going to start at the beginning. Why did you decide to start working in charity stores?

Gabby: I love second hand clothing, I always have. I've been a musician for ten years and musicians can’t afford to buy new things! Also, I love vintage clothing, so on my days off I'd go to thrift stores. Whenever I was on tour it was like, ‘OK, I've got to find the Vinnies or Salvos in town and raid it and see what I can find!’ Each garment had a story, and I guess because I've always been a bit different, I've liked the fact that I was wearing things that no one else had. Plus it was a bargain and the money was going to charity, so it was a win-win situation for me.

Then when a job came up with this charity store, I thought, I'd love to see how it all works. The more I got involved with the store, the more passionate I became about recycled clothing and how we can make an impact within the community. Because we’re providing a community service; we're allowing people to step out of consuming with big corporate stores, and we're allowing them to buy something that is pre-loved and give longevity to that garment. That's why I love - oh I'm going on tangents!

Annie: Tangents are great!

Gabby: OK! Well I love the whole concept behind Swop on Enmore Road, for the people that think, ‘I have invested into a lot of these pieces and I don't want to just give it away,’ there's still a way to exchange and continue that cycle.

Annie: I love the stories of these garments. When I buy stuff from Vinnies I often wonder, ‘who owned this, what did they wear it to?’

Gabby: That's exactly how I am when it comes to second-hand clothing. I bought this really cute plaid shirt 10 years ago when I first started playing in bands, and I wrote a whole song about it, because it had the boys name written in the back, Oscar. So I wrote a whole song about him. I wondered, who was he, did he have a pony? And it made it onto the album. Even this little kids jacket that I’m wearing; I bought it in Vinnies in Paddington and it still had rollies in the pocket. It must have belonged to some bad-arse skater kid or something.

Photograph by Annie Hamilton

Photograph by Annie Hamilton

Annie: Do you have any thrifting tips?

Gabby: I think the ideal way to thrift shop is to finds something that fits you well and you know you'll wear to death. For me it's a lot to do with fabrication. I've spent 7 years sorting garments upon garments,so now I can walk up to a rack and go, 'silk, cotton, viscose,' and know what the quality is. I would still buy a fast fashion item if I could see that i could get wear out of it - there's no guilt as I know it’s already second-hand.

Annie: When you get a delivery of clothes in the store, what is the process?

Gabby: We pop them all into a sorting bin. We have to wear gloves because we often get soiled things donated. We sort each item, then we assess it - we grade it whether it's appropriate to sell or whether we'd use it as rags. I work in the Inner West Sydney region where we try to keep our stores full of interesting pieces that will appeal to our clients. So some are sent as rags, some have to be thrown out, some are sent to other stores, or to our big distribution centre, and some are put in the store. I'd say only about one sixth of the garments that are donated are able to be sold in store.

Annie: What happens to the things that are designated as rags?

Gabby: They go to our distribution centre and then rag merchants buy them off us. They strip them up and resell them all.

Annie: And the clothes that go to landfill? Is it at the charity’s cost?

Gabby: Yeah, charities spend up to two million dollars a year in disposals.

Annie: That seems crazy. You think we’d only be helping the charities by donating clothing.

Gabby: I mean, charity clothing stores wouldn't exist if it wasn't for donations. We're so grateful for people who donate, but at the same time a lot of those people don't understand how they're consuming and how easily they can make a change.  Sometimes we can see what a customer is donating and have a chat and say, ‘look, we can't actually sell this, we'll have to throw it in the bin and that's a cost to us.’ The way that they react can be anger, because of guilt, or they'll say, 'oh I didn't know that, I'll take it back and recycle it, or do what I can with it'. You have a lot of people who are consuming so much and feel a bit guilty about it, so want to pass that guilt on. It's sad that we're getting to the point that we don't really want to be enlightened about it, we'd rather stay ignorant. These are the people who I want to reach.

I think there is this stigma with sustainability, that it's something that is for the upper class, or something that is an expensive mode of thought, something that will always cost more. But at the end of the day, it doesn't. It's actually cheaper to be sustainable.

Photograph by Annie Hamilton

Photograph by Annie Hamilton

Annie: It’s like when you consider the cost per wear of a $20 tee-shirt that only lasts a few wears, so you buy more, but if you had bought something that is good quality, then it would last you five years, ten years, twenty years! It's a trap, you actually need to spend more in a constant dribble of small amounts.

Gabby: We're consuming almost double what we did less than a decade ago, and these huge corporations have completely warped our idea of consumerism. You think, ‘I’m not going to spend a lot on clothes because I want to save money,' but these clothes go from cloth to the shop within a week, they're just thrown together.

Annie: And to do that, the manufacturers often have to cut corners at every point - cheap zippers, cheap thread, cheap everything, so the quality of the garment is often poor.

Gabby: Completely. When I first started seven years ago, we didn't have to spend a lot of the day sorting clothing. We'd spend it pricing, merchandising, working with welfare clients and that kind of thing. Now we literally have two staff per day constantly sorting. We really try to break down each garment and try to utilise it, even if it's something that's completely worn out, by thinking ‘OK this could be used as rags’. We try to use everything. But there are times where there is something that is so unsalvageable. You can tell it's a new garment but we can't do anything with it, so we have to throw it out.

Annie: I suppose it seems like it's a good thing, if you're giving away all these clothes to a charity you might think, ‘oh that's a weight off my shoulders.’ Then we go and buy more.

Gabby: People just give you the bag and run away - they will literally run away from you! They're embarrassed because this thing has a tag still on it, but the zipper is completely broken. They've obviously bought it, tried it on and the zipper has broken and they've thought, 'well it's too cheap to bother going back to the shop to get a refund, so I’ll give it to a charity thrift shop, they'll know what to do with it. They repair everything, they wash everything, don't they?' We're getting thousands of garments like this a day.

Annie: Do you wash or repair clothing in the store?

Gabby: Sometimes we try, but with the amount of clothing we get, we just can't. We try to spot-clean things sometimes, or re-sew buttons.  Especially in Inner-Western Sydney, there's a lot of mould in people's houses, people literally lift the hangers and throw them in a bag, and it's like, crusty mould. We can't dry clean things, we don't have those facilities. We try to do as much as we can but it's so busy, there's so much to do. Plus the labour rate would be too much of an expense. If it's something that, for example, we'll put $5 on, we're not going to spend half an hour re-stitching a hole under the arm, because that’s half an hour's wage on a $5 garment, so it's not worth it. It would go into rags.

Photograph by Annie Hamilton

Photograph by Annie Hamilton

Annie: Have you noticed in the seven years you've worked there there has been a change in the amount of donated clothes?

Gabby: Huge. Honestly, it has more than doubled in seven years. And you notice the brands that are coming through. A lot of it is H&M, Zara Basic, Chicabooti, all those cheap clothing labels that people are consuming so much of. They think, ‘Oh I'll just buy this for the weekend and wear it once and then whatever.’ There's so much that has been ingrained into the customer by these big companies wanting us to be detached from the whole process. We need to reverse that, and have an open dialogue about who made your clothes, how did they get here, is it worth spending the same amount of money on five tee-shirts, or having one that will last you ten years? That's why I think The True Cost really changed a lot of people's lives from a consumer perspective, and I really encourage everyone to watch it.

Annie: It's so true. We detach from it because it's so fast and so convenient.

Gabby: Quite often if I'm in the city I'll look at people and their shopping bags. They're all young people and they'll have five or six fast fashion chain bags in their hand. And I think, well we can't afford to buy houses but we can make ourselves feel better by buying that top. And I might get one in a different colour as well, and decide which one I want to wear on the night. But I can't wear it again, because that's a fashion faux pas. It's like, no, wear it til it’s completely threadbare! But this is the thing. These garments sometimes only last one or two wears and then they're thrown in the bin. When they're in landfill, they’re polyester or combination fabrics - blends that can't break down without some kind of alkaline or solution added to them, which won't happen in landfill. It's really frustrating.

Annie: What can people do, apart from learning to repair things themselves?

Gabby: Honestly, I think the most helpful habits that donors can get into is assessing each garment, thinking, ‘can I imagine buying this myself in store? Is it something I could cut up myself and use as rags at home? Is it something I could wear when I am doing washing at home, or painting, or is this a really amazing jacket that if the button has fallen off I could tape it on the front so the shop knows they can sew it back on?’ Basically not just going, 'I don't want that, I don't want that' and shoving it all in a bag and bringing it along.

Annie: So make sure it's clean, make sure it doesn't have holes in it, and don't donate it unless you can see it being sold?

Gabby: That’s ideal, yeah. I mean, we are grateful for anything that gets donated, that's the foundation of thrift stores and how charity stores run. But if you can't imagine it being sellable at all, it will be difficult for us to know what to do with it, in terms of reusing it or giving it longevity, so that it’s not going to end up in landfill.

Annie: I can remember as a teenager when shopping was a leisure activity. On the weekends I’d go to Westfield with friends, and I can remember going into ValleyGirl and thinking, ‘woah, I can buy ten singlets!’ I'd babysit on weeknights and earn $30 and then go spend it at Valleygirl and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Gabby: We're targeted from that age. All the magazines, all the advertising, all the press saying 'consume, consume!' But basically, shopping is now a leisure/reward system, it’s in that category. Just think back to the fifties. You'd save and save for your winter coat, and you’d have it for fifteen years or until you outgrew it or moths ate it. It was your winter coat.

I think shopping sustainably is much easier than you may think. Supporting local artisans and knowing where your garment comes from, and developing a relationship with your garment will make you want to buy it and want to wear it more. Trying not to be dissociated from where that garment came from is very important.

Annie: I think consumers, designers and brands all need to take responsibility. Like the saying ‘vote with your dollars’ - where you put your money makes a difference, because there are mass amounts of people spending mass amounts of dollars. If they didn't buy that thing, or bought something with more longevity, it would make a massive difference.

Gabby: And they would save money! If we weren't consuming every week and you took out all the garments you'd consume in a month and bought an amazing, ethically made staple, then you'd think, 'wow, I'll have that for ages, I'll wear it continuously.' As opposed to the other garments you might wear half of, and the other half sit in your wardrobe and get mouldy. You throw them in the washing machine and they fall apart in a wash and you're like, ‘well now I feel guilty, but oh well, charity stores will know what to do with this!’ Throw it in a charity bin and you're completely removed. We need to challenge the consumer, fight against the man! Be an individual, take ownership over what you're consuming, because the power is yours, it's your money.

You can find Gabby on instagram at @anti_fast_fashion or check out her band, Maples.

Want to learn more? Come along to our launch event, where Gabby will be joining our discussion panel. 

Header photograph by Annie Hamilton