re-envisioning consumption (or, why shopping doesn’t have to be a dirty word)
today, my friend and i popped by people’s park centre just to look around. it’s not ur typical ion-orchard-esque shopping, its not the tem or pomelo or zara… its memorable names like “Kaw Pink” or “Zess Shoes” in red & green, blue and yellow, block bright fonts straight out of Microsoft Word Art. signs are sometimes printed on a4 paper or handwritten on little neon post-its, clipped onto little stands by the store owner when he sets up shop for the day. the shop owners, aunties and uncles, are seated in their shops eating their late lunches (no doubt from the hawker shops nearby) or sipping their kopi-O or teh-C. they look expectantly at us when we walk by, i feel a twinge in my heart because i can tell business is hard and slow. the “sale” signs don’t irk me here like they do when i see them in malls, handwritten in black marker – the slashed $20s to $10s, $10s to $5s. i admire them, the patient waiting they do around their own little businesses, the urging us to buy from them whenever there’s a chance.
i was immersed in the experience, taking in the colours, smells (doesn’t a shoe shop have this specific smell?), touches (i love touching and feeling materials: cool jade, a slinky gold chain, a soft leather shoe sole, a structured silk suit) the items speak to me in their own way, their proud owners smiling behind them.
of course, since my trip to Changi and encountering that shoe shop, buying the love-of-my-life shoes “unexpectedly”, i have become more aware of these small businesses, the people who own and run them. My first instinct was to share this “rare” and “unexpected” little place, wanting people to flock there and purchase from them like i did. i want to hype this place up, to make them Big.
but on the train ride home today, meditating on my experiences, i realise that my own instinct for Bigness as an antidote to their Smallness, the frenzy i feel — people need to know about this place NOW — the sadness and mournfulness i feel — Dying Trades! Sunset Industry! — is very much informed by what capitalism has taught me as Success: upscaling, expansion; mega corporations, owning several franchises in different malls, championing trends, or simply following and reproducing them.
i say, “let’s make secondhand and thrifting TRENDY” but why must we make it trendy? why is trendiness a marker of success within the consumption world? we proudly say, “this is thrifted” and now thrift and vintage have become “brand-words” in their own way. why do we lean onto hype culture so, so very much whenever we are talking about consumption.
i’ve put quotation marks for the words rare and unexpected. there’s no doubt that if people ask me where i got my shoes from, they will feel that way – what a rare gem, an unexpected find! so hard to find these things nowadays! i used to think the same way, and a large part of this is true. it is true that capitalism and the rise of big corporations and mega brands have eradicated so much of the business of tradesmen, craftsmen, small and local businesses. i am not writing to refute this fact. but i am writing to explore the potential and possibility of consumption in these “unexpected” places, that perhaps they might not be so far off or unexpected anymore.
i write to explore this smallness, indeed that the antidote to fast paced consumerism, big-brand domination and reliance may not be to make these Small Shops Big, its not to make thrifting or secondhand Trendy and Fresh and New, but it’s really to change the way we think about consumption, production, shopping, ownership. to change our relationship to “small”, to re-envision the way we engage and live in this very material world.
the first thing is: small is beautiful.
small is beautiful. breathe, take this in.
Small is beautiful, as in, this uncle selling me this gold chain, he knows every corner of his little jewelry shop at People’s Park Centre. He has likely talked to every single one of his suppliers personally — some of them are probably his long-time industry friends. Small is beautiful, as in, i can see that this uncle — smiling at me, now proudly showcasing me his collection of pendants and bracelets – has unpackaged, handled and polished every one of the things he is now selling with his own two hands. his own Hands have touched and felt what he is now selling to me. he pulls up random things he thinks i will like based on the way my eyes light up at different things i am touching and feeling. this is not the “you will also like…” function on online shopping platforms or algorithm driven advertising – this is someone communicating with me through consumption and production; this is someone sharing his life’s work, his career, his passion with me, through selling and buying. these words are sadly now tainted with capitalist notions of materialism, overconsumption, greed. but here, i am saying these words lovingly, because they’ve allowed us to meet and collect in this small little shop space, they are the ways in which i am entering into and partaking of the small little world he has built up.
moments of connection. when have i felt this in stores or malls? i think about how we trust brand names – oh yes, its XX brand shoes, so it’s good. i can’t tell you how many times i myself have entered a brand name into the carousell search engine because i wanted to find a way to get a pair of shoes that “would definitely last” or “is of quality”. yes, i’ve been taught to associate these values with the brand. why? oh, well, they have millions of followers on instagram. they have stores worldwide. everyone else is wearing them. but i can’t tell you how many times ive gotten my toes pinched and blistered because of my own blind trust in these things.
in these “unexpected” places, there are people who have been collecting, producing, supplying goods for years and years. they have knowledge of trade and the industry… they have skills that i cant fathom. i used to love artisan and cratfed goods, people who made what they sell, but now i have a special respect for the tradesmen/suppliers/collectors who have rich knowledge of their industry and a deep love for what they sell. they form a part of the picture for me too.
small is beautiful. i want to rely on these small businesses, to rely on these relationships founded on mutual respect and trust — person to person relationships, not on Names or Numbers or Brands. this applies to that small insta-shop owner i trust to curate good quality things for me, as it does to that aunty and uncle who greet me when i enter their store. these are people who stand behind the counter of what they sell, and say, this is what i want to offer. this is what i think is good. this is what i believe is of value to you. these store owners beam and put their own face, person, livelihood behind their product, and with that, accountability, ownership, pride. we are not talking about an absence of profit motive, or no desire to sell you their goods. of course they want you to buy – this is their labour, their life. but all i can say is small is beautiful; all i can say is that here, there is trust and personhood and relationships that governs this process of production and consumption.
advertising tries to tell us: this is trendy. U need this. U want this. big brands scheme and plot how to manipulate us into buying their items; in turn, we scheme and plot on how to use a certain combination of discount codes to get the best deal out of them, we turn to websites and apps specifically built to tell us when prices have dropped; we hold out until we know the company will sigh in defeat and put the “sale” tag on the item we’ve been eyeing, or, we buy something, only to bemoan and rage at the company for “cheating us” of our money when the item doesn’t live up to advertised expectations. i’m saying this is frustration and pain on both sides – mistrust, scheming, manipulation, outwitting, disappointment, defeat.. these are the things governing our buying and selling today.
i mourn for the openness, respect and trust we have lost. i yearn for the communing, sharing, and joy we could have.
i want to smile at something i love, touch it, try it, talk to the shop owner about it, engage in friendly banter, ask them questions about the material and supplier, ask for their opinion, tell them i’ll come again, or purchase it, believing and trusting that the money i have put into the item will serve me well, will serve me long. truly, i want this.
the second things is: beautiful is right next to you, “right around the corner”
here, i am reminded of Remy from Ratatouille… a small little mice living in the canals of Paris, and the quote, “a cook can come from anywhere”. A cook can come from anywhere, and that beautiful item of clothing or object that you’ve been wanting, that will stay with you and serve you for life, can come from anywhere.
(i think that as i talk about the first point, i cannot deny that fast fashion is now so cheap that it is indeed the most financially accessible way for people struggling financial to get their clothing. people who Need to shop fast fashion due to financial constraint should definitely do so without reproach or condemnation. but im speaking to the majority of us who can afford to spend $80 on a good pair of shoes, who can spend $50 on clothes in one shopping trip. small is beautiful, and go and find where your own version of that is.)
but for this second point… beautiful is everywhere. to drive my point, im going to say “trendy” is everywhere. “cool” is everywhere. beautiful is everywhere, is right next to us, when we rewire our notions of convenience and accessibility.
let’s ask ourselves: what’s opposite my house? what’s on the street next to mine?
do we know what the communities and people directly in our vicinity have to offer?
i’ll speak for myself – no, not until recently. until recently, i relied on big brands to curate and collate things for me, so easy and conveniently. they churn out what they think i’ll want. hours are spent browsing online shopping platforms… linked to pinterest and instagram, of course, because there is where i know things are trendy, cool, hip, relevant. when we need something, when we have that urge to get something, we immediately browse a website “out of convenience” (sh**n, z***). our go-to places are always online, are always large scale, are always mega corporations.
but what if we think in terms of literal distance: what are the shops right around your house? what do they sell? where are your nearest local markets? what do they sell? where is your community centre – do they have community gardens, workshop spaces, or a book exchange shelf? where is your local library? what about a shoe repairman or tailor near your house?
and, what if we think in terms of social circles, the people accessible to us: does my friend have a spare one they don’t want? could i borrow it or swap something with them? could i share this with someone? could i ask my next door neighbour if she has any i could use?
i desire this physical and material interdependence, this intentional interweaving with those who live around me, those who are living their lives with me. in a season where isolation and independence have become the norm, even praised and celebrated, i want to lean hard on my place, my people, i want to depend on things to be there for me – the bread shop that opens every day until midnight, the aunty who sells the softest cotton sleepwear every sunday, the uncle who i know will be there, faithfully repairing shoes until he no longer can… in turn, they depend on (us/me), for their livelihood, purpose; and for both of us, we want each other, for the warmth, interaction, companionship.
third: small means waiting for it, and this is beautiful.
beautiful things find our way to us, in time.
i think something shopping secondhand and small has taught me to be patient. i know i want something: a pair of wide leg beige culottes. a bucket hat that actually fits my huge head. there was a time i was really into vintage glassware… on and on. in the waiting, and longing, i mull over why i really want the item. sometimes, the waiting teaches me something about myself too.
sometimes, the waiting shows me that my desire was born out of insecurity. i catch myself scrolling Carousell whenever im feeling down about how i look in the mirror. i believe that owning this Thing will make me feel better about my appearance, or i will finally look right. i know, i know. but im just trying to be honest here. because of the waiting i engage in – waiting for that item to come along, online or offline, i get a chance to process my thoughts and feelings… and sometimes, catch myself falling into the trap of trying to fill some void with an item. here, its crucial that i don’t condemn myself, because society has taught us to believe this…
instead, whenever this happens, i (try to) go to my existing wardrobe and challenge myself to put together an outfit ive never worn before. as i browse my own racks and finger the floaty chiffons and soft knits, the airy cottons and linens, the sturdy denim and polyesters… as i allow the patterns and colours i’ve fallen in love with previously to speak to me again, i find the frustration and desire for something new melt away slowly. when i finally put together something that feels good, i find gratitude in what i already own, the faithfulness of things that have grown with you, stayed by your side.
other times, the waiting shows me how specific and unique my wants are – here, i am not talking about immediate needs but rather wants – and how deserving they are to take their time to be fulfilled. i’ve wanted a long linen dress for really long, because i love how easy and breezy they are. i’m not gonna lie, i’ve walked into many fast fashion stores for this… and i’ve been tempted to get something simple and on “SALE!!!” but, in the waiting, i recognised they never felt or fitted right. i was waiting for that moment of spark with an item, like a person you meet for the first time who feels like a long lost friend. that’s how i want to fall in love with my clothes…
when you finally find the piece, it feels really, really good.
And if you’re a little obsessive like me, you remember that moment forever. (i do remember where i got every piece of my clothing/shoes/accessories from, because im slightly insane) i learnt that self-love is letting myself wait for these moments, instead of buying the first item i see in haste.
i write all this to tell myself, i don’t want small to become big. i want to relish in this smallness, this nearness, this waiting – i want to treasure the communing, the interacting, the sharing of the love of things between people; i want to form relationships of trust and accountability that will shape and guide my spending and consumption habits.
i want us to crave these interactions and relationships when we think of “shopping”, instead of mindless self-indulgence that only leaves us feeling emptier. i want us to be attuned to, and relish in, the rich, tactile and sensorial pleasures of a “shopping” experience, to think of touching, seeing, holding in our palms, to think of fitting, moving, walking… i want us to be listening, talking, making connections with people even as we are forming connections with goods.
you know, our consumption, our production, the “frivolous” shopping, could be really beautiful experiences – of connection, of learning, of admiration and respect for another’s craft and expertise. of knowing your neighbourhood and surroundings and your place within it. it could be one of grounding, rootedness. of respect and trust. it could even be one of love — for others and for ourselves.
i want this for myself, for us. and i think we can make our small little lives, our daily consumptions patterns and habits, part of this beautiful, bigger, intertwined whole.