CHALLENGE ACCEPTED

20 Oct, 2013 | Christina Grünewald

Culture, Art and Urban living

Can Bolivia’s biggest Second-Hand Market satisfy the current fashion demands?
Christina Grünewald combs through the flea market of El Alto, trying to find an entire outfit inspired by current Western fashion trends.

I am at one of the world’s biggest open-air flea markets and this what I have learned so far: 1. always wear a good layer of sunblock unless you later want to be mistaken for a red traffic light; 2. always pay attention to your belongings; 3. even if you are spat at, always pay attention to your belongings.

Tourists refer to this place as El Alto Market although its actual name is 'Feria 16 de Julio'. It runs on Thursdays and Sundays in La Paz’s sister city of El Alto, and it is quite simply a collector's heaven. You can find anything from vintage magazines to random cables and keys, as well as doors, barbie doll heads and second-hand clothing.

As you walk through the aisles, you get offered phones (probably stolen), various kinds of food, as well as llamas, pigs, dogs and, legend has it, once even a real life penguin. Before my first time here, I had heard that the market was 'big' but nonetheless I was overwhelmed by the actual size of it. I’d say HUMUNGOUS describes it better.

After passing the furniture section and moving past the electronics, I find myself in the area allotted to clothing. Being here for the 5th time already, I stand (again) in front of tables and tarpaulins heaped with clothing. Some pieces are wearable, others, far from it.

But what is it with the current obsession with 'vintage' shopping? In the world of fashion, being up-to-date is not enough—you have to be one step ahead. Some of us are only now slowly discovering the trends of the upcoming Autumn Season, while designers have already presented their Spring/Summer 2014 collections on the runways of the fashion capitals around the world.

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Yet it is hard to be one step ahead since you are trying to find clothes that cannot yet be found in stores. Therefore, as a trendsetter, you need to have deep knowledge of how the industry works.You need to know, for example, that trends tend to reappear in cycles of 15-30 years.

Does that mean that we should keep our clothes in our closets for when expired trends become fashionable again? No. What usually happens, is that old clothes end up on flea markets and second-hand stores, where they will be bought again when the trends make a comeback.

To succeed in the world of vintage shopping, you need a good eye to spot hidden treasures and a good deal of confidence. I’m in favor of avoiding a fashion faux-pas, but then again, fashion is not about right or wrong but about self-expression. And, in the end, street-style is what inspires fashion forecasters and designers around the globe.

In Bolivia, you won’t find popular stores like H&M, Zara, Topshop or Forever 21. A nightmare, you say? No, not quite. Living here isn’t exactly living on the dark side of the moon.

To prove my point, I have accepted the challenge of finding an outfit at El Alto Market, inspired exclusively by current fashion trends. Fashion blogs and magazines are part of my daily reading routine making me familiar with the Do’s and Dont’s of fashion right now. And the latest trends that have caught my attention are the use of dark, muted colors, monochromatic styles, and the appearance of accessories such as hats and boyfriend-inspired shoes.

The Harvest

After several trips to the market I have finally purchased the following items:

The hat
It took four trips to the market before I decided to actually take on the challenge. The only thing I had bought by then was my hat. There are tons of hats available, but my head, it seems, is just too big for all of them.

Looking back at the day when I was looking for the hat, I remember myself trying on every single model in sight. This must have been very entertaining to look at; cholitas openly laughed at me for trying on hats that were too small for my head. Luckily, in the end I found one that I was able to squeeze my head into.

A pair of shoes
I know the market quite well by now, but the search is hardly easier. As I make my way through the alleys I am overwhelmed by the amount of clothes and their variety. I slowly realise that I actually have to rummage through piles of clothing to find something worth buying.

As I start worrying, a shoe catches my attention sitting at the edge of a table waiting for me. To my surprise, it fits perfectly. I become a bit anxious as the vendor struggles to find the matching shoe in his bag, but eventually he does, so I pay happily and continue my stroll.

The shirt
I begin to wonder how the clothes all ended up here—especially since I find clothes that have Goodwill-tags on them. I also realise that having a set image of an outfit in mind is preventing me from buying clothes I actually quite like. So I spontaneously pick up a black & white lumberjack shirt for only Bs 3 and decide to complete my mission on my next visit.

A pair of leggings
One week later,I find myself in a different clothing section. Here the pieces have been washed and are displayed just like in shops. I didn’t know about this part of the market and I am a bit confused when I get there. Apparently you can even find Jimmy Choos here. To me, all of this feels wrong somehow.

While looking for trousers I start talking to Pedro Paldo, 30, who owns one of those shops. Thanks to him I now know that the clothes originally come from Europe and the US, but that they arrive in La Paz via Iquique, Chile, passing through Oruro en route. He gets calls from personal contacts and decides whether he wants to buy something or not. His options are purchasing fardos, or picking and choosing among their contents. According to him, the advantage of selling at the market is that he is able to have another job on the days the market is closed.

From my previous visits, I already know that I am not a big fan of the pants selection because all the items are either denim or oversized. So, instead, I buy a pair of black leggings and decide to exit this part of the market. I prefer the sections that are more chaotic, where shopping feels like an adventure and success is dependent on luck.

A jean vest
Now that I have shoes, a hat, a shirt and my new pair of leggings, I decide that I want a denim vest to complete the outfit. The market is full of jean jackets and I remember one man who offers a large variety. I get excited about the DIY-project: at home I will just cut off the sleeves and take a pair of tweezer to distress the edges.

As I rake up his piles, I learn that the vendor used to work in a mine until he started selling clothes for a friend and then started selling his own. He travels to Iquique every two months to choose his merchandise. He buys categorized sacks of selected clothes. That is what he has been doing for the last 20 years. He earns enough money in the two days on the market to make a living. I pay for the jacket I chose and leave the market for good.

As I leave, I feel in no rush to return to the market any time soon, due to the crammed minibuses, the crowds, the heat but I am really happy that I have also managed to find an entire outfit. Nothing crazy, but pieces that I like and that I will wear.

The shoes, the hat and even the DIY jeans vest, turn a comfy and ordinary outfit into a fashionable one. I only paid 173 Bolivianos for the entire outfit (25 US Dollars). Nowhere else would I have had the opportunity of choosing an outfit from that much variety for this price.

You can find anything you desire in El Alto Market—literally anything, or as the local proverb goes, from a needle to a tractor. So it’s perhaps best to not go looking for things—as it happens, they find you.

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