A selection of Fiona's favourite pieces purchased from op shops and vintage stores. Picture / Babiche Martens

The Conscious Dresser: Viva's Fiona Ralph

An accidental journey from consumer to conscious dresser

Rather than aiming to dress consciously, my found, borrowed and secondhand style happened sort of unconsciously. If I had to trace the steps though, it would go something like this ...

1984-2003 — A rabid consumer of fashion; trends and shopping were my thing. A new season called for a new bikini, shoes, underwear — a whole new look.

2004 — A friend introduced me to op shopping while at fashion school in Dunedin. It was fun! I could dress as if from a whole different era. I became more adept and more obsessed over the years. I started buying less new clothes, which often seemed to break anyway.

2009 — Time for a real job. I had the niggling feeling that my clothes were too shabby for the big city and snatched up a few cheap chain store buys. Each season I’d buy a small number of work pieces on the cheap, but continued to op shop and vintage shop, and frequent garage sales and markets. Foraging came naturally, too, from my mother’s cupboard, a friend’s pile she was about to throw away, a dress-up box at a party (it’s not stealing if I see “vintage masterpiece” where someone else sees “ridiculous dress-up”).

2010 — Saving for travel came before designer clothes, except while I worked at Trelise Cooper, where the unofficial staff uniform and lure of a discount drew me in. My wardrobe was bulging.

2012 — While backpacking for a year, I gave away more and more clothes until I felt completely unburdened. One outfit, no makeup, no pretenses. Seeing how the rest of the world lived, trendy clothes seemed unnecessary. Learning not to purchase because I had to carry everything, and needing to strictly budget, became a new way of life.

2013 — My former mass of clothing seemed ridiculous on return to New Zealand. After seeing the poverty in the developing countries where these clothes are often manufactured, I couldn’t buy things that weren’t made fairly anymore. Without realising it, buying less, and choosing well had become my philosophy.

When I do buy something now, I try to make sure it is locally made, fair trade or secondhand. Even though I rarely shop, I seem to acquire enough clothes to get by — an op shop trip here and there, one beautiful vintage dress for a season’s worth of occasions, gifts from family and the occasional essential purchase, or hand-me-downs and unwanted gifts from co-workers. I still have a few of my Trelise Cooper and chain store pieces, so old now I think of them as secondhand.

I know that my outfits aren’t always completely “chic”. If I owned more shoes or had a good set of basics I’d be far more put together. Many times I’ve worn an op-shop piece only to realise later it had a hole, tear or stain. But I don’t care. I love the stories behind my clothes — the labels on the garments, the unusual shapes and fabrics, that they were found in places I’ve come to treasure — Invercargill, Wanganui, Opotiki.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t become so “conscious”. I’m envious of people’s chain store or designer looks. So easy, so on-trend. It would be far easier to walk into a store and purchase a new bra, rather than having to track down a fairly made one, or put off buying one until I happen across one that fits — thanks, Mum.

But I can’t go back. When I go into chain stores now, all I see is rows of generic pieces made by someone anonymous. Cheap fabrics and cheap manufacturing — even in some designer pieces.

However, I am a believer in Fashion Revolution’s philosophy that instead of stopping the wearing of these clothes, we need to ask manufacturers to become more responsible. And so I will go inside-out on Friday, in memory of the victims of Rana Plaza, and to urge retailers to share the faces behind their garments, and pay those people accordingly.

I know that my philosophy is not perfect — I should be better supporting the industry, buying more from local designers and fair trade manufacturers. And I will try to when I can afford it. But I’ll always love vintage clothes the most. And by buying less, I am encouraging less waste and less consumption — something which now extends into the rest of my life.

There are certain things which are best purchased new though — old shoes often break. So this past summer, I turned to Minnie Cooper, where shoes are handmade in Auckland. More money than I spent on the rest of my clothes all year, but it was money well spent.

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