I first came across the word “ukay-ukay” from my mother-in-law who lives somewhere in Benguet. It was circa 1992. Just so everyone knows what ukay-ukay means, let me quote my daughter:
Simply put, ukay-ukay is thrifting/thrift-store shopping, Philippine-style. I say “Philippine style” because ukay stores are not so much clean, brightly-lit places like the ones you see in malls as they are hole-in-the-wall outlets that are often dusty and disorganized. Clothes are generally arranged according to tops, dresses, jeans, etc., but there are racks and racks of them and sometimes, piles and piles of them. Which is why the thrift-store shopping experience is called ukay. The word ukay is a Visayan word that literally means “to dig through” (source: my mom, who speaks Bisaya) and ukay-ukay shopping can sometimes involve hours of wading through junk (and suffering from sneezing fits) to find dirt-cheap fashion gems.
Now that everyone knows what ukay-ukay means, allow me to give you a history of how ukay-ukay became such a hit with my girls.
One day, mom gave me a bunch of lovely children’s clothes. “Used clothing?”, I thought it was only meant for those that can’t afford to buy clothes. But when I saw the array of unique children’s clothes on my sofa, hmm…I thought it was cute enough to wear at the oath taking of my father-in-law at the Malacanang Palace. The girls never knew it was ukay-ukay clothing until they were in college. Not that it mattered. Lauren seemed fascinated with sailor clothes that she’d often buy marine-themed tops or skirts. Apparently, she had fond memories of this particular sailor dress. I told her that the dress she wore in Malacanang was ukay-ukay. She seemed pleasantly surprised.
When my mom-in-law told me the cost of each of the children’s clothes, I was amazed at the low prices and the good quality despite being used clothing. Those clothes above cost around 20 to 30 pesos during those days. Mom, a talented crafts person bought these ukay clothes for her beautiful quilt projects. She’d cut up the dress and use the fabric for her grandmother’s quilt. I got sucked in to grandmother quilt projects myself but until now, I still have to finish working on it. Most often, she’d be in the lookout for clothes for her grandchildren until they reached their pre-teen years. What a sweet grandma she is.
I never really hunted for ukay-ukay clothes myself because they were mostly located in the Northern parts of the country especially Baguio City. Being a cost-conscious mother, I often bought the children’s dresses only on birthdays and Christmas. The rest of their casual wear came from Divisoria. The opportunity came when the two girls were scheduled to leave for the USA and Canada in the Spring season for their Manila Children’s Choir tour. Luckily, the training was held at Baguio city and it gave me a chance to shop for clothes fit for spring. Jackets, sweaters and warm clothing, the ukay-ukay stores had it all. Since the kids were just pre-teens then, they didn’t complain much when I bought clothes for them. Until they became teenagers…
Photo taken in 2003
My two girls scoured the ukay-ukay shops ever since they turned 13. My husband’s family lived in Baguio so naturally, he had siblings who knew all the best ukay places in the city. During a summer visit to Baguio, they took the girls there to buy unique finds. Lauren went absolutely nuts, grabbing everything that caught her eye and felt no guilt for paying 100 pesos (about $2) for a top. Lauren is now 22 and she still wears some of the clothes she bought back then.
It wasn’t just getting cheap clothes that attracted my children to ukay-ukay. Lauren says that:
Ukay-ukay is a very big part of my lifestyle, and it’s not because I want to be “cool”, an “indie (a word I hate) fashionista (a word I hate even more)”, or “different” (though it is a huge plus that pretty much every item there is one-of-a-kind). Believe it or not, there’s a political reason behind restricting my shopping to secondhand items. I believe ukay shopping is a way of resisting the consumerist logic of today. People don’t really need a top that costs P800 or a pair of jeans that cost P3,000, but we buy them anyway. Why? Because we are all advertising targets who are led to think that filling up our wardrobes with overpriced (but mass-produced!) clothes is the only way we can feel good and go about “expressing our individuality and style”. By buying into this logic – not just with clothes, but with other consumer goods like electronics – we nourish the roots and turn a blind eye to a transnational economic system that exploits labor with capital.
During difficult times, it pays to be a smart shopper yet retain one’s own fashion style. I’m proud that Lauren learned to be thrifty and saved most of her money instead of spending it on branded clothes, so much so, she even bought a condominium today.
Let me shamelessly plug Lauren’s latest business venture, ukaymanila.com. The online ukay-ukay store is not yet live but please subscribe to ukaymanila.com so you will receive updates on her unique finds. if there is anyone who is an ukay-ukay expert, it is Lauren. She has been in most of the the ukay-ukay havens in Metro Manila and in Northern Luzon since she was 13 and an ukay-ukay model since 5 years old.
You will be surprised at the wonderful discoveries at her ukaymanila.com. I hope you can support my daughter’s latest entrepreneurial project.