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In Poland, Style Comes Used and by the Pound

New York Times

December 14, 2008
In Poland, Style Comes Used and by the Pound
By NICHOLAS KULISH

WARSAW — At 9 a.m. on a recent December day, several dozen shoppers all hurled themselves at the door of a second-hand clothes store here, like a rugby scrum hitting a wall. Those stuck outside could only watch as a surprising mix of young hipsters and graying retirees sprinted upstairs, first to where the fur and leather coats awaited.

In a scene repeated daily, whenever the latest delivery has landed, the battle was on for the best finds at the store, called Tomitex, where everything, including the fur, sells for roughly $7 a pound the first week after delivery and as low as 75 cents thereafter.

But this is not a tale of people buying used clothes in the midst of recessionary gloom. The global economic crisis has yet to hit a majority of Poles.

Thrift stores here have become impromptu laboratories of the changing mores and attitudes in a country adjusting to newfound wealth. Young Poles here in the capital are now confident enough in their ability to buy new clothes that they at last have taken to wearing old ones. Those eking out a living on fixed incomes, especially retirees, still lack the means to do otherwise.

And so the hip and the strapped meet at secondhand stores like Tomitex, on Nowowiejska Street in downtown Warsaw.

The pronounced stigma of buying used clothes in a poor country was once a powerful deterrent for shopping — or at least admitting to shopping — at secondhand stores, known here by the derogative colloquialism lumpex, which translates as something like bum export. That stigma has been replaced among the young by a playful attitude toward vintage clothing and bargain-hunting that would not be out of place among their contemporaries in London or New York.

It is all part of the ferment of a capital rife with traffic jams as the new and used imported cars have outstripped the capacity of the roads to carry them all. One boutique for the latest new styles, aptly named Luxury & Liberty, has opened in the former headquarters of the governing Polish United Workers’ Party, which also previously housed the Warsaw Stock Exchange since the end of Communism.

Poles, who under Communism had few choices for clothes, now have the entire spectrum, but the full breadth is only available to a few.

The gulf between the haves and have-nots is wide, and the two sides are increasingly bumping against each other quite literally.

“I think the elderly people connect this with the past in Poland, in the ’80s, the queues,” said Melanie Kucharska, 21, wearing black boots, jeans and dangly earrings, and braving the throngs to sift through the latest delivery with a pair of friends. “But it’s trendy now to go to secondhand stores,” she said. “I can dress in a different way than half of Warsaw does.”

Asked about her better finds, Ms. Kucharska, a student and nanny, recalled her greatest triumph: a ballerina-style dress with a big bow in the front, which she thought was from the ’50s or ’60s.

Older women, by contrast, registered their extreme displeasure at finding a reporter and a photographer at Tomitex, expressing emotions ranging from embarrassment to anger. “It will make me seem poor,” one complained. Others hurled the kind of colorful expressions usually reserved for use on ships at sea.

“Older ladies here are proud and so fashionable,” said Ania Kuczynska, 33, a fashion designer in Warsaw. “You can see that they aren’t very rich, but they’re elegant and they have their own style.”

Ms. Kuczynska said that after socialism consumers placed a great emphasis on labels and logos, to prove that their clothes were new and expensive. A willingness to embrace used clothes signals a new maturity in a city finding its way in fashion, Ms. Kuczynska said. “It’s just the next step in our reality, in our growing economy,” she said. “The times are changing.”

It is a trend that has just begun to touch the mainstream here. Marcin Rozyc, a local fashion journalist and stylist, described his surprise when he traveled to Amsterdam several years ago and found well-to-do young people in thrift store fashions.

“Young people had everything from secondhand, but also carried the newest bags from Chanel,” Mr. Rozyc said.

The broadening of the fashion spectrum through the arrival of designer boutiques and stores made a more experimental approach to clothes possible in the first place, he said.

Luxury & Liberty opened in September, describing itself as a “concept multibrand store” with a bar and restaurant, where the winners of the transition from socialism and their children can buy a Vivienne Westwood bag for around $460 or a Diane von Furstenberg coat for just over $1,000, or 3,159 zloty. “The biggest luxury is liberty,” reads one part of the store’s philosophy statement. “Luxury and liberty are inside us. All we need to do is focus on them and find them.”

At the Tomitex, there was plenty of focus on display, but not much luxury.

“I can’t afford to spend 400 zloty on a new coat,” said Edyta Sudzinska, 47, neatly dressed in brown pants and a black coat, as she left the store on a recent morning. Ms. Sudzinska, who works as an extra, said she lived off just 1,200 zloty a month, putting 500 zloty toward rent in her one-room apartment.

“For many years we’ll be wearing used clothes, till we get to an E.U. standard of wages,” Ms. Sudzinska said. She said she had noticed the trend among buyers who lived at or above Western standards. “Now even people who earn well buy here.”

Four years ago, the Tomitex chain had just six stores, according to its co-founder, Piotr Malecki. With business booming, the number of stores has mushroomed to 25 in Poland and an additional 5 in Ukraine, aided, he said, by an emphasis in the media and the broader culture on the environment that made recycling and reusing hip.

Mr. Malecki, 34, no relation to the photographer of the same name who was cursed in his store while taking pictures for this article, said that typical lumpex shops in smaller towns were going out of business. Used, he said, was O.K.; low quality no longer sufficed. “Even in those small towns, people want to feel good in their clothes,” he said. “They don’t want a shop where everything stinks.”

But his cash cow is still the higher price for the new deliveries. In Warsaw, he worried about one location frequented by a mostly older, poorer clientele, but should have had more faith in the discerning, younger crowd.

“Our clients know exactly where and when the new deliveries will take place,” Mr. Malecki said. “They ride around Warsaw tracking them.”

In Ukraine, by contrast, he said that all that mattered was the lowest possible price, regardless of quality. “The middle class is small, meanwhile the rich are willing to pay three times as much for an Armani as in Paris or New York,” he said. “In terms of quality, it’s really quite a Dumpster. It can be compared to Poland 12 years ago.”

At the Nowowiejska Street Tomitex store, women burrowed elbow-deep into crates of scarves. One woman made off with a pair of French Connection jeans; a man picked up a Derby County soccer jersey with an Adidas logo. The goods are weighed on scales, once at the register and again at the door to discourage theft.

Disputes between the customers, on the other hand, are harder to prevent.

“They curse each other and they do fight, but rarely,” said Ania Jaroszewska, 23, who was watching the second scale at the door. “It’s usually a random thing, when they grab at the same time and say: ‘It’s mine! It’s mine!’ ”

Re: In Poland, Style Comes Used and by the Pound

The Primark in Ealing Broadway, with its low prices and new products, is as good a place as any in Britain to listen to Polish being spoken in the aisles.

I have more respect for those that understand value than for those that spend exorbitantly on some branded fashion.

Re: In Poland, Style Comes Used and by the Pound

I do not see how "new" this info is. Buying clothes at a lumpex is hardly new or fashionable - most of my female friends/acquintances having been doing it since well before I met them. My sister-in-law is especially famous for finding incredible bargains.

In fact I remember suggesting to a nice young Englishman teaching here in western Poland that he get a warmer coat before winter settled in (back when there was real winter in Poland, not this gray damp mess we have now). The nice young Englishman was reluctant to spend valuable pub money on a coat, so we sent him to a lumpex. He found a nice, servicable coat for less than 50 snots. This was back in '96, and he looked just like one of the guys from The Boo Radleys when wearing the coat. True story.

The bad thing about lumpexes (in my mind) is that there generally is a much smaller selection of men's clothing than women's. Occasionally there might be some nice retro ties (always good for Halloween/fancy dress parties), but I have yet to find one of those old, stylish leather coats you see the old Polish smoothie gentlemen wearing. I guess men hold on to clothing until it is falling apart.