Photos by Tristan Williams for Darling Boutique and StyleWise.
Do you ever have one of those weeks where the same conversation shows up in various contexts, like it’s following you so you can learn something from it?
That happened to me last week.
In the 5+ years I’ve been writing about ethical fashion, I wish I could tell you the best path forward is clear to me now. I mean, I’ve read hundreds of articles, I religiously follow dozens of ethical blogs, and I’ve even had the opportunity to do some public speaking on the topic. But despite all of these experiences that could or should have cemented a set of ideals for me, I find myself even more confused about how to really “do the right thing.”
That’s because the industry is big and the world is huge and the problems are both massive and always changing. New political regimes and trade deals change the rules of the game everyday. The more I’ve learned, the more I understand how little I know.
That complicated conversation I kept having with thrift shop customers and friends and readers always ended with the same answer: maybe the very best thing we can do, right now, is opt out a little bit by choosing secondhand.
And for me, right now, knowing what I know and being situated as I am at a thrift store 4 or 5 days a week, that answer makes sense.
Of course the fashion industry has a right and maybe even an obligation to its workers to keep creating new things, and I find great meaning in being able to support brands that prioritize ethical labor and sustainable practices. But I think we have, over time, placed too much weight on the moral value of buying new things from ethical dealers as if our consumption is necessary to change the world. Even if that is true in our consumer culture, I honestly don’t believe it should be true.
What we’re witnessing right now in the ethical consumer space is a dangerous conflation of shopping with virtue, and once we allow that idea to warp our orientation toward consumption more generally, I think we only find ourselves in an, at best, morally ambiguous and, at worst, utterly disastrous brave new world where all moral decisions are navigated through the lens of consumption, corporate structures, private industry, and Capitalism. In other words, we bow to the manipulative whims of the marketplace and its industry leaders’ compulsions. But paradigm-shifting moral structures come from a place of counter-culture. They must, or we will lose ourselves.
That got a lot heavier than I intended when I started writing, but truly, it is serious. It’s so easy to get caught up in the story brands feed us instead of engaging in comparatively harder work of writing our own narratives.
But let me get back to the intended topic of this post: Darling Boutique.
Located on a side street of the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Darling is a carefully curated consignment boutique that also sells lots of beautiful goods from local artisans. Owner, Linnea White (we share initials and a birth year), and I have become fast friends over the last few months of me stopping in. Admittedly, I mostly stop in for “shop talk” because it’s refreshing and necessary to have a peer to share work woes, advice, and news with. Since we both run small secondhand shops, we have a lot to talk about.
Linnea is also invested in ethical fashion and sees the shop as an extension of that mission. She invited me to help style some Darling pieces for a shoot with shop photographer, Tristan Williams, and we thought it would be fun to show how shopping ethically through secondhand purchases can result in creative, bright, offbeat style that runs counter to the current neutral-minimalist aesthetic. There is room for everyone in this movement.
We framed the shoot around two key pieces: a throwback Mata Traders dress and a quirky Guatemalan wrap skirt with little people dancing across the bottom hem (I wish they were more visible in the pictures!).
I decided to style the Mata Traders dress against the grain: rather than playing up its boho accents, I went ’60s mod with a collared shirt, big button earrings (which I ended up purchasing because I LOVE them), and Kate Spade daisy sandals. We tried to be more authentic with the skirt, styling it with a peach tank top, huaraches, and whispy earrings.
At the end of the day, we are all responsible for making our own decisions, and we really can’t hold other people accountable for how we decide to prioritize ethical credentials. But secondhand makes a lot of sense! It’s abundant; readily available at consignment shops, thrift stores, swaps, and online marketplaces; and helps us refuse to buy into the idea that all purchases must be overtly entwined in our moral decision making. Secondhand shopping is smart and eco-friendly, yes, but it is, above all, pragmatic.
And in a world of virtue signaling, snake-oil sales pitches, and other unverifiable facts, I am all for pragmatic solutions.
Learn more about Darling here.
Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.