Around KL neighbourhoods, we often hear the call of Uncles collecting old newspapers and bric a brac on their trucks. Now, two Malaysian sisters are now taking this idea further with a social enterprise that combines recycling with a love of fashion: Thrift-On-Wheels.
The Thrift-On-Wheels van, covered with beautiful mural paintings by local artist September Khu, is hard to miss. It’s essentially a mobile thrift shop, the inside like a walk in closet filled with eclectic clothing, shoes, bags and jewellery.
Sisters Syakirin and Athirah Rosik are the founders of Thrift on Wheels, which collects and sells second hand clothing and jewellery. They also collect books, and more recently, electronics and household items.
From Monday to Thursday, these items are then sold at the headquarters, the Thrift House in Sutera Damansara, or sold from the thrift truck at various locations. Popular locations include TTDI, Damansara Utama and Ampang.
Interested sellers or donors can schedule a session, anytime from Friday to Sunday, to use the pick up service (the thrift truck arrives at your doorstep) or the drop off service (dropping off items at the Thrift House).
Prior to this start up venture, founder Syakirin was pursuing her PhD in Physics and Athirah was in the food and beverage industry. The two sisters had travelled to Hong Kong and Europe, it was then on their travels that they were introduced to the thrifting culture.
“When we returned, we were disappointed by the limited fashion choices we had” says Syakirin. “We would go to the mall, walk out of the shop and see another girl wearing same thing!”
“Many fashion brands have come to Malaysia and introduced a fast fashion culture that goes against everything sustainable.”
Seeing that there was a lack of thrift store in stores in Malaysia, the sisters decided to start one of their own last December. Starting small from their home in TTDI, the business boomed over the months prompting them to relocate to their current Thrift House in Sutera Damansara and secure the truck.
At first, their friends and family were skeptical. “They didn’t believe that anyone would buy used items,” explains Athirah. “Even though most people don’t think twice about trying on a piece – that many people may have worn, in the fitting room at the mall.”
“We want to tell people it’s alright to buy used items,” quips Athirah. “We try to promote the culture of reusing and recycling.”
In Malaysia, according to Syakirin, the main issue of textile waste management is overconsumption: “We Malaysians buy things we don’t need, don’t want or don’t want to wear again.” To make matters worse, “in the last five years, many fashion brands have come to Malaysia and introduced a fast fashion culture that goes against everything sustainable.”
While Thrift-On-Wheels sells secondhand clothes, Syakiran claims that secondhand shops like the bundle shops are very different from their service. This is because Thrift-On-Wheels buys directly from individuals (rather than in mass bundles from overseas) and they also take care to curate, wash and care for all the goods.
In the buying room, Mira, one of the two employees at Thrift-On-Wheels, goes through the selected items to find defects like a missing button, faulty zip, tear or stain. The items that pass this scrutiny test are bought, the rest, the seller can either keep or donate to them.
As well as the effort to reduce wastage in fashion, Thrift-On-Wheels works closely with charities and NGOs to provide skills and work to marginalised groups such as refugees and orphans. The sisters are planning to launch their own line of products made from upcycled fabric called VOWS, which features bags and purses made through their collaboration with Hijab for Good.
Thrift-On-Wheels also provide traditional donation services to NGOs and activists through their goodwill page. “NGOs and activists can request items from us,” says Athirah, “they have to ask for specific things, for example, five medium sized male T-shirts.”
The sisters stress on the importance of specificity of the request. “When people donate items, they are not filtered and often NGOs receive unnecessary items,” elaborates Athirah, “we don’t want to create more waste, if we send it there and they don’t use it then what’s the point, we are just contributing to the cycle [of waste].”
Thrift-On-Wheels has met with a very positive reception by two groups in particular: college students and the above 40 crowd. While the sisters expected the hip college crowd, the support of older community comes as a pleasant surprise.
Syakirin believes social media and word of mouth has been behind this success. “It’s also a great bargain,” says Athirah, “everything here is under RM50, the upper limit is usually for unused items, you can buy Marks & Spencer’s and Levis jeans at RM 20.”
Currently, Thrift-On-Wheels is only based in the Kuala Lumpur region but the sisters hope to expand to other states due to requests made from places such as Penang and Johor Bahru. In December, Thrift-On-Wheels will also be launching its very own online store.
Words by Soumya Bhat and photography by Lyn Ong
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