I think the first ukay-ukay outlet I encountered was in Baguio some decades ago. Maybe because the bundles consisted mainly of jackets. I remember climbing a low hill or incline to get to them.
Ukay-ukay comes from the word “halukay,” which means to dig in and sift through (a big box or bundle). In Baguio, it was also called wagwagan because you had to first vigorously flap the contents (mainly clothes) to dust them off.
Ukay or imported used clothes have since become a fashion statement for those not rich, not too finicky, not too snobbish to acknowledge their existence. When a middle-income or genteel person is praised for her outfit, it is not beneath her today to admit that “Ay, ukay-ukay lang ito!” and it becomes a treasure hunt trophy! And the wearer a hero!
The first ukay-ukay were available in weekend markets together with drinking glasses, umbrellas and many so forths. Today, two pages of ukay places are available (location and exact addresses) from Google. Nearly all ukay places are air-conditioned and some are five stories high.
The general air you breathe is far from fragrant, and wearing a surgical mask as if one were going into a battle zone is not uncommon. The goods are arranged in racks with hangers and clearly priced (a little haggling still possible).
The earliest ukay were available only in weekend markets (such as Centris). In its earlier days, friends bragged of having unearthed branded Nina Riccis and Chanels. I, too, once came upon a really tony Saint Laurent blouse, faux leather cutout like lace, but it was too warm and too fashionista to be convincing as originally mine. But women quickly become knowledgeable about where those branded clothes are available and they soon disappear.
Ukay-ukay, since they are imported discards from more affluent countries, are presumed to be of good sturdy materials. They can withstand washing machines, boiling, sterilizing or whatever will pass the standards of its new (if diminished) owner.
Though I once found a rare XXL blouse for a corpulent friend, who did wash it and boil it and disinfect it and it just shrank and shrank and faded and faded and shredded away till it wasn’t even good for cleaning the car (too many buttons and ruffles). Well, maybe it was a made-in-China copy of an imitation Prada. (We flaunt names we know—ano, sila lang ba?)
My Lady Bountiful act is bringing along my cook, two maids and driver and shouldering the very affordable bill for their purchases. Do not be too finicky about an impoverished housewife, fish vendor or prostitute digging into the same box as you. Consider it an adventure.
The best use of an ukay-ukay store is as a testing ground for your aesthetic judgment. If you have a tasteful eye and quick judgement, you can have a pretty good haul. And you can be sure you won’t encounter anyone else wearing the same outfit.
If you have to discard some items when you get home (remember they were not tailored for you), it certainly won’t be worth fretting about (go look for some more next week!) It can become a vice. An honorable, affordable vice, and friends will be too polite to ask their origin.
I put my foot down on shoes. I don’t want to boil anybody else’s shoes. Bags are also hard to disinfect since it is the lining you have to worry about. How many awful things have been stored there by its original owner? Dirty money, sandwich, used Kleenex, decaying makeup, leftover lunch, rusty keys, moldy novenas and frayed empty wallets.
I’m telling you, it’s not as much fun if you were rich.