Thrifting on De Villiers Street is a retail hotspot for its next-to-nothing prices.

The custodians of Johannesburg’s CBD are stationed on the pavement on De Villiers Street behind a fortress of second-hand designer clothing – Nike, Adidas, Hugo Boss and much more. Saturday foot traffic is at a standstill. Shoppers navigate between t-shirts and dress shoes arranged haphazardly on tarp and blankets strewn on the sidewalk, as shop owners keep a watchful eye out for potential buyers.

Tumelo Ndebele, a shopkeeper, motions to a collection of winter jackets and sweaters that promise warmth to two men scantily clad for the early August wind. 

“Everything that you want is here,” he says.

The men search the pavements-turned-shopping aisles of the CBD looking for a new ‘fit for the season. Mall trawling is out of fashion. De Villiers Street is a retail hotspot for its next-to-nothing prices and for the new trend of thrifting.  

City of gold

Johannesburg CBD is a gold rush for South Africans pursuing new riches

Johannesburg CBD has a long and rich history like the people who walk its streets, many of whom have joined the rat race to turn thread into gold. 

Thrift-owner Pinky Let describes her clothing as diamonds. “One man’s junk can sometimes be one man’s diamond. I turn [second-hand clothing] into gold.”

Multiple renewal projects have changed the veneer of the historic heart of Johannesburg. The Gauteng Provincial Government Precinct (Kopanong Precinct) rehabilitated and developed 21 buildings in 2014, erecting a city within a city of high-rise metropolitan giants crammed in between brick-and-mortar stores.

The pendulum of Johannesburg oscillates back and forth between past and present but on De Villiers Street the pendulum stops mid-swing. De Villiers Street remains an ode to a bygone era. 

Mall trawler turned vintage lover

“The difference between shopping at a mall and thrifting is that you’re the only person who owns that brown jacket with the gold detailing on the side” – Amo Mokhutshoane

Twenty-year-old Amo Mokhutshoane started thrifting by digging in his parents’ closet. “I would steal their clothes all the damn time.” 

When his parents forced him to find clothes at the mall instead of the insides of their closet, Mokhutshoane came home dissatisfied. “I have a very particular style that a lot of stores don’t carry. It [the clothing] looked so generic and didn’t have that authenticity, that vintage feel,” he says. 

De Villiers Street is not the safest, warns Mokhushoane but the cheap, quality and one-of-a-kind clothing makes the experience an adventure in itself. With Mokhutshoane’s advice I tuck away my valuables in the glove compartment of the car and tightened the laces of my running shoes – comfortable enough to walk in. Adrenaline runs through my veins like wildfire, but as I make my way through the labyrinth of De Villiers Street I find myself lost in the myriad of clothing on display. I am an explorer seeking a hidden treasurer.  

Retro on the go

Johannesburg’s treasure trove of vintage clothing

De Villiers Street is a treasure trove for vintage lovers. Every inch of the three blocks of pavements from Rissik to Hoek streets is sartorial chaos, but you only have to dig deep enough to find order. 

Business partners David Mohale, Spear Lesolo and Nathi Zwane, who have witnessed the streets change from tar to tarp beneath second-hand clothing over the past 10 years, promise me that with a little time and patience I will find what men and women come to De Villiers Street for: sartorial elegance – clothing that is affordable, different and one-of-a-kind.

“We decide on the prices by checking the condition of the clothes, the price of the clothing at the store, the condition of the clothing and the people [we are selling to]. If it is still new, the price will go up,” Mohale says. 

As a first-time thrifter, I have my doubts about the quality of second-hand clothing. Is it worth it? Mokhutshoane, a card-carrying member of vintage lovers, admits it is.

“I can look good for under a 100 bucks,” he says. The cheapest item he owns is a shirt he bought for R5 and the most expensive is an authentic, “one-of-a-kind” New York Jets reversible baseball jacket for R250. 

“Where would you get a shirt for R5 in this economy?” he asks.  

The answer is that besides De Villiers Street, I don’t know. Not a retail store that is for sure. I find a Nike t-shirt for R50. I want membership into the vintage lovers club, too.

Like Alice who fell down the rabbit hole into a world unknown to her, I too was a girl lost in a world too large for me.  It is easy to lose yourself in the CBD, but if you follow the threads that lead to De Villiers Street there you will find a treasure trove of second-hand clothing turned into gold.

FEATURED IMAGE: A shopper armed with her shopping bags joins the hustle to find bargains on De Villiers Street. Photo: Imaan Moosa.