Secondhand Fever, Notes From A French Brocante.

Nov 4, 2020 | France, Photography, Simple Things

Buying Secondhand.

Between the age of sixteen and eighteen, I was studying, for my A’levels*, in Hastings, in the south east of England. I studied English, French and Art.

I used to walk down the windy sea front from the sixth form and secretarial college buildings to the art school, which was in the old town. Along the front there were shops and cafes and an Oxfam charity shop, where I would buy second hand clothes. At that time, in the late seventies, my motivations were only financial and a desire not to dress like everyone else.

Have You Heard Of Second Hand September?

This campaign, organised by the charity British Oxfam, aims to raise awareness of the environmental impact of fashion. Second Hand September encourages people to avoid buying new clothing for the entire 30 days of the month.  As currently, almost 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions are produced by the fashion industry and 11 million items of clothing are sent to landfill every week in the UK.

The name “Oxfam” comes from the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, which was founded in Britain in 1942. The group campaigned for food supplies to be sent through the allied naval blockade, to starving women and children in enemy-occupied Greece, during the Second World War.

After the war, Oxfam continued its work, sending materials and financial aid to groups aiding poor people throughout Europe. As the situation in Europe improved, Oxfam’s attention shifted to the needs of people in developing countries.

I have few clothing needs these days, because I work from home and as a photographer my clients don’t expect me to be particularly smart. Comfort and ease of movement are my main sartorial concerns now. Even so, I’m just as guilty as most of us for indulging in fast fashion. My only saving grace, I hope, is that I  never throw clothes away. When I have a sort out, I give things away to friends and charities and I use scruffy damaged T shirts etc for rags.

These days, however, buying second hand goods has become a militant and pro-environment act in view of the dismal state of our planet. Everyone is doing it, not only people who are on a tight budget and finding useful items second hand is becoming something of which we can be proud.

One of my favourite outings is to go to brocantes, the French country flea market and each Spring and Autumn the Foire de Chatou is held on an island in the Seine River not far from my home, called L’Ile des Impressionistes.

Junk, antiques and charcuterie.

The fair is an eclectic mix of flea market junk, real antiques, fine art, regional and pork products.

The Foire began in the Middle Ages and was first set up around the Notre Dame cathedral. It lasted for three days during the week before Easter Sunday. French pig farmers came from the all over the country to sell their hams and other pork products that at the time were reserved for special occasions.

Over the years the fair grew in size and was moved to different parts of the city. In the mid 1800s other dealers set up near by selling second hand items, antiques and scrap metal, to take advantage of the crowds of potential customers.

It was moved out of the city in 1970 to Chatou a suburb in the west of Paris and a short ride out of the city on the RER trains.

You could spend hours here, even days, there is so much to see. Here are some of my favourites in a slide show …..

Emmaus, Recycling and Upcycling*.

The appearance of the circular economy is no doubt vital to the future of ressource management and although I’m no expert, it does seem necessary to move away from the post WWII buy, use, throw away life style and return to the more frugal habits of our grandparents. 

Another one of my favourite vintage treasure hunting haunts is our local Emmaus depot.

The History Of Emmaus.

Emmaus began in Paris in 1949 when the first Emmaus community was founded by Father Henri-Antoine Grouès, better known as Abbé Pierre. He was an MP, Catholic priest and former member of the French Resistance who fought to provide homes for those who lived on the streets of Paris.

One night, a man called Georges was brought to Abbé Pierre after a failed suicide attempt. Georges had been released after 20 years in prison, only to find his family unable to cope with his return home, leaving him with nowhere to go.

He turned to the Abbé for help, but instead Abbé Pierre asked Georges to help him, building houses for the homeless mothers who came looking for his support.

Georges became the first Emmaus companion, living with Abbé Pierre and helping him to build temporary homes for those in need, first in the priest’s own garden, then wherever land could be bought or scrounged. He later said:

Whatever else he might have given me – money, home, somewhere to work – I’d have still tried to kill myself again. What I was missing, and what he offered, was something to live for.

In 1951, Abbé Pierre resigned as an MP to devote himself to fighting homelessness and poverty.

Based on the simple concepts of reducing waste, reusing materials and redesigning how we create value from products and services, the idea of the circular economy has emerged as a beacon for moving away from a take-make-dispose culture and society.

In our recent sort out prior to moving house next Spring, I took car loads of things to our local Emmaus. Quite a few things in fact that I had bought there pereviously to use as still life photo props.

Here are two of my favourite Emmaus finds that I have kept ….

Unlike a lot of provision for homeless people, Emmaus communities offer a home for as long as someone needs it. Emmaus companions get a room of their own, food, clothing and a small weekly allowance. Emmaus communities depend on donations of second-hand items to keep them going and will always try to find a way to reuse any donations they receive, often finding quirky ways to do it.

By donating the items you no longer need from your home to Emmaus, you’re helping to provide a home to someone who needs it.

If you are in the business of French antique hunting you will get much better deals at the Emmaus shops and depots than at the Paris flea markets of St Ouen etc. Of course, at the moment with France and much of Europe in a new lockdown, I won’t be going to Emmaus any time soon. However, where there is a problem there is often a solution … Emmaus have an on line shop LabelEmmaus, the militant e-shop.

Also if you are looking for unique French antiques and in particular religious antiques, I recommend my friend Carole’s on line shops, see the website Cabinet de Merveilles . She is also an exceptional photographer.

Why not plan a seconhand and upcycled Christmas this year?

You will still be helping people stay in business, but people in your closer community.




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