Culture | Behind the counter

A peek inside the world of Montreal’s friperies

In Montreal, the friperie, or used clothing store, is more than a novelty shopping experience. I hesitate to say “it’s a way of life,” on account of the cliché, but walking down any street in the city, the discerning Montrealer can’t help but notice the ubiquitous array of vintage vêtements on every passing hipster. We’ve all been there. Those chaotic closet spaces, erupting with the type of clothes your mom swore would come back into style; that quick-tempo music in the background to keep the buyer bumpin’. It’s a shopper’s delight.

But while we’re devotedly picking through chunky sweaters, do we ever take a moment to look up and wonder about the lives of those mysterious yet well-dressed characters behind the counter? They’re the people stapling price tags to our purchases, an open novel face down on the glass of the jewellery display case. I’m talking about friperie owners. Most customers don’t get past a “bonjour” or “can I help you with anything?” but behind their saccharine reception, is there a demon dancing? As university students with thin pockets, we’ve got to wonder: are these people our friends or our foes?

After doing some investigative work, including visiting and interviewing friperie owners in the Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods, and despite my best efforts to vilify the stylish shop-keepers, my results proved my skepticism unfounded. I found the owners to be, overall, benign characters who share a genuine concern for the environment, a passion for fashion, and an obligation to put bread on the table.

Although their histories vary, many friperie owners started out as aspiring fashion designers. It was on this path that they developed the experience and expertise necessary to manage a used clothing store. Since, at every friperie I visited, each item is lovingly selected by the hands of the owner, an acute understanding of fabrics and craftsmanship is necessary in order to determine the quality of the garment and eventually the price it should be sold for. Friperie St-Laurent, for instance, has on- hand stacks of books on leather jackets used to determine the time period during which specific pieces were made, while Lorraine, the owner of Friperie Bohème, explained that she could tell whether a button-hole was sewed by hand or by a machine due to her design background.

Still, I did not speak to one friperie owner who had anticipated ending up in the vintage clothing business. The job became an option when design lost its charm, families were formulating, money had to be made, and closets were getting too damn big. “It got to the point where I had so many clothes that I had to open a store!” jokes Lorraine.

With this in mind, the shopper can see each store as an expression of its owner. Although they anticipate the trends, the owners would never put anything on their shelves that they find unattractive – everything is something that, in theory, they would wear themselves. So, when they say “I love that dress!” you can bet they don’t have shrewd intentions.

In addition, friperie owners share a belief in recycling. With the overabundance of garments already out there, why buy new? Mone from Friperie Swing explains that his environmentalism is part and parcel of his business. People can create a truly unique style using only recycled clothes.

All the owners were reluctant to disseminate any information about where they find their pieces. “Just everywhere,” they would say, or “that’s the secret!” Secret shmeecret. I have no reason to believe they’re not leafing through items at the local Value Village and then tripling the price. But I can’t help but like these people. If they’re doing it, that means you don’t have to. Instead of walking into a giant box of eighty per cent junk, you can walk into a smaller space of eighty per cent gems. That means you’re one step closer to finding your hidden treasure. And oh, the smell of discovery is sweet. Thank the fashion gods for friperies.


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