Photos by Ella Richmond
In one of the biggest hubs in Southeast Asia is a hidden market with four stories of clothes upon clothes for only a few dollars each. I was a weary female traveler sick of the same wardrobe when I landed in Jakarta, on my way to work in Sulawesi, and desperately wanted to get some new clothes.
But being an eco-conscious gal, and with the recent debate about ethical fashion after the sweatshop factory fires in Bangladesh, I didn’t really feel like going to the mall in search of a new dress or two.
I had heard whispers from other travelers about a market in Jakarta that held clothes from all over the world, but the clothes were second hand or vintage. I was hooked and told a friend and we decided a market adventure was just what we needed for the next day.
It was early morning, the heat had already started to rise and hang heavy on the streets, when we started on our quest for adventure and second hand clothes. The taxi slowly crawled its way forward through the building traffic. This was the second time we had been down the same street–we were lost. Finally, the driver pulled up at the curbside and signaled that we had reached our destination.
Getting out of the taxi, I was greeted by a blast of hot, humid air; a shock after exiting the air-conditioned taxi. I looked up at the large building rising above me that, for all attempts and purposes, looked old, disused, and abandoned. Except for one thing: there was a buzz of activity going on in and around it. I caught fleeting glimpses of movement behind the few glass-less windows.
My friend and I slowly made our way through the carpark and up the stairs to the ground floor of the building. Locals turned and looked twice at us, looking with searching eyes as to what we could possibly be doing there.
The first floor consists of rows of shops, locked and barred with roller shutters. But we were assured that if we kept searching, we would find what we had come for. We continued up a flight of stairs that were rickety at best and suddenly our sight was taken up by what we came for.
Clothes. And not just any clothes; these are vintage, second-hand clothes from all over the world. Welcome to Pasar Senen or Senen Market, in English.
Hundreds of small stalls are packed to bursting with dresses, skirts, shirts, and pants. Some have shoes, belts, jackets, and hats. If I thought it was steamy outside, it was nothing to what it was like inside. Packed into the small and badly ventilated space, the air was thick and suffocating.
Arriving early, many of the shop keepers were still setting up or eating an early lunch of rice and chicken, relaxing before the rush they know will come. We started winding our way through the market, in between the stalls. I made sure to keep my friend within ear shot, as it was easy to become lost within the market maze.
Most of the garments have come from Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, China and Indonesia. And, as such, they range from tiny size smalls right up to extra large.
Op shopping (thrift shopping, in American…) is not my favourite pasttime, although I like it as a sustainable way of recycling clothes and avoiding sweatshop clothes. But here, suddenly I was grasped by the urge to dive in and start hunting.
You need patience and an open mind and it takes a while for your eyes to be able to adjust to the assault on the senses of colours and prints and fabrics all squashed together but slowly you start to be able to pick out details that stand out. Many things I picked up were beautiful but far too small, but slowly I started to find things that would fit. And the best part about it, it only cost a few dollars for each item.
The market slowly started to fill up as more and more people arrived, and it seemed that we were the only foreigners that day. Everyone else seemed to be locals. We chatted with some of the fellow shoppers and stall holders. It was a chance to tryout my newly acquired Indonesian skills.
After two hours we were ready to depart, armed with our new, unique clothes, drenched in sweat and desperately wanting to sit somewhere in air conditioning to re-group. During my travels, I have never come across a market quite like it and nothing made me happier than knowing that I was adventuring between the stalls in search of second-hand clothes that I could upcycle.
If you are in Jakarta anytime, ask for directions to Pasar Senen and go on an upcycling adventure of your own.