Four Blocks of Second-Hand Paradise in Santiago

Feel at home running your fingers over racks of soft, slightly pilled shirts and sweaters? Enjoy the musty smell of closets past? Revel in the hunt for something truly unique that also happens to be inexpensive?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then Santiago's thrift store mecca might just be the place for you. Along the stretch of Calle Bandera between Santo Domingo and Puente Cal y Canto lie more than twenty second-hand clothing shops waiting to be ravaged.

Photo by Neil Morrison
Photo by Neil Morrison

Rumours circulate among customers about the origin of this massive amount of cheap used clothing. Some say the clothes are shipped in on barges from the US which transport international name brands to Chile for less. This would account for names like Tejaskilos and the many American field day t-shirts available along Bandera.

"We used to call second-hand clothing 'American clothing'," said Daniel Ignacio Galarce Toro, whose friend is a clothing dealer. "It was due to the brands, people can afford what is usually an expensive brand that is quite difficult to get in Chile."

Others say that it has to do with Santiaguinos' fondness for retro styles, which makes some visitors feel as if they have travelled back in time. Perhaps the people of Santiago simply take better care of their clothes before lovingly passing them on many years later as good as new, as if they had been preserved in an air-tight time capsule.

However the clothes made it here, the shops lining Bandera contain relics from the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's in eerily pristine condition. And although a fuchsia taffeta dress may scream out-of-date to one, some other scavenger who recognizes and appreciates the cyclical nature of fashion will snatch it up in seconds, giving a new beginning to a garment with an illustrious past.

Photo by Neil Morrison
Photo by Neil Morrison

Overall, these shops fit into two categories, the first being relatively straightforward retail outlets for people who want modern clothes at cheaper prices, and the second more like treasure troves full of vintage threads for people who crave verifiably pre-loved gear.

The shops of the first variety carry big names like Brands of the World (BOW) and Suzy. These spots pride themselves on their flashy, contemporary brands and proudly leave tags on the garments bragging Nordstrom or Mango. The many snug black dresses and lacy low cut tops eagerly await a fancy occasion to attend. Clothes here tend to be less flamboyant, newer and, though moderately priced, nothing one would regard as a true steal.

Then there are the shops that fit into the latter category: old and proud and plentiful. Emporiums like these offer everything from ski-suits to little league uniforms and wedding dresses. For Halloween costumes or an avid sewer's next project, these warehouses hold amazing, high-quality fabrics and pieces that could easily be altered to any figure or taste.

Strangely enough, the locales entitled Meicy's (pronounced like the American department store Macy's) do not sell brand name items but rather specialize in heaping bins of plain and practical deals such as long johns, t-shirts, and soccer shorts. At the moment, Meicy's has splashed out a spectacular Halloween display with Spiderman and Batman jumpsuits bursting from the entryway.

Photo by Neil Morrison
Photo by Neil Morrison

These places generally offer quantity over quality and require a fair amount of pile rummaging. Also stop at Elbise LTDA for perhaps the widest variety, especially when it comes to sweaters and sweater vests. A salesperson with a hook will hover in your general vicinity in case you need them to get something from the top row or ceiling.

Many stores along Bandera belong to a chain called Nostalgic, which has twelve locations in the Santiago area. These places seem to flaunt their organizational skills and showy window displays which apparently justify the cashiers’ too-cool-for-school attitude and higher prices than those found in other shops with similar products. Favorite items include white leather go-go boots and mini skirts in all shapes and colors. Stop by Nostalgic when you are time poor and money rich.

But the best spots for bargains on Bandera are the anonymous storefronts nestled in between 600 and the 720's. 618 in particular, which has items hand-selected from other shops, offers a slightly curated experience that cuts down on half of the sifting for you. But no need to fret: the racks are still plentiful enough for a dedicated shopper to feel the self-satisfaction of uncovering a real gem that otherwise would have surely gone undiscovered. Now that spring has sprung the breezy blouses are only CP$1,000 (US$2.10) and colourful dresses are 2 for CP$7,000.

Metro to Plaza de Armas: Exit the plaza to Catedral and take the second right onto Bandera
OR to Puente Cal y Canto: Walk opposite the river on Puente then take a right on San Pablo and the first left onto Bandera
Hours: From mid-morning until around 7 pm, most are closed on Sundays.

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