The modern-day narrative in a consumerist society is bombarded by a far greater volume of advertising and persuasion tactics. It often appears in the form of seamless digital ads that follow us around the Internet from one website to the next — much like if a sales vendor was to stalk us down the road every time we left our house. With one-click delivery and e-commerce becoming the new norm of the twenty-first century, the fate of our society is intrinsically woven into a web of hyperconsumption and mass production. But our digital eagerness, embroiled in a ‘use and throw’ culture, doesn’t come without its environmental repercussions.
As threats to the ecosystem continue to worsen, becoming a matter of global concern, one’s complacency to sustainable methods of existing on this planet can no longer be deemed as a ‘choice’. Even though the modern society thrives on economic materialism, the new-age consumer comes with agency and ownership. Social media has made it easy to oust brands for their primitive methods and unethical, unsustainable supply chain. The consumer of today reads labels, bifurcates marketing gimmicks from real movements and wants to participate in the these movements.
Capturing this very essence of the modern day shopper — of going back to basics and finding more sustainable methods of consumption — a UAE-based resident, Natasha Fownes, has established a homegrown concept of a biweekly warehouse pop-up, La Brocante. The pop-up focuses on furniture trade, including buying, selling and renting, showcasing preloved, upcycled furniture “looking for a loving and welcoming home.”
La Brocante, which quite literally translates to ‘secondhand trade’, promises a one-of-a-kind immersive experience, bringing together a community of people keen on sustainable, recyclable goods, furniture and clothes, while checking out local artworks and enjoying a hot cup of specialty coffee.
Fostering a community space for shared knowledge and collaboration, an idea that seems to have gone missing in today’s isolated shopping mall experiences, Natasha started this venture in the midst of the pandemic. “I found that a lot of people were getting very depressed and leaving the country last year, due to Covid-19. So, I wanted to create a space that I was familiar with, growing up in London — a community space where people can trade, learn how to recycle, upcycle and just connect with a community.”
Growing up near Portobello Road in London, the world’s largest antiques market that sells various kinds of unique collectables, the flea market way of furniture trade was ingrained in Natasha’s mind from an impressionable age. Reminiscing about her childhood in Portobello, Natasha adds, “Portobello is alive. It’s vibrant, it’s diverse, it’s cultural, you can hear every different type of music and see every different type of person. But the most amazing thing is, walking down the road, you also have some incredible craftsmanship and takeaways from the antique shops.” It is this very spirit of feeling alive with a sense of community that motivated Natasha to bring a bit of Portobello to Dubai.
“What I had understood as a result of the pandemic was that prior to this, people’s basic skills had gone missing. Painting, planting your own pots, doing your own hair, baking bread, cooking a meal for yourself. So many people enjoyed taking back their ownership of these skills — of creating something themselves. People were going back to traditional craftsmanship and DIY.”
A TV and events producer by profession, Natasha was in search of a sustainable venture that combined her passion for creativity and environmental consciousness. “It’s not only about recreating the space that I grew up in but also about creating something that could be beneficial to our society,” says Natasha. “If you’ve purchased a Dh20,000 sofa but you have to leave the country for whatever reason, you need to pass that on to somebody that possibly doesn’t have the luxury of buying that piece. You look after it while it’s in your home, then you let someone else look after it,” adds Natasha.
A city like Dubai, steadfast on a persona built around luxury and premium goods, thrives on ‘newness’. So, one can easily assume that many here may be averse to second-hand buying. But is that changing? “Fifteen years ago, there was a running joke here: ‘what will you never see in Dubai?’ And the answer was — a second-hand shop,” exclaims Natasha. “The city is new and modern, so people can easily believe that it wouldn’t be an ideal landscape for second-hand trade. But the downside of the transient state that we live in here is that it creates waste. It leads to a ‘throwaway’ culture.”
From her journey spanning almost 15 years in the UAE, Natasha has witnessed a tremendous change in people’s attitudes towards second-hand trade. “When I first came here, there was nothing. It was the pre-Dubizzle era. There were no options for us to actually create a home that was unique to us. Everything was similar. I found it difficult to leave my own stamp on my environment,” says Natasha, expressing the vitality of conveying our individuality through the surroundings we inhabit. “But from 15 years ago to now, we’ve really moved leaps and bounds. With more people becoming conscious of their actions and becoming independent traders, there’s an awareness around our duty to protect the environment. It’s no longer an abstract concept.”
In a society that has become accustomed to selling commercial dreams and curbing any hint of individuality that may surface amongst people, promoting more of the same, it has become extremely easy to lose a sense of self — our likings and interests — our fundamental self-expression. “With any type of fashion, art or design, we all want to have our own stamp and individuality expressed through it. This is where upcycling and recycling can help tremendously — finding a piece that is totally unique to us,” mentions Natasha.
“I have a lot of musicians and hip hop artists that come to our pop-up because they don’t want to own anything that they can find at Ikea or any such store. They want something different,” added the founder, underlining some of the personal benefits that sustainable methods like upcycling and recycling can offer to individuals.
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