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Haiti’s Pepe Trade: How Secondhand American Clothes Became a First-Rate Business


Secondhand (Pepe)

In this documentary about used clothing, the historical memoir of a Jewish immigrant rag picker intertwines with the present-day story of ‘pepe’ — secondhand clothing that flows from North America to Haiti. Secondhand (Pepe) animates the materiality of recycled clothes — their secret afterlives and the unspoken connections among people in an era of globalization.
In the early 1900s, immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe collected, sorted, and sold secondhand clothing. As the Jewish peddlers made their way through North American city streets, they called out ‘Rags, Bones, Bottles!’ Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the used clothing industry has gone global. Billions of pounds go to developing nations each year. Used American clothes play an especially central role in Haiti where, as one peddler reveals, ‘It’s all pepe, all the time.’
Dreamlike visuals and ethereal sounds intermix the beats of Jewish klezmer and Haitian rara music. Luke Fischbeck (Lucky Dragons) has composed the soundtrack of the film with an artful and nuanced ear, emphasizing the ruptures and looped connections among diasporic cultures. Secondhand (Pepe)’s two stories converge as American castoffs travel from the Jewish memoir reader’s rag factory to the Haitian shores. As pepe makes its way to Port-au-Prince, passing through an intricate network of peddlers, seamstresses and entrepreneurs, the past recycles into the present. more from twn

“Haiti has practically become a trash can,” says Ketcia Pierre-Louis, “where everything people in other countries don’t need comes here.”
Pierre-Louis is a businesswoman and affiliate of the Croix-des-Bouquets Chamber of Commerce, just outside of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Like many critics of imported second-hand clothing, which is known locally as “pepe,” she believes the practice undercuts domestic businesses and industries. Some have even called for the government to ban the practice.
But Haiti’s pepe trade is decidedly a business—not a charity. In fact, it starts with Haitian Americans buying goods at U.S. thrift stores and shipping products to Port-au-Prince and other ports. Pepe may include hand-me-downs, but the clothing is high-quality, stylish, and cheap. More important, average Haitians prefer the choice of wearing such apparel—and brands like Polo, Lacoste, and Converse—to not having access to such products at all.

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