Hang the World in Your Closet: Nubian Drifter's Guide to Buying Unique 'Pieces' Abroad

The world is a runway, and I’m lucky enough to have been given a front row seat. 

One of the most interesting things about travel is the ability to watch people from various cultures exist in their natural surroundings. Personally, I love to observe the many different quirks and idiosyncrasies that are, perhaps, culture-specific. I take pleasure in seeing what local people are wearing, specifically how they go about combining color, print and texture. This inspires me on a number of different levels: not only do I walk away with a clearer understanding of a culture that was previously foreign, but I am also endowed with new ideas, and fresh and innovative ways to bring life to dated ones. I’m able to take bits and pieces from here and there and incorporate them into my everyday existence, wearing my experiences quite literally on my sleeve.

Clothes don’t make the man, but they definitely tell an interesting story… and don’t we all love a good story? I’ve collected a number of different “pieces” from my travels, each item a reminder of a particular image, observation or experience. When I moved to Japan, for instance, one of the first things I noticed (aside from all the masks) were the construction workers’  uniforms— the pants, in particular. They were the baggiest pants I’d ever seen, but they had a unique shape to them, which, in my eyes, made them quite stylish. Of course I began to search for these pants, but with my limited Japanese, my efforts were fruitless. And one day, randomly, toward the end of my stay, I came across a [stylized] version of the pants in a hippie shop in Yokohama. Suffice it to say they went home with me. And were, perhaps, the most seamlessly integrated piece of clothing I’d ever purchased. Imagine that— an item of clothing indicative of a culture completely different than my own, and it was as if it’d been there all along. Gotta love that. 

The trick to picking up interesting and genuine pieces while traveling is simple:

  • Stay away from department stores, and any stores you have at home. As tempting as it may be to visit Gap or Zara or Topshop, resist the urge. Instead, look for outdoor markets, bazaars and vintage/consignment shops. This is where you’re likely to find the locally-made, one-of-a-kind, authentic [to x country] garments that won’t break the bank. 
  • If thrifting isn’t for you, check out the major retail shops that are exclusive to the town, city or country you happen to be in. You may luck up and find that thing you’ve been wanting for ages but thought nonexistent. 
  • Have you been people watching? Great— keep at it! The next person you see whose style you admire, pull them aside and ask where they shop. It’ll be a great cultural moment, and you’ll get the inside scoop on local shopping haunts you’d otherwise never know about. 
  • Take a risk! Try not to limit yourself because an item isn’t necessarily ‘your style.’ If you like it and it’s within your budget, buy it. You’d be surprised how easily things come together once you get them home. That garment spoke to you for a reason!
  • Look for local designers who put a modern spin on classic cultural items. For example, if you’re in Ghana, ask around for a local designer/tailor and get custom pieces made with the bold, stunningly beautiful local fabrics.

Shopping is a great way to not only get to know a particular culture, but to feel like you’re functioning within it (you’ll feel connected to it even after you’ve returned home). It’s also a great way to shake things up and breathe new life into a homogenized wardrobe. So take a chance on a Sari or a Kanga, that Kimono or those Thai Fisherman Pants and find ways to integrate them, or look for items inspired by them. I’m willing to bet it’ll be one purchase (or group of purchases) you don’t regret!