Norbyah Nolasco is a teacher, stylist, and style blogger. Growing up in hand me downs, she’s stayed true to that intention even now, choosing to wear vintage and second hand clothing nearly exclusively. As a teacher, she works actively at school to educate and raise awareness for sustainability. Together with her husband, they also work on their school’s sustainability committee to oversee and implement sustainable initiatives school wide.
Tell us more about your intention to wear vintage and second hand clothing nearly exclusively – how do the dots connect to now?
As a child of two teachers, I grew up in hand me downs. I remember getting bags of clothes from my parents’ colleagues and friends and being so excited to go through them and divide them out among my sisters. I remember being especially excited when there was a piece that was a brand name like Esprit or Gap or the like. Aside from these hand me downs, we used to shop in local markets or “reject” shops where brands sent their surplus stock and the labels were all cut out. Of course the driving reason to shop here was that it was affordable, but what I grew to appreciate (long after the fact) was knowing that my clothes were more unique. I wasn’t wearing things that all my peers were wearing. I remember in middle school how some girls would get so angry at you if you had the same article of clothing as they did, but what did they expect when everyone shopped at the same stores? The same rings true now for my daughter who is in middle school so I’m trying to teach her places to shop and to explore her style without being just like everyone else. When I went to America for University, I discovered thrift and resale shops. I loved clearing out my closet to sell things I wasn’t wearing and having money to buy second hand clothes that were ”new-to-me.”
One of the biggest misconceptions people have towards second-hand, thrifting, swapping, and alternatives of the like is that it is “cheap”. How do you see the impression of this changing?
“Cheap” and “inexpensive” are two very different things. To me, “cheap” means poorly made or of poor quality. If people are worried about “cheap” clothing, they should really consider how long they wear their clothing now. Most items bought in fast fashion stores are not made to last very long so that consumers will develop a feeling of ‘needing’ new clothes. I have taught my kids to do what I call a QC (quality control) of every piece of clothing they buy. It’s what I always did: checking seams, buttons, irregularities, etc. I’ve found that quality can be problematic when we buy things at fast fashion stores or from big chains. Clothes I buy second hand in thrift shops or that I swap are often items that haven’t been worn as much so there is plenty of wear left in them. I also find that vintage and second hand pieces from before the rise of fast fashion were made with better construction than clothing made these days. Back then clothes were made to last.
What are 3 of your favourite pre-loved pieces?
One of my most worn pre-loved pieces is actually a black faux leather mini skirt from Zara. I found it at a Redress Pop Up Sale. It’s such a classic piece and I’m usually wearing it at least once every other week. I love how it makes any look feel edgy. Another pre-loved favorite is my black sequin tube top from Mystic Mountain Vintage. I love it as a layering piece. When is a little sparkle not appropriate? In my book, never. It’s an instant pick me up. A recent favorite pre-loved piece is an 80s style oversized checked blazer from the closet of one of my favorite YouTube/Instagram stylish ladies, Beth Jones. It gives me major Diane Keaton/Annie Hall vibes.
Thrifting and buying second-hand can often be considered more accessible in western countries, what are your thoughts on that?
I don’t think that is necessarily true. I know that places like Tokyo and Seoul are known for their thrifting and second hand clothing shops. Likewise, I have heard that there’s a healthy vintage and second hand scene growing in places like Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand. The thrifting and second hand scene in Hong Kong ebbs and flows. I think we’re definitely seeing a rise in designer and luxury second hand shopping with the opening of Hula’s Warehouse in Wong Chuk Hang and Vestiare setting up in Hong Kong.
Admittedly there are fewer genuine thrifting opportunities. I love to pick through Me and Gee for gems and on occasion the Salvation Army or Green Ladies, but that’s really all there is here. Green Ladies offers a lovely curated thrifting experience, but what I really miss in Hong Kong is the opportunity to find the real quirky pieces that thrift shops in America or Op Shops in Australia offer, especially in the way of housewares. I love shopping at estate sales, too. That’s why my friend Akiko and I are working on developing a second hand thrift market called Hand Me Down Collective where people can come to buy and sell their clothes. It would be great to be able to build it into something more than just clothing, but we’ll start small for now.
You lived in the States before your move to Hong Kong, what brought you there and what was the biggest difference you saw in terms of sustainability across the two countries?
I went to America for university and as fate would have it, I met my husband in the second half of my first year. We ended up getting married right after university and then living in Madison, Wisconsin for eight years before moving to Hong Kong. One thing we noticed immediately when we moved to Hong Kong was that there already was a plastic bag levy in place which meant that Hong Kongers were already in the habit of bringing their own bags grocery shopping. That was nearly thirteen years ago.
Now there is a worldwide awareness growing around sustainability and overconsumption. I think the biggest difference we notice is the sense of urgency we feel here which motivates us to make more informed decisions. I think it’s because we see up close how our consumption affects the environment around us, every time we step outside we’re confronted with air pollution and ocean pollution. For our family that has translated into a need to change our habits, knowing that recycling isn’t enough. It’s what we should do only after we’ve looked for ways to refuse, reduce and reuse what we have. For years, America has sent its recycling overseas, and has been complacent in knowing that if they just recycle, it goes away. Nothing ever goes away. The urgency to find a more sustainable solution simply isn’t the same when you don’t actually see the impact of overconsumption as closely as we do here in Hong Kong.
Beyond a stylist and fashion blog writer, you’re also a teacher; what are some of the ways you introduce sustainability into your classroom?
I work actively at school to educate and raise awareness for sustainability. One of the things I’ve done is to help implement some “Eco Classroom Norms” which basically states that students need to be mindful of how they consume (for example: materials, and air conditioning). I enforce the expectation that if students want to eat or drink in my class, they can only do so by bringing those snacks and drinks in reusable containers. I also do daily lunch duty and after school recycling to help teach our community about minimising their consumption, separating their recyclables and discarding waste responsibly. Students know this is important to me and will often ask me questions about how to recycle properly. My husband and I also work on our school’s sustainability committee to oversee and implement sustainable initiatives school wide.
Teacher by day and blogger by night, how does one influence the other?
Lately, to be honest, the teacher role has really left me little time to keep my blog updated, so it doesn’t feel much like one is influencing the other. I have several posts in draft form and loads of ideas for projects I’d like to do, but only a finite number of hours in the day. The teacher role is my primary role and lately my lessons for my students are becoming more and more like the thoughts I share on my blog about mindful consumption and stewardship of our environment. Beyond that, on my blog I write about being comfortable in my own skin and expressing myself through my clothing. I write about being a strong woman and the challenges of motherhood. I encourage people to be better, think better, act better, choose better. To do what they care about with conviction and passion. Those same things could be said about how I approach being a teacher, too. I always strive to make myself relatable to kids so they’ll ask me the hard questions and walk out of my class knowing what matters, unafraid to make mistakes along the way.
What is the relationship you have with your clothes?
To be honest, I used to feel a little self conscious about how loving clothes and getting dressed up came across to others. Did it make me seem shallow or vain? But then I decided that I don’t get dressed up to worry about what others think. For me, clothes are one way I express myself. I love how an outfit can inspire or make a person smile. I said once that vintage dresses were like friends, each with their own personality or vibe. When I see my clothes, I remember the ways I’ve worn them. If it was a special occasion, or where I went, etc. Wearing secondhand or vintage requires you to maintain your clothes and this has given me a greater connection to them. I never just throw something away because it is broken or doesn’t fit. Instead, I try to re-home it. I think in this way, my relationship with clothes reflects my values. I don’t buy lots of clothes to have them as possessions, rather I think of them as having a certain lease of time with me. When I’m done with them, they should move on and make someone else happy. That’s why, with my friend Akiko, we’ve developed our secondhand thrift market. And ultimately, the more we pass on to others, the less ends up in a landfill.
Be mindful consumers of fashion. Choose quality over quantity and definitely instil these values in our younger generation. If we are what we wear, then decide what you want your clothes to say about you. Looking stylish doesn’t have to cost the environment. Clothes can go far beyond just making a statement, they can make an impact on our future.
We are inspired by Norbyah’s commitment to a life conscious of environmental impact and are proud to have her as Fieldtesters, a group of inspiring individuals that test MATTER products in their everyday journeys of passion, to help us improve durability and design. Norbyah is wearing the Work Jumpsuit + Mystic Mountain, Classic Jumpsuit + Rana, and Lounge Lunghi + Koya in Size 1.