A congregation of mostly queer enthusiasts of drag and vintage fashion sat in the chilly basement of Kremwerk on a Thursday evening. The looping beats of DJ MMMelt pulsated around us. Sitting in the front row, closest to the runway—the center of all the commotion—I cursed myself for not wearing shades. I had André Leon Talley on the brain.
At Thriftease, a quarterly event with a lot of moving parts, five models of different sizes, genders, races, and ability walk the runway wearing two different thrifted outfits. One is carefully curated by a guest stylist. The other is curated by Mona Real, a drag performer known for her vintage looks, who hosts the show.
Rounding the corner and coming down the runway was queer burlesque performer Ms. Briq House. Wearing a green, sheer, hooded cloak, Briq spun coquettishly down the glitter-covered catwalk. I glanced down at my brochure to find out more. The cloak, called "Fern Gully Faggotry" in the brochure, was listed as a size 10/12.
Mona Real, gripping her mic and lightly perspiring, started the bidding: "One dollar!"
The "auctionqueer" (a role occupied by a different person each show) was Amoania, a Seattle drag legend who was serving a slutty Suze Orman look. She began flipping the numbers on a scoreboard, tracking the bids, trying to keep pace with Mona's calling.
In addition to the measurements of all the featured garments (bust, waist, hip, length, etc.), the brochure included the names of the models and their Venmos (for tips), and other helpful information. On the back of the brochure was the attendee's "paddle," a unique number they could use to bid and to claim items they'd won.
Before the show and during intermission, attendees had a chance to peruse the collections of featured vendors who had contributed jewelry or accessories to the runway. They set up shop around the catwalk and seating area, forming a kind of mini-market. There was also a "Size Queen" available to take measurements, so you could be sure that the items you were bidding on would actually fit you.
As Mona called out bids, Thriftease creative director Isador Vorpahl, a TUF-affiliated DJ (MMMelt), spun more beats. Some items went for much lower than expected, others much higher. Once a winner was declared, Mona called out the paddle number and agreed-upon price to scribes backstage. The model then sensually stripped the garment off their body. Then the process started all over again until the model—either an amateur or an experienced performer—was left in only their skivvies to float cheekily offstage to claps and whoops.
Thriftease is an all-encompassing experience, one that's utterly affirming, fun, and also kind of hot.
"Selling clothes requires a totally different sleep schedule and basic labor" than drag, said Mona Real, the heart of Thriftease, who by day sells vintage fashion out of Fremont Vintage Mall. "Whereas drag is very nightlife centered. It's hard to do both."
In addition to hosting Thriftease, she does the shopping for the show, and she takes the measurements of both the models and the garments. Assisting in creative direction is Vorpahl, a drag entertainer in their own right, who DJs, designs the graphics for the brochures, and alters the garments for the runway. Together they dream up a theme and invite others who fit the vibe to collaborate with them.
The theme on this particular night was "Queer 4 Sheer," with More Fats More Femmes collaborators Adria Garcia and Kim Selling.
The looks were out of this world—sexy and a little off-kilter. The selection included a skintight beige jumpsuit embroidered with black flowers with a high neckline; a pair of blue polka-dot, transparent vinyl rain pants; an orange tie-dyed mesh crop top; a long, sheer, olive-colored hoodie; a pair of cotton, holey, high-waisted white pants; and black lace boudoir gloves.
One of the most important aspects of the show to Mona and Vorpahl is creating a space and a community for fat people to buy garments made for their own bodies. "If there is stuff on the runway that is for fat people and you're a skinny person, try to take a step back," Vorpahl said.
For the past couple of shows, Mona has explicitly asked for skinny people to be aware of this policy before the bidding commenced—to mixed results. During the last show, I witnessed at least two bidding wars between a skinny person and a fatter person for a garment made for a bigger body. More often than not, the skinny person held their ground and won out.
That ignorance frustrates both Mona and Vorpahl. "People just need to understand the difference between something that is free size and something that is specifically for a fat body," said Mona. "Realize that what is available for fat people has been destroyed, has not been archived, and has not been passed down."
Above all, Mona and Vorpahl emphasized the importance of community and inclusion at their events. "Always a big point of what we wanted to do with Thriftease, beyond make an amazing event and put our viewpoint out there, is we wanted to lead an event that would also better our community," said Vorpahl. "So we could hire within our community and pay people within our community, and so the event itself was a community."
"If we want to be artists and sustainable artists and valued in our community, we need to create an economy for ourselves," said Mona. "And that has to take time."
While Briq was still onstage, paddles flew in the air around me, dwindling slowly as Mona's rhythmic cattle rattle ("three dollars! Four dollars! Five dollars!") ran up the price of the green cloak. Eventually, a winner emerged. Briq then slid off the cloak and handed it to an unseen presence backstage, revealing a sheer, mesh, backless Yves Klein–blue jumpsuit studded with pearls. It glowed in the pink light.
The audience let out a soft gasp. "Wow," muttered the person closest to me. The neckline plunged nearly to Briq's waist, with frill going down the side from the top of her hips to the cuff of the pants. Initially, there was a frenzy of paddles waving in the air. Then the bidding came down to two people standing next to each other while Briq danced for the crowd. The jumpsuit eventually went for around $80. A steal.