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RefineLA goes beyond reselling clothes, promotes free expression of social issues

Third-year economics student Minh Mai, third-year political science student Sonam Beckham and third-year psychology and communication student Mandy Santoso co-founded RefineLA, a thrift shop that aims to promote sustainable fashion. (Joe Akira/Daily Bruin staff)

By Olivia Bridgnell

April 22, 2019 10:23 p.m.

Nga Mai’s graphic design depicts a lone fisherman sailing on a nearly empty ocean; despite the lack of fish left in the sea, his boat is piled with them.

The fourth-year biology student submitted her piece to an art competition conducted by RefineLA, a thrift shop founded by UCLA students. RefineLA opened during spring quarter 2018. Minh Mai, a third-year economics student and RefineLA’s founder, said their first shop mainly consisted of clothes from her own closet. RefineLA’s main goal is promoting sustainable fashion, but Minh Mai said the team is passionate about addressing other social issues, such as homelessness. The business’ recent art competition was its first step toward creating a community in which people can share their own ideas about social change, Minh Mai said.

For example, Nga Mai said her graphic design represents inequality in resource consumption. She said the fisherman in the sea symbolizes the idea that some people have more food than they need. The image is illustrated inside a black square frame, surrounded by a white border depicting hands grabbing for the frame to represent all those without access to food.

“We always forget that each person is a human being and we kind of devalue their existence by saying there’s so many people,” Nga Mai said. “A lot of the times, these communities that don’t have access to food are underserved and underrepresented.”

[RELATED: Online thrifted clothing platform offers affordability, convenience to students]

Another art competition submission, titled “Automation,” draws attention to a different subject than most of the other pieces, Minh Mai said. Andrew Zhou, a first-year computer science student, submitted a computer graphic to the competition that highlights humans losing jobs to advanced technology like robots. The piece portrays a human face with a robot hand holding a globe on a black background. The shading over the image changes from red to blue, representing a shift from a human-based to robot-based society.

Minh Mai said submissions such as Zhou’s highlight the concept that everyone has different perspectives and different issues they care about. RefineLA required each artist to submit a paragraph describing the meaning behind their piece for the competition. The first, second and third place winners’ pieces are already posted on RefineLA’s Instagram profile. Minh Mai said the company will upload the rest of the submitted artwork and paragraphs on their website and also will open a free submission option on their page.

“Instead of becoming a brand that’s kind of forcing something onto you like, ‘This is our message, take it,’ we’re a community of students that all cares about something different,” Minh Mai said. “(The art competition) is one way we’re tackling the issue.”

RefineLA also hosts a blog where content writer Annie Lieu discusses topics such as the brand’s main mission of promoting sustainable fashion, said Sonam Beckham, RefineLA’s co-founder. The third-year political science student said the thrift pop-up shops, blog and art competition work in a complementary manner to focus on promoting sustainability and raising awareness about social issues.

Beckham said the business currently sets up its monthly pop-up shops on campus or at the founders’ apartments in an effort to be accessible to students. She said the prices of items, which consist mostly of women’s clothing, range from $2 to $8. At the shops, the RefineLA team also likes to discuss how students can live a more eco-friendly lifestyle. For example, Beckham said they suggest nearby eco-friendly stores and may also write about sustainable food on the blog in the future.

“I think at UCLA, we have a large population that wants to be more eco-friendly and conscious but doesn’t know how to be,” Beckham said.

[RELATED: Students sell vintage clothing pieces with meaning through social media shops]

RefineLA might expand to sell clothes online in addition to the pop-up shops on campus and at their apartments, Beckham said. The venture is named RefineLA because Beckham said their goal has always been to start at UCLA and expand to the greater Los Angeles area. In addition to going online, Minh Mai said the company has considered becoming a social enterprise, which would maximize social impact and incur profit. Beckham says UCLA students can make an impact by selling their clothes instead of throwing them away to be eco-friendly and to help other students.

“The pop-up shop and the art competition they’re kind of for the students,” Beckham said. “That’s kind of how we wanted it to be for students to feel like they have a place where they can express sustainability or express issues that they’ve seen in the everyday and where they can also tackle it.”

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Olivia Bridgnell
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