#MyJoburg with Gabrielle Onay, co-founder of Picnic&Thrift

26 Jun 2024
In our #MyJoburg series, we speak to people who add something unique to Joburg's creative mix and get the lowdown on what enthrals them about this city. 

Gabrielle Onay is a 25-year-old creative and entrepreneur, two descriptions she says go hand-in-hand. She founded the thrift and upcycled clothing brand Crybaby.Thrift in 2018 and co-founded the regular pop-up market Picnic&Thrift (P&T) in 2019 – all while studying at Wits. She is a collector of clothing and memories and uses her business platforms as a form of storytelling, sharing the underground fashion scene in Joburg with anyone willing to make a day trip to the markets.

"Informal trading is, in many ways, at the centre of the Jozi scene, especially for students... Picnic&Thrift has also become a home for many queer youth and alternative fashion-forward students."

Why did you start Picnic&Thrift?
It came about very organically. Having always hosted pop-up mini-markets in my backyard, and my business partner for P&T Ruby Manning having done the same in hers, we merged in 2019. We decided to create an accessible and art-focused space for other small businesses to develop and grow without the pressure of traditional selling points or established markets. Whilst originally it was just a fun idea, it very quickly developed into something far more powerful – something that resonated with a lot of students and queer business owners (perhaps this was directly linked to how open Ruby and I were, and are, about being queer small business owners in Jozi).

I personally found a very big need for this form of development in the business sphere in Johannesburg, where informal trading is, in many ways, at the centre of the Jozi scene, especially for students. The need for this platform became a big 'why' in how we developed Picnic&Thrift. The brand became known for being a safe space. By this, I mean that it gave air and space for vendors who wanted to explore their creativity through their businesses, without social pressures. P&T has developed into a home for us and the many small businesses we have met. It has also become a home for many queer youth and alternative fashion-forward students.
For Gabrielle Onay, Miriam Makeba's A Luta Continua, released in 1989, is deeply linked to Joburg. Pictured is Makeba as painted by Dbongz in Newtown. Photo: James Delaney.

How and why did you get into thrifting? 
I got into thrifting when I was 16, but in reality, thrifting is what got into me. I have always had an affinity for what is left behind and discarded. It has always resonated with me – and clothing has been no exception. I started thrifting for myself in high school, mostly around Melville and the Joburg City Centre, and in 2018 when I was in my first year at Wits, I started selling my thrifted finds to pay for university and keep up with my developing and crippling Pall Mall Blue addiction (I have since kicked this, good job me!). The demand and desire for my products became evident with me making regular trips to the thrift spots at least three times a week and doing huge online stock drops at least twice a week – and almost always selling out. I found a niche that worked for me spiritually and financially. It also allowed me to spend some intimate time with my own thoughts and creative energies, finding peace and space in my solo thrift adventures.

What makes a good thrift piece? 
I think what makes a good thrift piece is the personal connection you have to it – and whilst I know that's a bit wishy-washy-airy-fairy, I really think it's valid. We live in an age of a surplus of clothing with no meaning, poor quality, and few cultural references in the design aspect. Finding a thrifted piece that speaks to you is special; it holds resonance to a past version of yourself, or to a future one you want to create – it's embedded with significance, and allows you to take the character of the item into your personality for the day. I think it's very special to find a piece that allows you to play adult dress-up.
Choose where to go at the REEA Foundation. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket.

What are your favourite spots to go thrifting around Joburg?
My absolute favourite of all time is the REEA Foundation charity shop in Craighall Park. They have a super eclectic mix of thrift and vintage clothing and furniture. Hospice Wits Orange Grove, parts of the City Centre (aka the dunusa markets, set less than 2km apart and next to major thoroughfares and taxi ranks), and for good vintage furniture probably the edges of Westcliff and Melville.

"What makes a good thrift piece is the personal connection you have to it [...]. We live in an age of a surplus of clothing with no meaning."

When you are not thrifting or running markets, where are you most likely to be found? 
You can likely find me at any given point very comfortably at home in my art studio painting with ink, compiling and editing photographs, and aggressively drinking coffee likely with some Mac Miller or jazz in the background.

Home is…
Picnic&Thrift. Not really – but the sentiment is linked! Home is where you can carry your truth as loudly or softly as you want and need to; and in many ways, for me home is with my friends and family at P&T. Genuinely, I feel some sort of explosive sense of calm when I am at these events, especially the nightlife and music events. I feel this sense of safety and security internally where I can express myself and watch others express themselves, too. Home is where the white picket fence is slightly damaged and ruined by storms, but the garden cottage has all the tools and friends to help you repair it.

"Home is where the white picket fence is slightly damaged and ruined by storms, but the garden cottage has all the tools and friends to help you repair it."

What is a surprising thing people might learn about Joburg by having a conversation with you?
To realise just how many small and informal businesses exist around Johannesburg. There is such an abundance of talent and creativity flourishing in our business scene, and so many are run by students from their homes or residences.

Your favourite Joburg suburb, and why you choose it?
This is a tough one... It's a tie between Melville and Linden. Between the copious amounts of little coffee, craft, and thrift shops, to the bustling yet calm nightlife, I find myself most enjoying my time in these areas. I think that Melville is also so rich with a variety of people and old houses, and of course, stories – you can't walk down the street without either meeting a new person or hearing someone's story.

What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
One, I am biased, but a themed day Picnic&Thrift market, even just to view the variety of styles and fashions that our customers sport! Joburg is bustling with creatives in the fashion industry. Two, a First Thursday art event in and around Braam and Rosebank at Keyes Art Mile. We have such a rich nightlife scene centred around art spaces and galleries. I would specifically suggest spending the night between Everard Read Gallery and Circa Gallery and WAM (Wits Art Museum), and then heading to Kitcheners or 99 Juta for a drink to end the evening. Three, Soweto Pride. If tourists happen to be here in October, there is no better place to experience queer art, culture, and celebration than at the annual Soweto Pride event.
Gabrielle Onay suggests grabbing a drink at Kitcheners. Photo: Johannesburg In Your Pocket. 

Your favourite Joburg author or favourite Joburg book?
This author is an underground self-published writer and poet called Sasta Kuppan. Her poetry collection titled Red Roman is undoubtedly one of my favourite purchases and reads of 2023.

One song on your Joburg soundtrack that either is about Joburg or makes you think about this city?
Without a doubt, A Luta Continua by Miriam Makeba. Whilst the song is about seeking freedom and revolution in Mozambique, it is rooted in Makeba's upbringing in Johannesburg and her opposition to all systems of anti-blackness and oppression. This song is such a clear indicator of the melting pot that Joburg was and still is – how struggle exists for all of us to tackle together. Jozi is at the forefront of South African roots, culture, history, and politics in a litany of ways. So much of our history and cultural ties to freedom fighting and revolution have been made possible through the rich history of the Johannesburg scenes of the 1950s to the 1990s, and Makeba knew this intimately. This song, to me, is deeply linked to Jozi and how I perceive the city and its history.

The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
I am willing to catch heat for this answer... I have terrible taste in food. My instinct was to say that there’s a great curry place in Parkview or the biryani from the Kara Nichas at Wits. Actual answer: There is an Italian-owned sandwich deli in Orange Grove on Louis Botha Avenue called Super Sconto and they make the loveliest fresh breads and pesto. My absolute favourite go-to is a ciabatta with pesto, mozzarella, olives, bell peppers, and pecorino (Ed's note: We love Super Sconto!).

"So much of our history and cultural ties to freedom fighting and revolution have been made possible through the rich history of the Johannesburg scenes of the 1950s to the 1990s."

If you could buy one Joburg building, which would it be?
There’s an abandoned building and warehouse on Opphir Road in the District of Freedom where I have done some photoshoots in, and I loved the spaces. Four floors, empty, all concrete and brick. I would do so much with the space.

If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
The city's approach and tactics regarding our homeless population and shelters, the police's confiscating of informal traders’ goods, and I would love to address the brutality that our foreign nationals face. I would also love to create more spaces to facilitate skills development for the homeless through workshops funded by the city, something as simple as planting gardens in the empty spaces between the highways – this could be viable, affordable, and useful for all parties involved.

Favourite Joburg label, and why?
Vintage X Connection and Freak Sinz are two small thrift and upcycled vintage stores that work at my market and I adore their clothing and finds. These two brands are highly curated, reasonably priced, and their pieces are hand-selected and authentically vintage. Freak Sinz rebrands all their thrifted pieces with their velvet FS logo, making their thrift finds slightly more personal. They even have limited-edition ranges of basketball couture, skate merch, and art-inspired pieces printed onto their fits. Vintage X Connection somehow always manages to find the exact niche, old-school '80s and '90s brands that I'm looking for to add to my closet.

"People in Joburg are so friendly for the most part – and everyone takes things seriously and with a pinch of salt at the same time."

What makes someone a Joburger?
The amount of seichal they have. This is a Yiddish word that can only be described as someone having wit, intelligence, and ingenuity. If you're from Joburg you undoubtedly have some experience with hustle culture and having seichal about it!

What do you love most about Joburg?
The people and their creativity and desire to create bigger and better spaces. I love how helpful most of the people in Johannesburg are; people here are so friendly for the most part – and everyone takes things seriously and with a pinch of salt at the same time. At the very least in the circles I engage with, I find the people to be full of love, creativity, and interest in community.

What do you least like about Joburg?
The lack of an ocean. I've been saying this for about six years now, but the Free State needs to be scrapped for us to have our own ocean! We could call it the Vaalantic, or the Vaaltic Sea. We would do so well with the tourism aspect, and the city really does need some humidity. It would take a lot of work because we would need to do a lot of digging to make the Free State an ocean, but this would pay off because it would help with the employment and maintenance of this ocean once it is built. On top of this, I would like to unequivocally state that Cape Town gets too much praise for just being naturally next to an ocean. We would be building an ocean from scratch, which is very impressive and shows a lot of skills and effort – which I believe the people of Johannesburg have.
Smoking Kills in Melville, one of Onay's spots to finish off the weekend. Photo: Supplied.


Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Spend your money on local and small businesses, especially when it comes to coffee shops and restaurants. There are the most incredible small businesses around the City Centre, some with delights you absolutely have to try! Check out Fordsburg, Linden, and Parkview for some classics.

The perfect weekend in Joburg includes...
A Picnic&Thrift adventure with a cool dress-up theme, a walk through Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and Emmarentia Dam, an evening at La Parada for dinner in Rosebank, and then finish off the weekend with a Wasted Sundays event at Smoking Kills in Melville.

Three words that describe this city.
Loud. Hustling. Opportunities (in abundance).

Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:

#MyJoburg with Boemo Diale
#MyJoburg with Elroy Fillis-Bell, CEO of Joburg Ballet
#MyJoburg with Nobantu Shabangu, couchsurfer and hiker

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