Thornton opened Tres Hermanos Ropa Usada thirteen years ago in Hidalgo. As president of the 25-employee business, she buys ropa usada, or used clothing, from around the country and resells it in South Texas and throughout Mexico.
People always ask, “Does this color look good on me?” I never ask. There’s not a color I won’t wear. I’ve liked clothes since I was a little girl. I’d always mix and match shades and patterns. But I was the youngest of ten, and my parents could only afford to give us so much. So I grew up to be resourceful, even as I sought out expensive brands. I remember how, after those rare trips to the mall, my sisters would come home with double the number of outfits that I did. I was particular. I preferred having fewer garments of higher value.
I still choose quality over quantity. I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I don’t wear many accessories. I keep it simple, classy. That’s what guides my ropa usada philosophy. Used clothing has long been a thriving industry in Hidalgo and all over the Rio Grande Valley. Like other ropa usada dealers, I buy my secondhand clothing by the pound from all over the country; I then sell the bales internationally, mostly in Mexico. But I also sell some of the clothes at my store. While most vendors traditionally focus on either selling wholesale, by the truckload, or retail, in a storefront, I was one of the first store owners in the city to do both.
I buy clothes by the truckload from recycled-clothes suppliers in at least seven states. Styles vary widely by area. California, for instance, has a lot of the younger, trendier name brands that tend to be more pricey. The pieces I get from Boston and throughout Massachusetts are typically conservative—darker colors, richer textiles that don’t get worn easily—while those from Florida are brighter and cut from lighter fabrics. More summery. The most stylish fashions? From New York. They have items you can’t find anywhere else.
Retail is the fun part. I’m always changing the store’s setup, turning things around and upside down, arranging and rearranging the endless racks and piles of clothes. We carry every brand, from Abercrombie and Hollister to Ralph Lauren and Nautica, as well as a lot of the high-end labels you can’t find anywhere else in the Valley, like Fendi and Prada. Hunting for your purchase in a ropa usada store is an adventure: you have to sort and dig through the bins and the hangers without knowing whether you’ll find an original Dooney and Bourke purse or a lightly used Chanel wallet. It does take patience.
People come from Austin and San Antonio and other parts of Texas, and they have a misconception that all this secondhand clothing is going to be retro or old or defective because it’s been “dumped” by the large corporate chains. No, no, no. These are new, modern styles, and a lot of these pieces haven’t even been worn. They still have the original price tag. Now that times are tougher, we get customers from all over the state. Here in the Valley, we know what it’s about. You just can’t beat the bargains.
There are a lot of ropa usada dealers, but I am not threatened by the competition. I just focus on quality garments and good customer service. I care about discipline and consistency—traits I inherited from my mother. As a girl, I used to help her sell clothes at the flea market on weekends. She made enough of a profit to open her own little retail outlet in Las Milpas, a neighborhood in Pharr. Her name is Consuelo Cazares, but everyone knows her as Chelo, so the shop was named Chelo’s Secondhand Store. I was ten when I started there, arranging displays and waiting on customers.
I thought I’d follow in my mother’s footsteps and open my own business someday, but I didn’t actually pursue the idea until I was 25, when I got a tragic wake-up call. My husband, who was only a year older than me, passed away from heart complications. We had been living in Kansas City, Missouri, near his family, and my job until then had been to care for our two daughters, who were 1 and 3, at home. All of a sudden, everything—our financial stability, our future—depended on me. I decided to move to Hidalgo, where I’d grown up, and return to school. Eventually I took a job at an advertising firm, and that, surprisingly, is what led me to my calling. It just so happened one day that I met a client at a ropa usada store, where she worked. I walked in, and all these memories came flooding back. I thought, “This is what I like. This is what I need to do.”
I started small. I began studying businesses while I worked at the firm, until I found the confidence to ask a brother and a sister of mine for a couple of loans to launch my new venture. I told them I’d repay it all as soon as I earned enough revenue. It was a huge risk on their part. But that’s how I decided on the store’s name, which translates to “three siblings.”
Tres Hermanos opened its doors on August 4, 1998. At first it was a 1,600-square-foot space downtown. We grew to be five employees, including me, and sold 172,000 pounds of clothes a month. Now we’re housed two miles down the road, on International Boulevard, in a 60,000-square-foot building. We sell about 344,000 pounds a week. What’s always kept me going, of course, is my girls, who are now 24 and 26. The business is worth several million dollars, and one of them hopes to take over someday. As for my brother and my sister? I’ve paid them back in full. With interest.
And I still recall the first dollar Tres Hermanos ever made. A young woman asked me how much I wanted for a small, brown purse with long handles. “Two dollars,” I said. “One,” she haggled. “Sure,” I replied, beaming. It was only a dollar, but it was the most important one. I have it framed on a plaque in my office.