Thrifty chic

3:43pm Thursday 18th February 2010

I have just confided in my hairdresser that I have bought the dress of the decade, even though I actually don’t have anywhere to wear it! It is an amazing sheath of a dress, designed by Future Ozbeck. What is even more amazing, however, is that although it is designer classic, I snapped it up for a mere £25 at a fashion show in aid of Helen & Douglas House children’s hospice in Oxford.

A growing number of discerning shoppers, myself among them, have discovered what an Aladdin’s cave of treasures charity shops can be.

The much coveted chic of celebrities such as supermodel Kate Moss and actress Sienna Miller, who have been known to visit charity shops to dig out one-off vintage pieces, have certainly put charity stores in the limelight, and the recent launch by Oxfam of three London fashion boutiques is encouraging people to browse the rails.

The fashion show at Chipping Norton Town Hall was the idea of Angie Gaydon, manager of the Helen & Douglas House store in Chipping Norton.

Noticing a trend for more and more designer donations, she decided to stock-pile a number of outfits over the course of several months to showcase in one fashion extravaganza. Twenty-five volunteers took to the catwalk each modelling four outfits.

Outfits were presented in four choreographed sections including casual, evening and office wear before climaxing with a wedding party — complete with bride and groom.

The event raised £1,400 with the most expensive item — a velvet collared tweed race coat — going for £75. The whole idea of the show was to raise the profile of the Helen & Douglas House store which boasts at least half a dozen aristocratic ladies on its books as regular donators. Designer labels span the alphabet with recent items sold including a Vivienne Westwood skirt and vintage Yves Saint Laurent dress.

Tory Bramwell, 37, from Kingham, is typical of a new breed of savvy charity shoppers who have wised up to the opportunity of bagging a designer purchase at a good price at the local charity store. She recently snapped up a pair of Sass & Bide jeans, becoming the talk of the playground at Kingham Primary School.

Tory’s friend Kate Rudge, from Chadlington, confessed she bought an amazing pair of black and white zebra pumps from the Helen & Douglas House store and it seemed Martyn Forgrave, from Kingham, also on the school run, was quite a connoisseur.

He said: “I have quite an extensive wardrobe of ‘retro chic’, ie secondhand, clothing. They include my Aquascutum cover coat, DAKS country suit, Holland & Holland tweed jacket, Hermes ties, Barlows shooting coat, and even a pair of rather natty Russell & Bromley suede shoes — in fact I could do the whole country rig look!”

The Oxfam store in Broad Street, Oxford, was the UK’s first charity shop, opened in 1948. The selling of the Arctic Monkeys’ Crying Lightning single nationwide helped to highlight the 700-strong chain (19 of them in Oxfordshire) Continued on page 49 group to the fashion-conscious and younger markets in particular, a feat also achieved with the launch of its first ever fashion boutiques, which alongside high quality donated fashion also sell reinvented pieces that have been reworked from donated items by leading young designers.

Barbara Stocking, Chief Executive of Oxfam said: “Our customers have told us they want a more contemporary shopping experience, and these new shops are set to turn the traditional concept of an Oxfam shop on its head”.

Sadly there are no plans for such a store yet in Oxfordshire although Jan Tansley, manager of the Broad Street store, said: “Oxfam has always been a place where stylish people go to buy something unique and it’s very transparent where the funds go.”

The store has its fair share of retro clothes which appeal to the student community, who can make up an individual look for a modest price.

Jan also gets some high-profile visitors, including the Oxford-born supermodel Yasmin Le Bon, who came in to buy a dress for her daughter.

While charity shops support various causes, what they all have in common is the quality of the offer being down to the quality of the donation.

Scott Bloomfield, retail and trading director at the Katharine House Hospice at Adderbury, near Banbury, says they took a tip from last year’s TV series Mary Queen of Charity Shops, presented by Mary Portas, which looked at beefing up the sector and teamed up with local businesses asking, as Mary had advised in her D-Day campaign, each person bring in one good quality donation.

Scott says, the Katharine House store in Bicester also benefits from having the Bicester Shopping Village on its doorstep and the team there capitalise on labelled donations such as Karen Millen dresses and Hugo Boss suits by putting them straight into the shop window.

While donators and shoppers come from all walks of life, your regular charity shopper however is still probably forty-plus and there will always be a variety of reasons why some people will never buy secondhand. One is that quite a few donations (and especially menswear) will have come from the dear departed. The other is the perceived embarrassment of being seen shopping in such stores, which is why some people only shop in charity stores out of their local neighbourhoods.

The proliferation of TV programmes such as Cash in the Attic and online websites such as Ebay have, however, meant a general savvying up of the whole sector by both vendor and buyer. Eminently saleable items, if spotted when brought in, are picked out to be sold by auction at elevated prices.

My in-laws (Pauline Watkins pictured) have been crossing the thresholds of charity stores for over 20 years and have amassed many a bargain along the way with recent buys including a Harrods coat and shooting jacket. Both items were bought for around a fiver each. A keen eye, regular vists, and a bit of being in the right place at the right time can all help turn apparent rags into riches.

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