Sometimes people say nice things about my clothes. Often the item they’re admiring has been bought from a charity shop.
Charity shops offer sweatshop prices, without the actual sweatshops. Instead of your £3 for a t-shirt funding the continuing exploitation of some poor malnourished kid in the developing world, your £3 can fund any number of good causes, and even help lift that same kid out of poverty. Which is brilliant.
About half of the clothes in my wardrobe (including everything in the shot above) are from charity shops. In the last year I’ve bought two cashmere cardigans, a chocolate cord mini, a Zara flared black skirt, a lambswool handknit, a tailored dress, and some great stuff for my toddler, all from my favourite local charity shop.
But charity shop hunting without any clues can be like looking for a needle in a hay stack.
So how to strike gold? Here are my tips:
(1) Good charity shops crop up in unlikely places. On one street you can find good and bad charity shops side by side, so the easiest way to check is to go for an initial trawl. Ideally you want to look in areas that are middle class, and semi-urban or suburban, rather than on the high street, as the shops will be bigger and better stocked. All that middle class guilt is great when it comes to people making generous donations. Out in the sticks the stock will also hang around longer so you’ll have a higher chance of finding something great.
(2) Shops in posh areas might seem like a good idea, but they can be very expensive, usually because their business rates are high. Likewise, shops in student areas will get regularly raided by fashion types.
(3) To identify a good shop you need to go beyond the window display, which may be put together with a volunteer with enthusiasm but little fashion sense. Instead, do a proper recce of a few likely candidates. Ask them when they rotate their stock (probably once a fortnight) and then come back in the afternoon of that day to see what they’ve had come in. If their regular donations are half decent it’ll show once they’ve rotated.
(4) Always try anything on you fancy, if it’s within one dress size of your official size – there’s a massive discrepancy in sizing between brands so don’t just assume things won’t fit. But only buy stuff you really love or actually need. Not just because it’s cheap.
(5) Likewise, consider shapes and colours you’d usually avoid. Charity shops are a great way to stretch your fashion comfort zone, without breaking the bank.
(6) Check labels for fibre content and washing instructions. Acrylic will hold sweat so leave it be unless you’re in love. Stick with natural fibres which wash better and last longer. If you fall in love with something dry clean only, factor in how much it’ll cost you to keep it nice before you call it a bargain. Although there is a way of getting around that dry cleaning bill…
(7) Sniff things – discreetly! Charity shops steam iron clothes, but they don’t wash them as it would cost too much. So if it smells bad and it’s dry clean only, put it back. I mean it!
(8) Thanks to our disposable culture many charity shops are now stuffed with new clothes. I’d say five percent of the stuff in my local shop still has the labels on and much of it looks like it’s never been worn. Some shops will keep new clothes in a separate section or charge more. The only downside is when the new clothes are originally from places with rock bottom prices, say Asda, Primark or Peacocks, the charity shop prices may be only a fraction cheaper, or, if the staff aren’t that clued up, potentially more expensive than bought from source. But before you turn your nose up at a £5 jumper you could get for £6 in a supermarket, just remember where your £5 is going…
(9) Don’t expect shops to hold stuff for you straight away. But if you regularly buy or donate, they may start to keep things they know you like.
(10) If you volunteer a couple of hours a week for a shop you’ll get to see what comes in first hand. Although don’t expect first dibs automatically and don’t abuse your position!
(11) Finally, never ever ever ask for a discount. Remember it’s for charity!