A charity shop might not seem an obvious source of fashion, but thanks to a network of generous donors, Cancer Research UK’s Marylebone High Street store, close to London’s West End, is an unlikely fount of desirable – if secondhand – designer clothing. Arguably the flagship of its 588 shops, the store carries a stock that ranged, the last time I looked in, from practically unworn Lulu Guinness mules, Gucci spikes and Issey Miyake flats to a dress and shoes by Marc Jacobs and vintage pieces by Mary Quant and Biba, some with three-figure price tags, all donated by well-heeled locals.
Even so, there was a sign in the window warning that stock was low: a call for donations of – ideally – designer clothing, which is of much higher value to a charity shop than, say, something from Zara, however great it looks. For it isn’t only yachts that plummet in resale value the moment they hit water. With fashion – or rather charity-shop pricing – the rubric tends to be that an item of clothing devalues by half the minute the tag is snipped from it, and falls a further 50 per cent after it’s been worn, washed or cleaned. If it’s a few seasons old and shows any sign of wear, its resale value will be further compromised. It’s not a difficult formula to get to grips with: give a charity shop a little black dress in heavy silk crepe by say, Zac Posen, for which you paid £1,500, and, assuming it’s a classic and in perfect condition, they might get £300 for it. Give them an £18 cocktail frock from George at Asda, and the most that can be asked for it will be £4.50, and that’s assuming it hasn’t seen many parties.
Fortunately, there are generous fashionistas out there. Retail sales now account for a substantial tranche of Cancer Research UK’s income. According to its last-posted accounts, profits from trading were almost £23.5m – a figure that should rise in light of the fact that charity shops can now claim gift aid on donations in kind, so boosting the value of every donation of saleable clothing by 28 per cent.
Oxfam, whose retail activity garnered profits in excess of £17m in the last financial year and whose retail sales rose by five to seven per cent in the first quarter of this year, is another charity to have realised that there is funding to be found in fashion. Readers of this magazine may find it a stretch to agree with the statement from Jane Shepherdson, CEO of Whistles, whose pro bono work includes advising Oxfam on its retail offering, that Oxfam shops – the largest such chain in the UK – have “always been a place where stylish people hunt for interesting items to create their look”. But the charity now has three specialist Oxfam Boutiques in smart parts of London (Westbourne Grove, Chelsea and Chiswick) selling the cream of its donations.
In addition to these designer and vintage pieces, there is what it calls its Reinvented range, a line of “one-offs created exclusively for Oxfam” by graduates and students of the London College of Fashion and the small Brick Lane-based label Junky Styling, who use the fabric and sometimes elements of the cut or tailoring from donated clothes to create one-off original pieces. Periodically, the charity also commissions small fair-trade collections from designers such as Wright & Teague or Casa Copenhagen that sell exclusively in its shops.
It’s an altogether better way of addressing the fear that donations in kind tend to fall in a downturn. For, certainly, there is disquiet in some areas of the charity sector that if people buy fewer clothes, so they will clear out their wardrobes less often. “Donations are really falling off. Terms like ‘nosedive’ spring to mind,” David Moir, head of policy at the Association of Charity Shops, warned earlier this year.
Let’s just hope there aren’t too many repeats of what happened in a shop run by the housing and homelessness charity Shelter, where staff inadvertently sold a coat belonging to a visiting assessor who had come to train the volunteer staff in retail skills and customer service. “The assessor put her jacket in the back of the shop on top of a bag of donations, which were sorted, processed, put out and sold within an hour,” the store’s manager told the local paper, Carlisle’s News & Star. The coat’s owner was said to be “quite upset” – and no wonder. “We will charge up to £50 for a jacket,” the manager added. “But it was out of season, so £7.95 was the agreed price.” No wonder it sold so fast.