Gucci? No, darling, it's Oxfam

Knowing where - and how - to shop is the key to stylish dressing. And we're not talking Bond Street, says Melanie Rickey
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The Independent Culture
Eight years ago, while sitting in the middle of a tonne of dusty second-hand clothes, I had an epiphany. There I was, straight out of school, choosing to spend my year out working in a smelly warehouse filled to the rafters with second-hand clothes. Old jeans, suits, shirts, ties, bags, shoes, dresses, skirts, nylon tracksuits - I sorted them all. "Absolutely fabulous" and "groovy" went into the store I worked for, Rokit, who imported the clothes from the US; "average" was sold to Ghanaian market traders.

The day-to-day work was nothing compared to the indescribable rush of pleasure (my epiphany) that accompanied the discovery of a gem: a Thirties hand-made tea dress, a Salvador Dali hand-painted tie, a pair of selvedge- riveted 501's, an old Yves Saint Laurent polka-dot blouse, a Chanel handbag, bejewelled Ferragamo kitten-heeled sandals...

My list of "finds" is now endless, but it was when I found the Yves Saint Laurent blouse in a pile of old polyester that I became hooked.

It's the same story for everyone with a passion for second-hand clothes - and there are plenty of us. Fortunately our addiction has positive points: it is the best way to look good on a budget, donate money to charity and recycle, and, even better, the only way to look truly individual.

Since 1990 the number of charity shops on the high street has increased by two-thirds, to 5,000, and turnover has more than doubled, to pounds 300m. Indeed the pastime has become a trend in itself; today there is even a magazine, Cheap Date, dedicated to the art of fashion-oriented second- hand shopping.

One of the few charities to target this market is Oxfam, which in spring 1998 introduced a new concept to its shops - Oxfam Origins. From today the four standalone stores, and 29 nation-wide concessions, have been renamed Oxfam Original - and they are chock full of fashionable, well- priced "finds". Recent high-street cast-offs rub hangers with Sixties, Seventies and Eighties gear, all carefully chosen, then mended and cleaned, from tonnes of donated clothes. "We are targeting the young fashion-conscious audience who want second-hand clothes, with a clean and modern way to buy them," says Rachel Fleming, of Oxfam.

So far the project has been a resounding success, and helped Oxfam raise their profits to pounds 15m last year.

True aficionados, however, will tell you that Oxfam is not the best place to make a discovery. Car boot sales, jumble sales, local weekly markets and charity shops in towns away from student strongholds provide much richer pickings.

Kira Joliffe, the editor of Cheap Date, is the ultimate thrifter. "I think it's the paradox of being really into fashion, but not wanting to be a slave to it," she says of her obsession. "Ultimately it's about individuality, and with Cheap Date I hope to give people the confidence to try out clothes they wouldn't normally buy."

Thrifting is also an excellent way to keep up to date with fashion trends. All the clothes featured here are relevant to recent catwalk offerings, and were sourced during one week of looking the length and breadth of London. Outside London the pickings are even better.

A bright, Pucci-inspired print scarf becomes a top, and when worn with a Native-Indian-inspired belt, dark jeans and lime-green sandals it owes more than a nod to Tom Ford's homage to a late-Seventies Cher, as do the blanket-stitched suede top and shell handbag. The black Hungarian embroidered shirt fits perfectly with the peasant/Gypsy trend.

Which leaves the last, and most expensive find, the Twenties tea dress. At pounds 550 it is not cheap - but today's hand-sewn, bias-cut equivalent by, say, John Galliano would cost thousands. We found it in Virginia's, in Portland Place, which many of the world's top fashion designers visit twice yearly for inspiration.

Here's a fashion thrifter's joke. Woman goes to a party in a fabulous dress. Someone asks where it's from. She replies: "From a fabulous store called Sue Ryder." [To be pronounced Ridier.] To which the inquirer remarks "Oh Sue Ridier, is she new?"