On the edge of the City, where every second counts

There's an economical, effortless way to upgrade your working wardrobe a stone's throw from the Square Mile. Belinda Morris blazes the trail to Frock Brokers for customer-friendly, guilt-free clothes shopping
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The Independent Culture
Somebody said to me the other day that it is now "fashionable to be frugal." My mother will be delighted that she's now in vogue, having never knowingly discarded an old shirt, jacket or dress without first removing any perfectly serviceable zips and buttons for future use.

Worryingly, it is possible that some of her post-war-years mentality may be rubbing off on me. I now find it impossible to pass a charity shop without wondering whether something interesting is waiting on a rail for me - and for only 50p.

But for those whose delicate noses turn up in distaste at the thought of rummaging through heaps of manky, moth-eaten sweaters and pensioners' overcoats, there is a more select, and discreet, way to become fashionably frugal. Once known as thrift shops, dress agencies are the latest places to be seen shopping in. They offer a completely guilt-free shopping experience, not to mention the chance to bring back mistakes or last season's must- have labels (heaven forfend) thus allowing you to do some more blameless spending. Bliss.

Devoted regulars, who probably hope that they are privy to one of London's best-kept secrets, will be vexed with me, but I'm going to disclose one of the capital's newest, chicest and friendliest dress agencies. Frock Brokers, nestling (as the name suggests) on the edge of the City, is to the frugal elite what Momo is to the fashionable foodie. Here you will find labels such as John Galliano, Lolita Lempicka, Giorgio Armani, Moschino, Nicole Farhi and Joseph, teamed with shoes by Patrick Cox and Emma Hope. You may, if you're lucky, catch something by Prada, and the shop's owner, Merlyn Nuttall, is proud to be the only stockist of Voyage that doesn't have a door policy.

Nuttall, a former fashion buyer for Bhs, was the victim of a hideous rape in 1992. Her throat was cut by a bottle, and she was left for dead in a burning, locked room. Thanks to a vigilant squatter who raised the alarm, she was saved and lived to tell the tale in her book It could Have been You, published early this year. It details the rape, the ensuing court case which resulted in compensation of pounds 76,100, and her eventual physical and mental recovery.

Today Nuttall is back in business, running Frock Brokers for City women who want to pep up their wardrobes with designer items at a knockdown price. Labels don't have to be top drawer to make it past the eagle eye of its owner. "I'm selective but I take in on styling, not just the name," she explains, holding up, by way of example, an Oasis trouser suit with fashionably wide pants in a "very now!" tweedily pinstriped fabric. She also carries the one-off, final-year collections of fashion design students - perfect for anyone with a fear of meeting another woman wearing the same outfit; as well as occasional vintage pieces (such as an original floral Biba blouse) providing that the style is right for the season in question (anything vaguely Chinese will make the grade right now, for instance). Something for everyone: classically formal suits can, and do, rub sharp shoulders with more outre pieces.

Situated as it is among trendy restaurants in the fast-developing Spitalfields market area, Frock Brokers looks nothing like a down-at-heel second-hand shop. For a start, the understated window displays of the double-fronted fascia are as sophisticated as anything you might find on Sloane Street, and the first thing to greet you as you walk through the door is a large, comfy chesterfield. The walls are painted a warm and cheerful custard yellow.

Traditional retail details are clearly important to Merlyn Nuttall, who carefully arranges the clothes so that they follow an easy-to-select sequence: sleeveless blouses through to long-sleeved blouses, all colour-sorted; and the same for knitwear. Skirts are on one rail, trousers on another; jackets hang above. Everything is identified with a sizing cube. And like the best small, independent clothes shops, the owner is always on hand to advise, style and co-ordinate outfits. She also will call interested customers when a new and favoured label comes in, or will search out something specific if need be - useful for those who have no time to browse.

Naturally Frock Brokers attracts many women working locally, who are looking for something suitable for the office. "But they also come in for social occasion dressing, which may even mean ball dresses," she says. It's probably too late to mention the Belville Sassoon little black number in the window (was pounds 1,300, when I saw it a mere pounds 600) as it's probably been snaffled by now, but it's always worth a try; the shop takes in stock (by appointment) every day. You may be lucky enough to arrive after the woman who recently dropped off an Amanda Wakeley three-piece - pounds 150, but worth pounds 900. The shop is open on a Sunday (though not on Saturday) and also lures local residents - a deeply creative bunch.

As a rule of thumb, any item of clothing will be ticketed at one third of its original selling price. The seller can expect to receive back around one-fifth of what she paid (Merlyn takes 50 per cent). After four weeks clothes are reduced, and after six weeks they are returned. "I have to be strict, as customers expect to see constantly changing merchandise," she explains. It's set to change dramatically in the near future, as there are plans afoot for Merlyn and her (sleeping) partner boyfriend to open a men's clothing agency close by. All you fashionably frugal city slickers, watch this space.