With their smart red and gold facades and neat interiors, the Notting Hill Housing Trust shops are something of a cut above the downmarket image of the charity store. And some are several cuts above; they are the places to pick up a second-hand designer-label garment or a this-season's brand- new bargain at a fraction of the cost. Tracey is the trust's "donated goods sourcer": a job title she hates (true, it looks quite reasonable written down but does sound a bit odd when said out loud). "I prefer `charitable appeals co-ordinator'," she says firmly. And, she says, rather than a charity shop, the Notting Hill Housing Trust shops like to think of themselves as "a bargain boutique".
The trust's goods are stored in a warehouse in Shepherds Bush, south- west London. By no stretch of the imagination could it be called a glamorous setting. But some of the clothes that end up there certainly are. Take the Valentino shift: pure creamy silk, with a cape that can tie at the neck or the waist, a daring slit at the back and a four-button detail at the shoulder. It will go for around pounds 85. Or the Vivienne Westwood bustiers, one in black velvet, the other in red with a dog print: around pounds 35 each.
"Sometimes donations are simply sold in the shop they are handed in to," explains Tracey. "But from a lot of shops, the drivers pick up the bags, bring them back here, and they are sorted here. This is the main hub where everything gets ready to go." Some pieces do not make it back to the shops, like the Zandra Rhodes quilted jacket, a riot of purples and lilacs, which is going off to Christie's to be valued.
Because the trust's shops tend to be in prestigious locations like Knightsbridge, Kensington Church Street, Brompton Road and, of course, Notting Hill, donations tend also to be rather posh. "Last week, we had a brand new Armani suit, still in its bag with the label still on it," recalls Tracey. "We spent some time wondering what the story behind that one could be; our latest theory is a called-off wedding."
Tracey redistributes the warehoused goods to the most appropriate shop. Kensington Church Street and Fulham Road specialise in classic designer labels; in Knightsbridge, because of the numbers of tourists, she adds a proportion of high-street fashion to the mix. The Camden branch is known for retro-wear; from the current warehouse batch, the printed, ruched Fifties skirted bathing suit and green Sixties dress with beaded details at the waist will end up there. Each shop also carries a moderately priced selection of less high-falutin' high-street labels; prices start at a couple of pounds.
Sorting the second-hand clothes is only part of Tracey's job. She is also charged with chasing donations from all kinds of sources. "My role is contact with fashion designers, fashion retailers, fashion magazines. I ask questions like: What happens to clothes that have been used for photo shoots? Can we have them? What happens to sample clothes? Can we have them? I've been to every dry cleaners in London to ask what they do with their unclaimed garments - can they give them to us? I go out there and bite their ankles."
Ankle biting notwithstanding, she has built up such a good relationship with some stores and designers that now she doesn't need to call them: they call her. "One major menswear designer sent me enough to feed all our shops: fantastic quality, brand new," she says proudly. At the moment, the shops are doing a brisk trade in stretch denim pedal-pushers at pounds 10 a go. "I have to keep ahead of fashion trends," says Tracey. "It's imperative for me to know that pedal pushers are in at the moment."
She is constantly on the lookout for potential givers. "People who work in the City don't have charity shops nearby so we ask if we can put a clothes donation box in their offices and collect whatever ends up in it," she says. She is also currently chasing a local film company. "What happens to their costumes when shooting is over?"
Sometimes things can go slightly wrong; for example, once she ended up with a pile of gloves, all left-handed, with mysterious metal palms. But Tracey believes that her role is one of the factors that gives the Notting Hill Housing Trust an advantage. It is a relatively new initiative; originally it was a temporary role, but when Tracey took over a year ago, the job was made permanent. "Not all charities have this: they don't invest in their staff. All our shop managers are trained to recognise what they are getting, pick out good clothes and price them appropriately. It comes down to quality: even if you buy something for pounds 2, it will be clean, with all its buttons."
Formerly a hairdresser, Tracey, 31, learned about second-hand clothes by buying them ("I was a junior on a low wage, but I was working in a well-known salon and I had to look the part"); she has also worked as a trust shop manageress. She says a little regretfully that these days she is not allowed to fill up her own wardrobe at work. It is frowned upon, as donated goods are strictly there to be sold. Her top tip for bargain-hunters: nearly new ski-wear (people kit themselves out, break a leg on the slopes, and never go back, apparently).
Tracey says she gets out of her job what she puts in. As well as resettling the homeless into permanent accommodation, the Trust provides bedding, furniture and support for pensioners and the vulnerable, co-ordinates volunteer workers of many kinds and supports training programmes. "There is an amazing feel-good factor," says Tracey. "At the end of the day you can go home feeling absolutely exhausted but know everything you've done has been worthwhile."
Notting Hill Housing Trust: Donated goods, 0181 357 4833 - clothes and bric-a-brac welcome; volunteer co-ordinator 0181 357 4866; fundraising department/credit card donations 0181 357 5181Reuse content