The grooviest kids get dressed at the Oxfam shop: Brigid McConville reports on a hot source of bargain outfits for colourful clubbers

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Indy Lifestyle Online
SONA ABANTU, manager of the Oxfam shop in Drury Lane, is groping for the right words: 'Underwear,' he says tentatively. 'Corsets, bras. But sewn together with lots of things - bits of lace, feathers, leather, fishnet, rubber . . .'

He is trying to describe the donations that arrive at his shop on Saturday mornings. London's club scene, to Sona's delight, has set up its own informal gear exchange through Oxfam.

He reckons about 100 such outfits come in each week. Clubbers queue up outside and, soon after opening, the whole lot has gone - for about a fiver each. 'But sometimes we can't use them as they are very rude with holes in certain places,' Sona says. 'Oxford (Oxfam's HQ) would freak.'

Poor Oxford. The more actively Sona raises funds - and Oxfam's profile - in his central London location, the higher eyebrows are lifted at his HQ. Drury Lane is threatening to overturn the Oxfam-shop stereotype of elderly, white, middle-class ladies presiding over rails of dreary clothes.

Of course the Drury Lane shop does have some less than sparkling clothes, plus the usual Oxfam crafts, but in other ways it departs radically from tradition. Apart from the 'underwear', it has some stunning bargains: brand new clothes donated by exclusive shops.

Sona is hardly the blue-rinse type himself. A big, enthusiastic 30-year-old South African, he has waist-length blond hair which he habitually bats from one shoulder of his kaftan to the other. After expulsion from his own country for political reasons, he worked for Amnesty International until taking over the Drury Lane shop three years ago. He immediately set out in search of new recruits, targeting student groups from Brixton to Tower Hamlets. As a result, more than a third of his volunteers are now students - from the LSE, the London art colleges and the Oxford Street language schools. Another third are unemployed. There are 109 volunteers altogether, more than in any other Oxfam shop.

The average age of the multiracial workforce is 20. 'Our volunteers are young and hip,' says Sona, 'and they come from all over the world - Africa, Asia, the Continent, the US. They are groovy people enjoying themselves, and they attract others.'

Roger Pereira, one of the volunteers, in ponytail and long sideburns, does look pretty groovy. He is 19 and has been trying to get paid work since he finished a computer course. 'It's amazing what you can pick up here,' he tells me, pointing out his leather trousers (pounds 6.99), Elvis T-shirt (pounds 1.45) and fake-fur brown zip-up waistcoat (pounds 4.25). 'I'm a clubber,' says Roger. 'I dress to impress in a way-out fashion. Why spend pounds 70 on gear when you could spend pounds 15 in here and look really cool?'

Today he is on the look-out for a pair of flares, a big buckle belt, some platform shoes-donated, he expects, by 'some guy in his forties' - plus a way-out Seventies shirt with big collars.

Other clubbers, he says, come in to the shop looking for 'rubber gear, sultry gear, skimpy tops. They might be going to Kinky Gerlinki, Wild Stuff, or Ciao Baby's mixed gay night'.

Yinka Sobande has been a volunteer in the shop for a year. She used to work in a bank, hated it, and came to Oxfam to do something 'worthwhile'. She is 20, lives in Elephant and Castle, south London, and goes to clubs at least twice a week (Ruby's, The Fridge, Maximus).

Last week she was dancing on stage at the All Nations Club, decked out in luminous paint. She was wearing black velvet hot pants and a black top, cut from a leotard, 'all from the shop, of course'. She hasn't yet forgiven Roger for snapping up a pair of clogs that came through the other week.

'The staff do skim off the best things,' admits Li Williams, who is up to her elbows in glue at the back of the shop, constructing huge papier mache fruits for the Oxfam float in the Notting Hill carnival on 30 and 31 August. Li got her degree in graphic design two years ago. Still unemployed, she keeps up her skills and morale by volunteering three days a week for Oxfam.

The float will be constructed entirely out of recycled materials, making the point that Oxfam is Britain's biggest recycler. Li is also collecting costumes for the 30 volunteers who will be riding on the float. To mark Oxfam's 50th birthday this year, they will be dressed to represent the last five decades, in keeping with Oxfam's national theme 'Fifty Years of Fashion'.

No one except Sona gets paid for working in the shop, but there are plenty of perks for the volunteers, chiefly in terms of social life. 'I've met my best friends here,' says Yinta. 'They're from different cultures, different religions.' Oxfam takes up her evenings and weekends, too. She points to snapshots on the wall: volunteers involved in fun-runs, fashion shows, fairs and fetes. People say that this is like a village shop in the middle of a city.

On Valentine's Day the shop window was decked out like a boudoir while volunteers in nighties charged 50p a kiss. (Oxford raised its eyebrows: Sona raised more than pounds 200.) They nearly came a cropper, too, with their advertisement in the teen press saying that Prince would visit the shop on 1 April. Queues formed on the pavement before dawn, the lookalike only just got away with it - but the shop was crammed.

Other perks come in the form of free tickets for shows, including some given by local West End theatres. 'I've had tickets for Archaos, The Cotton Club and The Blues Brothers,' says Li.

And, of course, there is the lure of the Bargain. During college terms, Sona sends out 11 students with shopping trolleys to retailers in nearby Covent Garden, Oxford Street and Neal Street. They bring back donations of clothes and shoes that the recession-hit shops cannot sell. Sona marks them down to a quarter of their original price: 'One dress was pounds 299,' he says, 'after we reduced it.'

There are other occasional bonanzas: gift baskets from the Body Shop; books from Foyle's, Waterstone's and the Penguin bookshop; children's clothes from Woolworth and M & S; sample stock from Habitat each February (value: pounds 10,000), plus regular donations of lost property from Covent Garden's Jubilee Hall gym. And sometimes, says Sona, 'after fashion shows, it is announced that all the clothes will be available here. The first I know of it is when I see an incredible queue in the morning.'

Of course, not all of central London is brimming with goodwill towards Oxfam. There have been two armed hold-ups in Sona's time at the shop, and staff have to be especially vigilant at Christmas, when the takings reach pounds 2,000 a day.

For local problems, local solutions. Muscular members of the Jubilee Hall gym have volunteered their services as visible 'security'. Not your average donation to Oxfam, but very Drury Lane.

(Photograph omitted)

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