Cheap chic

Style needn't break the bank, it just takes a good eye and a little legwork, as Melanie Rickey reveals. Photographs by Robert Astley-Sparke

Shopping for clothes can be a depressing business when you have only enough money to buy a glossy magazine instead of shopping at Harvey Nichols. You lust after clothes which cost a week's salary, but instead, spend your spare time scrabbling around the back of the wardrobe for a long-forgotten gem which can be altered, dyed or jazzed up in some way.

If you identify with this sad state, stop! Look at the beautiful photographs above and left. Check out the captions. The lace dress cost pounds 4 (not pounds 4,000, from Valentino) and a version of it could be on sale in a charity shop near you; the bodice was bought for pounds 3 from a London street market (not pounds 300, from Rigby & Peller) - and what's more, you can find more of the same at a car boot sale or charity shop for as little as 20p.

Charity shops developed a bad name for themselves in the late Eighties, as the place where rebellious teenagers, pensioners and newly arrived foreign nationals looking for English clothes came together with one goal: to find a bargain. In fact, while this still rings true, charity shops have become so popular with students and bargain-hunting middle-class mums that Oxfam has been forced to consider importing clothes from Eastern European countries, particularly for their London stores. Many thrift aficionados who live in a major city, such as London, Manchester or Glasgow, wouldn't dream of shopping in their local charity shop. To find the best bargains, they feel, a pilgrimage to a smaller town or village is essential.

Genevieve Holledge, who has just completed a college course in fashion and design, keeps a keen eye on charity-shop bargains. Like any teenager she wants to look individual, relevant, stylish and not too weird. Charity, car boot and jumble sale shopping can satisfy all of these fashion needs - even on a restricted budget. We set her a style challenge: find an outfit for every day of the week for pounds 50, not including shoes. The results are below.

During her quest Genevieve found rich pickings in her home town, Tring, Hertfordshire.

"In communities like this, where well-off families ditch clothes before they are worn out, everything is in better condition and much cheaper than in central London," she says.

The manageress of the second-hand shop, which raises money for the Ian Rennie hospice, is becoming similarly street-wise.

She said: "Young people bring in things which are just a few months old because they are bored with them. Older people bring in stuff they have been hoarding for years. More and more young people are coming in for a good old rummage and because they can find something cheap.

"Once we sold a pair of patent leather thigh-high kitten heel boots for pounds 5. They could have cost more than pounds 100 in a fashion shop."

The key thing to look out for when buying second-hand clothing is fabric quality. Never buy a garment that looks good but is unfeasible to wear, such as a tight, unbreathable nylon polo-neck. Also always check for sweat stains, missing buttons and unmendable rips; these small defects will make the garment unpleasant to wear, and take the fun out of the fact that it cost 50 pence.

Genevieve is obviously an expert in all these matters; she came up with seven very different outfits which look shop bought, and put them together in the way a professional fashion stylist would, given the same challenge. She over spent the pounds 50 by a mere pounds 1.50. For a pound or two more she could have bought some accessories, such as a Chanel-style clutch bag for pounds 1 and a chunky bangle for 50p.

Let her success offer hope to those who are desperate for a "new" outfit to wear tonight.

Main picture: turquoise lace long-sleeve mini-dress, pounds 4, from Oxfam; cream knickers, pounds 20, from Agent Provocateur, 6 Broadwick Street, Soho, London W1, for inquiries and mail order call 0171-439 0229. Top right: purple lace bodice, pounds 3, from Portobello market, black knickers, pounds 11.50, from a selection by Calvin Klein from House of Fraser stores nationwide, and Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1.

Stylist: Pierre Miller; hair: Paul Merritt for Hair Associates, Knightsbridge; make-up: Hitiko Urago for Shu Uemura; models: Natalie at Select and Jamie at Take 2

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