Never mind the quality, feel the chic

Its iconoclastic style and supermodel cover stars have made Cheap Date cult reading among Manhattan's fashion elite. It's being launched in Britain next month. Will it catch on, or is it just too cool for school? Josh Sims investigates
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The Independent Online

Fashion is a topsy-turvy world. Only a few years ago wearing clothes bought from a charity shop was fashion death. Your outfit had to be new and brash, the label identifiable from 100 paces. But if you're still one of those saddos who makes their annual pilgrimage to join the sales queues outside Gucci, then we have some bad news for you. These days, it's far more hip to be seen rifling through the local Sue Ryder.

And to confirm it, here, from New York, comes Cheap Date. This is the kitchen-table magazine for lovers of "thrift shopping", as charity-shop trawling has been renamed. It's part pop-culture journal, part city guide to the best stores for bargain fashions and part, so it claims, anti-fashion polemic, with satire beneath the satin. Launched initially in the UK in 1997, before quickly departing to the US, Cheap Date has established a cult readership, and now, with 7,500 copies of a transatlantic edition available in London during the imminent Fashion Week, it hopes to do the same back home.

"Cheap Date is about individual glamour, being original and truly stylish, without spending thousands on current fashion," says Bay Garnett, a fashion stylist and, with founder and publisher Kira Joliffe, one of the magazine's co-editors. "Fashion stores are so dull now, so maybe people will respond to Cheap Date."

Certainly its manifesto seems timely. Here is a magazine that, in the wake of a wobbly economy, pension scandals and rocketing house prices, appeals to our newfound "smart consumerist" sense of getting more bang per buck: the one that has encouraged the rise of no-brand stores such as Japan's Muji and Uniqlo, that has seen the phenomenal growth of no-frills airlines, and that has many consumers picking up bargains through on-line auction houses. In that sense, buying a nice shirt - not too frayed, not too sweat-stained - from an Oxfam shop seems like, if not quite a revolutionary act, then at least clever spending. Cheap Date is not the only publication to espouse this: there's also Budget Living, another US magazine, which was launched in 2002.

But more than this, Cheap Date says it is all about bucking the fashion system, one which uses the power of advertising and celebrity to fuel a demand for branded goods and which encourages consumers to seek reassurance and status through shopping. Amid some genuinely left-field, refreshingly puff-free articles, the new British issue has clever pastiches of fashion ads, twisted so that YSL typography promotes The Salvation Army, Cartier reads as Caste Off, Bulgari as Budge and Calvin Klein as Cancer Care. One article even documents shop-dropping, the ostensibly subversive act of sneaking old clothes into glossy fashion- store windows.

"I'm very much into the idea of expressing yourself through clothes," says Joliffe, the radical to Garnett's fashionista. "But Cheap Date grew out of my being fed up with the fashion industry. It's very much not about fashion and toeing the line. Now I just tend to ignore ideas of fashionability, because if something's deemed fashionable it's not real anyway. The reality is always totally different to what a bunch of magazines are saying."

Even as one of those magazines, Cheap Date, in opposing the homogeneity and overwhelming corporatisation of fashion, which over recent years has made it more about big business than big ideas, sounds like a force for good. Joliffe may claim to have less interest in thrift shopping now that she has just become a mother, but Garnett certainly looks good on it: she regularly features in best-dressed lists.

But Cheap Date could be seen by cynics as part of the monster it aims to undermine. Here, after all, is another fanzine that is destined to achieve a certain credibility on the coffee tables of those who like to think themselves ahead of the game, a magazine for a clique produced by a clique. And a fantasy clique at that, of almost parodic pretensions: Joliffe and Garnett have in the past been joined by Marlon Richards, son of Keith, the magazine's sometime benefactor, and Paul Sevigny, brother of alt-actress and thrift devotee Chloë. Keith's old flame Anita Pallenberg is its roving reporter. The pointless Hilton sisters have modelled charity-shop finds in the kind of playing at trading down that some might even call offensive.

Other contributors have included Liv Tyler and Sophie Dahl, who wrote a fictional fashion exposé for it, as well as models Jasmine Guinness, Iris Palmer and Karen Elson. Elson, who plugs her new fashion-fitness video in the issue, has described Cheap Date as "not just another trendy magazine, but a poke in the eye, an antidote to fashion".

"I do really like Cheap Date. It's found a different angle and I think it's a great idea to do a 'thrift' magazine," says Mark Hooper, assistant editor of the independent style magazine i-D. "But it is totally high fashion pretending not to be. It's probably almost seen by the fashion crowd as confirmation that it's OK to go to Oxfam. I think with its anti-fashion-brand pose it perhaps doth protest too much."

Hooper's views are perhaps borne out by the fact that the Cheap Date crew have not incurred the wrath of the fashion establishment. They have, in fact, managed to straddle the fence without ripping their Pucci. "Obviously there are hypocrisies in Cheap Date, and I just have to hold my hands up to that," confesses Joliffe. "Perhaps the ultra-liberal idea behind it has been compromised along the way. But it's much more political than people expect, and we mean well."

Garnett may be in a stickier spot. She is a contributing editor for British Vogue, where, as with most leading fashion magazines, the big-brand advertisers inevitably hold sway over editorial content. Ideologically, this might seem contradictory. Garnett gives such suggestions a healthy two fingers. "I do what I want and can do both thrift and designer. There's no dilemma for me," she says. "It's not like I'm anti-designer. I like a Chanel handbag and there's no doubt some of the things Prada makes are beautiful. A lot of people buy into those pretty things. I'm not criticising it. But I do see the brainwashing behind the power of the brand."

More than this though, the latest edition of Cheap Date is the first to be completely funded through a sponsorship deal, with the high-street fashion-chain Jigsaw. Somehow, it all hints at the idea that the establishment has now cottoned onto, and seeks to capitalise on the insider fashionability of the Cheap Daters.

In fact, on a wider level, the fashion industry now seems to be in thrall to a kind of self-referential knowingness about the way it operates. For example, the recent sale signs at Selfridges, that Mecca of materialism, bore slogans such as, "I shop, therefore I am" and "Buy me. I will change your life".

While the likes of the Cheap Daters may have been thrifting it for years, the high street has already taken the concept mainstream. In a move reminiscent of dustmen becoming refuse collectors, its clever repackaging has taken what was once known as second-hand, and rebranded it as vintage, thus making something that was not very chic at all into something extremely chic indeed.

In doing so, it has taken a potentially liberating idea and made it aspirational. Vintage has quickly become just another form of fashion elitism, like limited editions and the waiting lists. Thrift and vintage take notions of exclusivity to their logical conclusion. Be it an old Dior dress or some dead granny's cardie, it has the unassailable cachet of being one of a kind. To claim one's outfit is vintage now involves a certain inverted snobbery. Cynics might suggest that this more exacting fashionability is what the Cheap Daters had in mind all along, not the cost savings.

"More and more people are looking for ways to make themselves more individual now," says Matt Hirst of the trends-predictions agency Headlight Vision. "No-one wants to bump into someone wearing the same thing as them. People do want clothes that are personal, items that have a history and a meaning more than just a logo. But the fact is that in cutting-edge terms, the whole thrift and vintage scene has gone mainstream. You can even get mass-produced vintage now, with stores replicating old pieces, which says a lot."

Ironically perhaps, Garnett herself has assembled a special vintage-look collection for Top Shop, which is just one of a growing number of stores to capitalise on the trend for the old, buying and selling their own vintage selections at vastly inflated prices. Even Garnett, ever the true thrifter, who spends hours picking through the remains in provincial Marie Curie outlets, concedes that the fun may be over.

"Perhaps the real, cheap, unculled thrift store is a dying breed now, like old phone boxes," she says. "Even Oxfam has become homogenised and tidied up, presumably so they can charge more money. Have you seen the Kensington branch? It's such a shame, because it's the mess and the randomness that makes thrift shopping such fun. Or maybe I'm just being sentimental."