Just round the corner from Brixton tube station in London a new shop has opened called Q. Outside, huge speakers pump out M People and Chaka Khan, but it is not a record shop. The decor is spartan with strip lights and a tacky yellow and purple shop front, but it is not a cheap grocery store. Q is a thrift store, and Brixton, indeed Britain, has never seen anything like it.
In the States, thrift stores are big: they occupy prime locations on the high street; they typically take up some 25,000sq ft of floorspace; and, unlike the rather quaint British charity shop, they take business very seriously indeed.
Wholesalers gather vast quantities of used clothes from all over North America and Canada, particularly from institutions. Hospitals are one source, penitentiaries another: most ot the second-hand Levis that found their way to Britain were prisoners' cast-offs. Issued as a uniform, the denims are worn for the length of the inmate's sentence (those circular marks on the back pockets are made by the prison-issue tobacco tin) then discarded.
The wholesaler then takes the clothes to huge warehouses, where they are painstakingly graded. Nothing is thrown away. The dross is sold as rags. Most of the rest is sold by the kilo to developing countries. The remaining 10 per cent makes it to the thrift shop.
During the Eighties, a rash of thrift-style stores opened in Britain, all selling carefully selected retro Americana. The most famous was Flip on London's Kings Road. Lee Hollingworth, Q's general manager, was involved in Flip: "14 years ago I was pulling Chanel and Balenciaga out of the rags," he says, "then Forties and Fifties stuff, and vintage denim." But as the supply of vintage and original clothes began to dry up, and prices rose accordingly, bargain hunters lost hope of ever discovering a classic in the bargain bin.
Q gives you a chance to rediscover that buzz. It is big by British standards, about 5,000sq ft. Industrial rails stretch from one end of the store to the other, packed with old American clothes: women's and children's wear along one side; sportswear, denim and menswear along the other. There are also sections for military and camouflage clothing, a rail of dungarees and some suede and leather jackets. The most expensive item in the shop, a padded leather jacket, costs pounds 20.
"It's natural modernism," says Hollingworth. "We're going for the end of millennium middle-market approach. You can buy a Yohji Yamamoto jacket and then come to us for a pair of Crimplene flat-fronted trousers that cost a fiver." As it has now become more difficult to sell clothing gems back to the public as "original" or "vintage", Q has found its niche. Their policy is firm; 90 per cent of their goods are cheap and cheerful, and are aimed at people with little spare cash - shirts for pounds 1, chinos for pounds 4, jeans and denim jackets for pounds 5, dresses for pounds 3, sports jackets for pounds 4, track pants for pounds 2 and children's wear at pounds 1 or pounds 2 a piece.
The remaining 10 per cent of the clothes have been sourced specifically to keep up with the latest trends. The prices of these pieces are slightly higher but still extremely cheap: a pair of dark indigo drain-pipe jeans cost pounds 7, Prada-esque swirly print dresses pounds 10 and adult Osh Kosh workman's jeans pounds 15. "Stylists come in and go through the rails like a military exercise," says Hollingworth, "they can't believe the prices - everything really is a genuine bargain." And some of the clothes are truly fashionable. Anyone with a liking for Prada or Clements Ribeiro would do well to spend an hour here.
Q is not philanthropic in the Sue Ryder sense, but at the end of their first year in business the company will return a percentage of their profits to a local community project. They also plan to open five more stores in the next five years and then aim at one Q shop in every major city around the country. Wood Green, Woolwich and Edgware are next for Q, but its instant popularity means competitors won't be far behind: in fact, two weeks from now a shop twice the size is being opened by the Humana charity (see box). But shhhh!, don't tell.
8 Q is at 430 Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9. Hours of opening: 10am to 8pm Mon to Sat; noon to 6pm Sun. Tel: 0171-326 0600.
OXFAM, 570 Kingsland Road, London E8. (Tel. 0171 923 1532): Oxfam's "price point shop" shop (all women's tops are the same price, all men's jackets are the same price etc). It is based near their main sorting office, and occupies a former supermarket. Very cheap, and there are around 1,700 garments in the shop at any time. Set aside a couple of hours if you want to pay a visit.
HUMANA, 12-13 Central Square, Wembley. Opening in two weeks, this store will be the largest of its kind in the UK. It will have three sections: furniture; books and bric-a-brac; and clothes. Prices are "cheaper than new, but more expensive than a car boot sale."
CAR BOOT SALES: The big ones are the best - often set in fields miles from the nearest town or village and advertised in local papers. The people at these sales can sell things for 20p; to them it is old and useless, but to you it could be an absolute gem. They are usually held early on Sunday mornings so get to them early to avoid a wasted journey, and always haggle. If you pick up something saying 'wow that's great', the stall holder will immediately put the price up. So look at it as if you think it might suit (but just about) your needs, and you should get a result. It always works for me.
HOW TO SPOT A BARGAIN.
1 Scan the catwalk guides in Elle, Marie Claire and Vogue. Decide which autumn/winter styles suit you and keep those colours, shapes and fabrics in mind.
2 Once you find something that catches your eye, grab it. There's nothing worse than going back for something to find someone else with it, looking smug.
3 Check each garment for stains, rips, buttons missing, zips broken and hems akimbo. These things are all worth fixing if the garment is good enough. An extra pounds 5-10 is a small price to pay for a truly fabulous piece.
4. Large dresses are sometimes great, as are baggy trousers, but the right size is best.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies