Nothing charitable about saying this is top fashion

One part of the retail sector has ridden the downturn and is showing the sort of growth that the rest of the high street can only dream of – charity shops. Jane Hardy found out why at a Belfast Oxfam outlet

Sara O'Neill and Niamh McGovern model some summery headwear in Oxfam, Botanic Avenu Picture by AnnMcManus

TWO years ago a study indicated that charity shops showed the most vigorous expansion among retailers in 500 towns and cities in Britain.

More recently Victoria Beckham donated some of daughter Harper's top-end dresses, with labels like Chloe and Ralph Lauren, to a Just Giving shop in London, with the aim of raising funds for Save the Children. Of course, what the tabloids described as the little girl's "adorable togs" had pretty serious price tags, from several hundreds to one or two thousand pounds. But at least charity shops have got the ultimate fashionista's seal of approval.

"I come here whenever I get the chance. I have bought coats and other clothes. It's all about finding something unique for me. You can find real bargains too; I once got a jacket with the Almost Famous label. It cost me £15 and new would have been hundreds of pounds."

In the Oxfam shop in Belfast's Botanic Avenue on a weekday lunchtime, you could see what it was all about and how attitudes to buying – and wearing – second-hand goods have changed. Seasoned charity shoppers sifted through the gorgeous range of goods.

Tippy Legronio (45), a make-up artist from Belfast, was scanning the books section.

She adds that the main reason she's in this shop is financial. "Every little helps these days; we all want to pay less. There is also the universal thrill of bagging a bargain. I love upcycling too and found a vintage dresser that's now in my bedroom in the Oxfam furniture shop. It has three mirrors that swivel, probably dates from the 1930s and cost me about £45. I don't ever want to let it go."

Tippy also donates clothes and objects she no longer needs to Oxfam. "You never know – your trash could be someone else's treasure."

All age groups are attracted to the lure of the charity shop. Niamh McGovern (21) is studying politics and English at Queen's and she has also volunteered for Oxfam. "It's great fun and you never know what you'll find."

Passing time between medical appointments, retired shopper Elizabeth Moody says she also volunteers at the Lisburn Elim Church charity outlet called the Opp Shop. She was holding an attractive pewter bag from Accessorise, priced very reasonably at £3.50, and trying to work out whether it will go with a favourite pair of shoes.

"If you shop in the high street or chain stores, you won't get anything individual or different. The price is another factor and the famous Irish enthusiasm for having a hoke around."

Oxfam has launched the Drop and Shop campaign to encourage people to donate goods as well as buy things. I encountered quite a few people doing both. "I donate too, bric a brac and clothes. Whenever the house gets too full, I bring things in," Elizabeth says.

This Oxfam has the desirable Vintage line of clothes, a label begun eight years ago to differentiate the trendy gear dating from the 60s and 70s and other decades from the more modern clothes.

Stylist and Titan Books illustrator Sara O'Neill (34) is Oxfam's charity shop ambassador. She has a wide experience of fashion and has worked for titles like Grazia. Her enthusiasm for the charity retail sector is palpable.

"Last year I donated so much, roughly 15 bin bags' worth of stuff. I love vintage fashion and used to have a 40s and 50s look. Now I've moved back to the north coast, I've found those clothes don't translate into beachwear and high heels don't work on the sandy beaches. So I've adopted a 70s look and here you can pick up bargains."

Her best was a Mulberry bag acquired in a Portrush charity shop for £5, probably worth a hundred times that.

The shop was filling up over lunchtime, with students, a Romanian couple, a stylish African guy eying up the shirt rail (which had a Thomas Browne blue short sleever for £3), and a southern European chap who bought some shades.

Maya McCracken, a very fashionable 23-year-old environmental scientists, came in to meet her mum Heather. Now based in England and about to move to bohemian Brighton, she says her whole outfit – grey T, fantastic yellow coat, chic skirt – came from charity shops. Maya spotted some trendy slim brown designer leather shoes with Italian label Marco Tozzi, tried them on and, within minutes, there was a sale. Perfect for autumn, she's got real style for £6.

Heather said charity shopping ran in the family. "Both my girls love it. I have always used charity shops. Nowadays shopping here is more fashionable."

A couple stepped in to donate a bag of clothes and books. Matthew Booth (18) is English and accompanying girlfriend Ruth Jackson, also 18. She said she wanted to clear out some clothes and give them to a good cause.

"I've got so many clothes, I just wanted to clear them out. All my friends use charity shops and part of the reason we're here today is the 15 per cent off deal." She said that as a child, she was a voracious reader and her parents bought her books in charity shops to avoid bankrupting themselves.

I'd set myself a challenge: could I buy two complete outfits, one female and one male, for £15. Of course I could, easy peasy. In about 10 minutes, I picked up a gorgeous turquoise pleated skirt (£4), a dinky leopard print sleeveless top (£3), a pair of brown low heeled shoes (£3.50) and a cute scarf (£2 ). The woman was sorted – now for the man. I spotted some nice short-sleeved shirts to see him through the looming heatwave. The one I picked (and will go back to buy for the husband) was £4, and went well with some nice light brown chinos (£4.50) with a pair of £5 trainers as footwear.

There were attractive floppy summer hats in turquoise and yellow and a pile of groovy shades. If you're off on holiday, you could kit yourself out affordably – and pack some altruism with your sun cream.

To find your nearest Oxfam store see To make your donation go further, consider Gift Aid, which adds 25 per cent to the value of your gift.

Stylist Sara O'Neill's Top Charity Shopping Tips

Don’t take vintage/second hand items at face value – body shapes have changed over the last century, so clothing may need alterations. Long skirts can be cut short, necklines altered, garments restyled. Find a good dressmaker or learn how to use a sewing machine.

Imagine a piece out of context. On a crowded shelf of scary figurines, or a rail of sad-looking C&A frocks, you need to try to see each item as an individual. Pick up every piece and imagine it out of context: in Urban Outfitters or Topshop, say or a cool boutique. Things which look tatty and unloved in a junk shop sometimes just need a bit of styling.

Charity shopping requires some commitment. Little and often is the best way. Dash around your locals on your lunch break at least once a week. Get to know the volunteers so you can ask about stock that hasn’t been put on the floor yet. Find out when the shop has deliveries so you can get first look at the goods.

It's more environmentally sound to buy second hand and is the most stylish form of recycling.


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