Growing up in the provinces, charity shops were only really good for one thing: cheap books. While perusing the clothes section might have thrown up the occasional gem – a vintage smoking jacket, for example – the chances of putting together a decent outfit from house-clearances and nightclub lost property were never in your favour.
In London, though, it’s a different story. For a start, the city is home to an awful lot of fashionable millennials, as well as the global uber-rich – and while that might cause problems elsewhere, it does mean there’s plenty of nice things to be rehomed. Add in the number of resident tailors and high-end brands (many of whom donate their cast-offs and leftovers to charity) and you know you’re on to a winner.
In nearly ten years of London charity shopping, it’s probably easier to count the high-end brands I haven’t seen. Some years ago in the Marylebone Cancer Research, I found myself standing behind a glamorous Russian nonchalantly donating six pairs of barely-worn Louboutin’s. When she shrugged off the cashier’s suggestion to fill in a Gift Aid form, I was almost tempted to intervene: the tax relief alone was probably worth an additional £1,000 for the fight against the big C. (Of course, knowing more about how London works, I now realise she probably wasn’t a tax-payer…)
Last time I visited one of my favourite shops in Highgate, I commented to the shop assistant that one of the Mulberry handbags looked almost new. ‘Oh it is,’ she replied – explaining that the great and the good often donated pieces they’d been given by fashion PRs, or won in charity auctions. For the smarter A-listers, it’s not about how much you’ve got in the bank: it’s how much you can afford to give away.
My own prize possession remains a New & Lingwood jacket, virtually unworn, which I managed to pick up for less than the price of a takeaway meal. Bright orange, with extravagant lining and a working cuff, my only guess was that it was originally worn by Michael Portillo for one of his train documentaries. What a find.
To get the best stuff, it pays to be at least a semi-regular. If you look on the price ticket, you’ll notice that most charity shops write the date an item was donated (something which helps them rotate their stock) – the pieces I pick-up have rarely been on the shelf for more than a week. And, of course, you also need to know where to go. Which is why I’ve written a list of my five favourites:
Norwood, Golders Green
This rather chic shop is the charity partner of several big retailers, including Jermyn Street tailor Charles Tyrwhitt and the Philip Green’s Arcadia Group (which, given its current PR situation, is probably donating more than ever). I’ve been buying my shirts and smart shoes here for years, usually taking home £250 Oxfords (completely unworn) for less than £50. New Jermyn Street shirts, meanwhile, go for less than £10 (although being in the heart of London’s Hasidic Jewish community the plain white ones go quickly).
Various, Marylebone High Street
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its location, Marylebone High Street is home to some of the best charity shops in London. The Cancer Research, in particular, is a must visit. Last summer they celebrated the World Cup by selling some of David Beckham’s cast-offs. The Barnardo’s outlet, just off the main road, has so many smart shoes and handbags it has to keep them in locked cabinets.
Mary’s Living and Giving (Save the Children) various in London
Curated by retail guru Mary Portas, these boutique charity shops were setup for Save the Children to flog off their higher-end donations. They tend to pop-up in snazzier postcodes (Hampstead, Highgate and Maida Vale to name but three) and are usually full of vintage and high-end pieces. Always worth checking.
Like all the big charities, Oxfam is ruthlessly efficient at valuing its donated stock and tends to use its central London shops (Marylebone and Fitzrovia in particular) to get rid of the really valuable stuff. With Fitzrovia being one of the nicest residential areas in London (apparently it’s where Tom Cruise stays when he’s here on Scientology business) its charity shops are a solid bet for picking up a bargain.
Royal Trinity Hospice, Chiswick
Last time I visited Royal Trinity Hospice, they’d just had a large donation of ‘last season’ pieces from Stella McCartney, as well as various suits direct from Hugo Boss. Like a lot of ex-retail stock, they’d been worn by shop window dummies and then packed off to charity when the season ended. That minor inconvenience means you can buy them for a fraction of the price, with all the proceeds going to a good cause. What’s not to like.