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Charity begins

Over the past few years, charity shops have enjoyed a radical overhaul - for the better.

We may be in the midst of a retail typhoon, which is sucking customers and profits from the High Street, but the little shops, often staffed on a voluntary basis by the Ednas and Mabels of the lending library and the post office queue, have just reported a 7.4% leap in profit.

Whatever the Salvation Army’s doing, should be causing Philip Green sleepless nights of envy, with its 64% jump. Yet their success is hardly surprising when a dress which costs 80 in Coast or Oasis can be found for 2 a few months later. Most shoppers aren’t the crazed fashionistas targeted by Vogue or Grazia, feverishly adding their names to designer ‘lust have’ waiting lists every season - they just want stylish clothes that won’t bankrupt them.

I noticed the change that was coming over charity shops when my local Oxfam launched a pricy ‘vintage rail’. Prior to that, we often shopped in charity shops to boost the stock in Rags to Bitches - we’d regularly find great caches of dresses and hats from the 40s and 50s, marked at 1 each. Then a couple of years ago, Sienna Miller and Kate Moss were all over the papers in vintage - and all the savvy managers suddenly realised that the moth-infested Auntie clothes they couldn’t shift were the latest thing. Off they went to Ebay and Oxfam Originals at six times the price, and ordinary charity shops were left with a heap of limp M&S separates.

But times have changed and while Ebay still vacuums up great rafts of potential vintage clothing, for the average charity shop, the penny seems to have dropped that selling decent clothes equals more profit. So now, rather than shoving everything onto the rails straight from the bin bags, they’ve gone streamlined.

“That’s our designer range,” Mabel will say. “Are you looking for a brooch to go with that?” chips in Edna. Charity’s gone sophisticated. It’s not like the old days, when the dust and jumble was soundtracked only by the clacking of a Werthers Original between dentures. Now, at the very least, we get an Enya tape to shop along to.

Yet the joy of charity shopping is the fact that often, volunteers still can’t tell their Atmosphere from their Armani, or their Dunnes from their DKNY. There’s always something on the 1 rail at my local PDSA shop that would have cost over 80 new. The key is to avoid areas frequented by fashion students, and spend a long, long time picking through the stock. Checking armpits, seams and bobbly bits is second nature to me - and I’ve got a fantastic wardrobe of clothes on the back of it, none of which cost more than 10.

So I’m delighted that the charity shops are finally getting what they deserve. I’m just a lot less happy that now everyone’s latched onto the idea, I may well be left with nothing but the M&S orange Bermudas and the bobbly Tammy Girl jumper.

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