While in London, find vintage bargains in thrift shops

Special to The Washington PostAugust 24, 2013 


Old Spitalfields Market located in the East End is known to Londoners as an ethnically rich, rapidly gentrifying haven of coolness with a long rag-trade history.

TIM WHITBY — Getty Images for Fred Perry

When I arrived in Britain as a student, I was all Southern sorority girl pastels, Pappagallos and pearls. But I swiftly worked out that you couldn’t show up at a New Order concert (it was the ’80s) dressed like that, not if you didn’t want to be jeered at.

Plus, I noticed that my friends were wearing their fathers’ old dinner jackets and 1940s skirts from secondhand stores. For less than the price of a pair of designer jeans, I could kit myself out in black cashmere, satin cocktail dresses and even a (slightly balding) mink coat, which I justified on the grounds that 1) it kept me really warm and 2) the varmints had been dead longer than I’d been alive.

All these years later, I found myself with a few days to spare on a summer lecture trip to London and decided to revisit the world of thrift fashion.

Oxfam: The venerable anti-poverty charity is an excellent source of vintage and barely worn pieces that you can still get (at many times the price) in London boutiques. There are nearly three dozen locations in the city, although the Westbourne Grove Oxfam is one of my favorites. Five or six years ago, I got a gorgeous green Etro scarf there and a pair of 1960s lizard-skin stilettos, the kind that “Mad Men’s” Joan Holloway would wear to slink magnificently into the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

This time I was sorely tempted by a tutti-frutti polka-dot summer dress by Ghost ($60). Then I imagined the thick viscose crepe in the relentless steam-heat that is a Tallahassee summer, sighed and put it back on the rack.

That evening at dinner, my friend Deborah, a lawyer who lives in South London, held up what looked like a brand-new Kate Spade bag, the kind that goes for $350. “Thirty quid – $48 – at the Herne Hill Oxfam,” she said, triumphant.

Portobello Road Market: It used to be a great place to find bargain pieces of good lace and old evening gloves in colored kid. The prices these days, however, are positively eye-watering. But then, everything in Notting Hill is expensive. If you fancy a Daisy Buchanan-ish Comme des Garcons frock in flowered georgette for a fraction of the original price (three grand), it can be had on Pembridge Road for about $600.

Tall glass cases display immaculately kept shoes by Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and others, ranging in price from $50 to $700. I guess a $1,000 pair of shoes for $500 is a deal. But not exactly in my budget.

Camden Lock Market: It had been nearly a decade since I’d visited the large, insistently alternative jumble of stalls crammed into Victorian warehouses beside the Regent’s Canal locks. The market always had a lot of clothes, old and new, but rummaging in one stall, I realized with a sinking feeling that the clothes of my 20s are now considered “vintage” – Doc Martens boots in patent leather and Princess Diana ruffled collars. Damn! I’m sure I owned that very dress, or its twin – a Laura Ashley dropped-waist thing in midnight-blue pinwale corduroy that I imagined made me look a bit like Morticia Addams. Here it was, for about 40 bucks – more than I’d originally paid for it.

Some kid would buy that Laura Ashley and wear it as I’d worn those frou-frou ’50s dresses back in the day – perhaps ironically, but certainly in a context that changes its impact. In Paris, fashion descends from the likes of Dior and Chanel to the street. In London, fashion begins in the street and works its way up to the collections of Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood.

Spitalfields: The East End, an area that Americans might associate with Jack the Ripper or maybe the PBS series “Call the Midwife,” is known to Londoners as an ethnically rich, rapidly gentrifying haven of coolness with a long rag-trade history. In the 17th century, Huguenot silk weavers moved in, then Russian Jewish tailors and, in the 20th century, Bangladeshi textile merchants.

Nearby Spitalfields Market is hipster central, with young designers right out of the London College of Fashion or Central St. Martin’s making asymmetrical leather jackets and Ascot-worthy hats from recycled plastic bags.

I walked the 15 minutes or so to the East End Thrift Store, heavy on flannel shirts and every conceivable iteration of denim, but also full of vintage gems – cheap. Really cheap. EETS used to have this legendary annual sale called Thriftstock at which you could stuff a large bag full of clothes for 10 pounds (about $16) or a huge bag for 20 pounds. It was so successful that EETS now runs Thriftstock year-round.

My haul? A few nice pieces to give away, a few that will probably end up at my local Goodwill and a beautiful raspberry velveteen bolero jacket. When I wear it, I feel like Lady Mary Crawley – or maybe just my student self, when I saw the world as just one big opportunity for dressing up.

Roberts teaches creative writing at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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