The premise behind thrift stores, second-hand shops, and used item stores in general was to give underprivileged families the ability to shop at low cost. As early as 1941 in the United Kingdom, the Red Cross began trading in “charity shops” to provide resale opportunities during the World War. All goods were to be purchased as gifts and for personal use, and resale of charity shop items was strictly forbidden. These efforts were later mirrored in the United States and today, countless charitable and privately owned thrift shops scatter our continent. As years went on, the clientele of these stores began to diversify as many mainstream Americans and as of late, true fashionistas have been seen scouring the racks not just for great discounts, but for great rare and vintage finds and designer labels.
To become a true thrift shop connoisseur, you need to know where the best finds are; often in shops located where the most affluent reside. Based on that theory, some of the better shops in the Baltimore area are closest to Roland Park, Greenspring Valley, and even parts of Timonium and Towson. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to pick up some great things; some last season DKNY, a few Coach bags, and even my prized Etienne Aigner wallet. However, what I didn’t know until a few days ago, was that shops in these areas pale greatly in comparison to some of the New York City spots I recently had the privilege to patronize.
Enter today’s upscale consignment boutique. Housed typically in low budget store fronts, it’s hard to walk two blocks in New York City’s upper east side without passing at least a few. With barely any signage, and not a hint of effort put into store décor, the shops are not always the typical representation of high-end, or upscale. In fact, in this setting, one frequently will be greeted by event fliers plastered to building fronts, graffiti in a myriad of colors boasting a variety of messages, and must be willing to venture under scaffolding set up for 2nd floor construction to even enter the store. The spaces are small and with more than a handful of people in the store, it would likely be nearly impossible to move or maneuver. These shops frequently benefit great local charities and are volunteer run. The proceeds from the one I patronized benefit the foundation for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital – a premier and nationally renowned cancer treatment facility in Manhattan.
Concern with the size or presentation of the store should be quickly dismissed as focus is directed to the items on display. On my recent visit, the first item to grab my eye’s attention was a vintage gold, diamond baguette, and ruby ring, nestled in a display case among other unique pieces. I asked a volunteer to retrieve it so that I could try it on, and looking at this extravagant piece on my ring finger, for a second felt just a little more regal. Told by the volunteer worker, that I had a “great eye”, I moved throughout the cozy boutique with a little extra swagger. I used my “great eye” to seek out staple wardrobe pieces on the racks. There were black pencil skirts, classic button down white blouses, pantsuits, trench coats, and incredible shoes at prices so low you wouldn’t readily comprehend it. And, wait; could this be? After giving these items a closer glance, I began to see names I recognized. Ralph Lauren, Versace, Marc Jacobs, Verragamo, Prada, Burberry, and Hermes! There were boots, bags, scarves, coats, and vintage jewelry; all designer fashions, here in this tiny consignment shop. Perhaps most incredible, is that almost everything appeared to either never have been worn or immaculately maintained. My eye then spotted a classic Dooney and Bourke satchel, and though I wrestled in thought over it, I quickly decided I couldn’t leave without it.
While not a major champion of buying or wearing “used" shoes, I must admit, I briefly dreamed that I didn’t wear a size 10 – 11 shoe, so that a pair of Manolo Blahniks in excellent condition sitting delicately on the shoe rack could have accommodated me, as without a thought they would have been an exception to my rule.
As I stepped confidently back onto the streets of New York City, feeling as though I had somehow gotten over on the system, and clutching my Dooney & Bourke and new Ruby ring, I reflected on the experience. The moral is, don’t discount your ability to rock great designer clothing, bags, shoes, and vintage jewelry. A true fashionista doesn’t conform to what’s trendy, but rather combines classic pieces with their individual style to create unique ensembles. Upscale consignment boutiques are allowing the ordinary Jane or Joe to look extraordinary. Don’t pre-judge the concept of “second-hand” fashion; like the old saying (sort of) goes, one person’s trash is absolutely and positively another’s treasure. Don’t miss out…get to one today. I’ll see you there.
For more on the Memorial Sloan Ketting Cancer Center Thrift Shop, please visit their website.