Whilst walking down a desolate Princes Street in Edinburgh last month during lockdown, I noticed every single high street shop closed up.
The lights were off, but in the window displays and on the shelves, it seemed like nothing had changed. Retail was only on pause, still covered in signs proclaiming the arrival of new ranges and styles, with row after row of brand new clothes just sitting and waiting the return of consumers.
Walking past these stores, each with their own piles of stock, made me ponder what’s coming next? Would the ‘season’ just be scrapped, somehow not ‘new’ enough anymore? Was all of this unworn clothing somehow tainted as ‘old’, and would another ‘new’ season be along right after it? It made me think what it really means to have something new – and whether ‘new’ is actually better?
Before we go much further, I have to confess that, when it comes to clothes, it’s fair to say I don’t have one style, no matter how many times I’ve tried to find one. I’ve attempted to be the black and grey minimalist Scandi girl who always looks immaculate, everything matching. But just when I’m set on a minimalist aesthetic, I’ll see a knee-length blue fur jacket on sale somewhere and voila, the whole palette has just been Cookie Monstered.
I cannot fight it. I like clothes. I like them in all colours and in all shapes, I like clothes that are plain, I like clothes that shimmer. I like sparkle. I have come to realise, over these last few years, that I also really like other people’s clothes. It might be my Grandpa’s fault. Or maybe even Barbie’s?
A second-hand habit
My Grandpa introduced me to car boot sales when I was eight years old. On sunny weekends in Northumberland, there we’d be, him and I, traipsing around scouring the masses of other people’s cast-offs, him looking for books, me looking for Barbies. I was always on the hunt for new outfits, new hair colours, new skin tones, new characters and new personalities to add to my collection. It seems odd to think it now, but it never really occurred to me, when I did find these hidden Mattel gems, that they were not ‘new’. That they were, in fact, unwanted by someone else. It certainly didn’t make me want them any less and, come to think of it, it didn’t make my sister want them any less either.
As I got older, the venue and my partner in crime changed. Now, it was charity shops and my enabler was my poor father, dragged from Oxfam to Cancer Research and every Salvation Army in between. On one perfect weekend, I remember getting goose bumps as he probably got chills, spotting the signage for a ‘Local Market’. For most of my early teens, I dragged my Dad around anywhere that might have a bargain – only now it wasn’t miniature clothes for Barbie I sought, but actual size clothes for me.
It wasn’t just the size of the clothes that had got bigger. So too had my aspirations and inspiration, thanks to my mum. She had collected every Vogue magazine from 1976 and, as a kid, I’d spend hours looking through them. Now, armed not just with a Dad who would take me round these shops but with the secret knowledge of what to look for from my mum, my thirst for a bargain was sealed.
Fast forward to today, and now it’s my husband and my kids who have to join me in my never-ending fashion quest. I’ve dragged them around flea markets in sweltering heat in California and forced them down random side streets in Leith to ‘just see’ what gems are to be found. Then one time, down one of those side streets in Leith, all my years of second-hand fashion hunting and scouring came true. Walking around a second-hand sale one Saturday morning, my husband trailing behind me with a coffee in hand and our little boy in tow, I spotted it across the room and ran.
It was perfect. It was everything. I touched it. I pawed it. It was real. It was a small Chanel handbag from the ’60s. I offered the woman what she was asking for and a bit more, knowing what an amazing find it was, and I think in my smile she knew it had found a loving new home. She whispered ‘enjoy it dear’ as she handed it over, smiling at my eye-rolling husband.
Years of practice
Because of all these years of scouring and scavenging my wardrobe is, in all honesty, a mixture of madness. From Laura Ashley dresses that don’t really fit me properly (I’ll never give up) to coats of all different colours and a fair collection of Doc Martens, (my feet haven’t grown since 1995 so I’ve collected a good few pairs over the years – can you imagine a poor 12-year-old with size seven feet?) there’s plenty to contrast with my second-hand Burberry trench coat, Guess jeans, Hermes shirts, Moschino dress and Armani Afghan.
I have pieces in my wardrobe I would never have been able to spend the money on if they had been new, but to be quite honest, I don’t know if I would even want them new. If they were box fresh, I wouldn’t see my grandpa, my mum, my dad, my sister, my uncle, my aunties, my husband, my kids and all the weird and wonderful places I have dragged them around in all these pieces resting right there in my wardrobe. When I open it, precious memories stare back at me. And for me, that’s true fashion happiness.
Over the last few years, I’ve taken my scavenger hunt digital. Here are a few of my favourite online second-hand spots.
- Depop, eBay and Instagram are great places to trawl for preloved pieces of all sorts.
- Manifesto Woman’s ethos is all about stylish sustainability, offering up everything from designer items to boutique vintage finds
- The founder of One Scoop Store, Holly Watkins, uses car boot sales, charity shops, thrift markets and a network of private sellers to source an accessible curation of clothes and accessories.
- Vestaire Collective is the place to buy and sell pre-loved luxury fashion (including those sought-after vintage Chanel bags).
- Hardly Ever Worn It buys and sells pre-worn clothes and accessories for men, women and children alike.