Is charity shopping now a luxury affair? The new pop-ups and car boot sales attracting discerning buyers

Eilidh Hargreaves
Discerning buyers can now find exceptional edits of vintage clothing in an elegant, curated setting with expert service

A few weeks ago, £50,000 worth of designer pieces turned up at a Mind charity store in Tunbridge Wells by way of a generous anonymous donation. Inevitably, footfall rocketed. Those shoppers who managed to snap up the pieces, which included an Erdem skirt, Chloé handbag and Mulberry dress, were very lucky indeed.

There is a reason the donation made the headlines: such high-end charity-shop finds are rare. Thrifting has long been a buzzword with great expectations, but the reality never quite seems to deliver. Cramped, musty spaces that require hours of rummaging, often with little yield, don’t make for a luxurious shopping experience.

But the tide is beginning to turn in London, where two expertly conceived charitable concepts are making it possible to find exceptional edits of vintage clothing in elegant settings with expert service. This is charity shopping 2.0; trendy, luxurious and a lot of fun.

Harrods' charitable pop-up Fashion Re-Told opened today at 51 Marylebone High Street

Last month, Harrods threw a VIP opening party for its charitable pop-up, Fashion Re-Told, at 51 Marylebone High Street, which opened to the public today. Quite possibly the world's most luxurious charity shop, it was created in partnership with Howard de Walden Estates, and all proceeds will go to the NSPCC.

“At Harrods, we pride ourselves on being masters of luxury,” says retail director Laura Brown. “To be able to create a charity shop - probably the most luxurious charity shop ever - sits really well with us. It raises money for a good cause but it’s also sustainable; we certainly haven’t been short on donations from our team and from our customers, and it’s nice to see those things go to another home.” 

This is the second annual edition of the pop-up, and it is double the size of last year’s, which raised £110,000 for the NSPCC over a one-month period. A decadent archway of blooms creates the entrance to the bright pink store, designed and staffed by the kind and knowledgeable Harrods team.

A knitted lilac Missoni dress stand out on the rails, alongside a generous amount of Stella McCartney

Bridging the gap between luxury and charity, it is roomy and curated - no digging required. Unlike the packed rails one might expect at a charity shop, this one is pared-back, displaying only a certain amount of women’s, men’s and childrenswear at a time (hundreds more items wait behind the scenes).

“Luxury is about a different experience for each person,” says Brown. “This is for a really good cause, but you don’t have to do any rummaging. From the moment that you come in the door, the presentation and quality of the stock is exceptional.”

The collection is made up of previously owned pieces donated by friends of Harrods - refreshed or repaired by Harrods where necessary - and never-worn items from fashion brands that have given generously.  All of the price tags are vastly lower than they could be.

These Prada shoes are particularly popular amongst shoppers

Knitted Missoni pieces stand out on the rails - especially a whimsical lilac dress, priced at £700, that would work beautifully on an evening in Capri - and Stella McCartney gowns, jackets and bags also pop. Prada slides (£500) and a beige woven Bottega Veneta clutch (£80) were popular amongst guests on opening night, whilst Brown confesses to have her eye on a printed Hermès blouse. Everything looks as good as new.

The buzz around the shop is palpable. Nearly 100 shoppers attended the opening party in great spirits, bopping to the DJ set, sipping champagne and spending with no restraint; my friend and I were stopped twice on our stroll home by passersby who had spotted the branded shopping bags containing our loot, anxious that they had missed opening day. Clearly, word has spread fast.

“It’s a luxury to be responsible,” says Brown. “People really respond to the fact that they can invest in something divine, while all of the money goes to an amazing cause.” Upgrading the experience - and perception - of charitable shopping, Fashion Re-Told is already a hit.

The 4th edition of the #SheInspiresMe Car Boot Sale is coming up, masterminded by Alex Eagle, Women for Women International, The Store X and The Outnet

But it isn’t alone - over in Soho, Alex Eagle and her friends are gutting their wardrobes for the fourth annual #SheInspiresMe Car Boot Sale, in partnership with The Store X and The Outnet, in aid of Women for Women International.

Located inside Brewer Street Car Park, it is open for just four hours on Saturday May 11, yet will see hundreds of shoppers hunting for fashion-forward buys. Last year’s edition made £216,000 for Women for Women International - the aim this year is £300,000.

If Fashion Re-Told is the most luxurious charity sale ever, #SheInspiresMe is the chicest. The car booters and donors in question are tastemakers, designers and fashion editors, including Alexa Chung, Bay Garnett, Alice Temperley and Burberry; and the loot is superb.

“Every year I go bananas,” says Eagle, who confesses to spend 80 per cent of her time at her car boot, and the rest of it shopping for herself. “I buy just as much as I sell; there is always old Céline, Chanel, Burberry, Givenchy, Chloé… And this year, I’ve got Sarah Harris on my car boot, who has the most enviable wardrobe of anyone I know.”

Old Céline, Givenchy, Chanel and Chloé are popular finds at the car boot sale

The event has become a staple in the calendar of London’s most fashionable shoppers, young designers and charitable buyers.

“All of my friends and car booters really save up their items for the event,” says Eagle. “We find that attendees save up money for it now, and each year people spend more, because there are such brilliant items; either brand new, barely worn, or pre-loved.”

More like a festival than a charity store, there are DJ sets, food and drink - and a children’s area so that parents can shop unrestrained. “The car boot sale hits everything,” says Eagle. “People clear their wardrobes, have such a fun day and find amazing bargains - and the money goes directly to women in need.”

This may well be the beginning of an exciting new era for charitable vintage shopping in London - one that is trendy, accessible and offers premium items. So, what should you look for when buying?

With DJ sets, food and drink, the event has a fun, festival vibe

“You have to be able to think about reinventing the piece,” says Brown, who regularly goes charity shopping with her mother - a seamstress - and has recently decorated part of her home using only found objects.

“I bought the most amazing coat which would previously have been very expensive. It was quite old-fashioned in terms of the style, so I had the collar changed and the sleeves shortened and it’s now the most divine jacket.”

For Eagle, it’s all about the potential. “Follow your heart and don’t be too afraid of the odd bit of damage,” she says. “There are amazing places like The Restory that can fix pieces up for you, or you can find seamstresses to take things in or up. But avoid moth holes, because they are a pain - or any stains you don’t think you’re going to be able to get out.”

Fashion Re-Told is open from May 2 to June 2; 51 Marylebone High Street, W1U 5HW;

#SheInspiresMe Car Boot Sale is open between 1 and 5pm on May 11; Brewer Street Car Park, W1F OLA;

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Have you had any luxury charity shop bargains?