For many people, the past few months have brought about some personal revelations, from the big (divorce inquiries are up 42% since March) to the small (at-home haircut, anyone?). Beside refusing to set foot on the hellscape that is the Northern Line ever again, and the realisation that I am in fact a terrible baker, my lockdown revelation comes off the back of a cold, hard look at my relationship with shopping. Before the pandemic, my attitude to spending was very much carpe diem, fuelled by the nature of my job as a fashion editor and writer. A little voice in my head (though perhaps she was far more influential than I first thought) would reason with me before every purchase: You’ll never be able to buy a house, so why bother curtailing the little joys that make life better to save for the impossible? You could get hit by a bus tomorrow! You’ve had a shit week, you deserve it! Since the crisis hit, though, that little voice has become harder and harder to hear.
Between squirrelling away my income in case of furlough or, in a precarious media landscape, redundancy, and considering the garment workers, unpaid and lumbered with thousands of unwanted orders from high street names, and the delivery drivers on the front line, now essential workers risking infection simply because I fancied a new top, mindless shopping became increasingly difficult to justify. Heavy conscience aside, having the time to rediscover gems in my existing wardrobe, plus wanting to support smaller, independent brands at risk of collapse, has meant that anything I have bought in lockdown has been very carefully considered and thus far more meaningful than an impulse purchase. When it became clear that we wouldn’t be leaving the house any time soon, investing in a pair of joggers from Ninety Percent – a brand which splits 90% of its profits between the makers and charitable organisations – or a T-shirt from radical activist label Birdsong felt far better than impulse-buying a £20 loungewear set. In the face of a global pandemic, people have reassessed their needs, and it's fast emerging that we actually have very few in order to be happy. The word 'essential' has been used so much since The New Normal™ began that, rather than egging me on to buy yet another piece of serotonin-boosting, shiny newness, the little voice in my head is instead asking: Is this essential to you right now? And of course, it never is.
This week, as the world emerges as though from a terrifying and surreal hibernation, we’re asking ourselves what we want to leave behind, and how we want to live from here on out. Yesterday, from River Island to John Lewis, shops on the high street reopened their doors, albeit with necessary (but no less dystopian) measures in place to keep customers and staff safe. Having temperatures taken at the door, plastic screens keeping checkout employees at a distance, and more antibacterial hand sanitiser than our poor, chapped digits can handle will soon become par for the course but it’s not just the IRL retail experience that will change the way we shop. Where many household names are inviting us in, others, like Inditex, the parent company of high street giant Zara, which announced last week that it would be absorbing up to 1,200 of its stores globally to boost online shopping and fight the 44% downturn in sales over the lockdown period, will be streamlining their IRL spaces. Meanwhile some high street classics didn't make it through the crisis at all, with Oasis and Warehouse filing for bankruptcy in April. Let’s not forget, though, that the World Health Organization is warning England to remain cautious of lockdown lifting as we’re still in a "very active phase of the pandemic". We’re all aware of the economic fallout of coronavirus – and no one wants to see further job losses or more fashion stalwarts fold – but the government’s move to ease social distancing measures and encourage us to spend our money on the high street is heavily motivated by pressure from business leaders who are concerned about their stores going into administration.
Despite non-essential shops of all kinds opening up this week, it’s the humble charity shop I’ll be standing in (a socially distanced) line for. While others spoke of missing the community of a hair salon, the anonymity of sitting alone in the corner of a café or the quiet pleasure of an independent bookshop, I was mourning the manic, messy floor of an Oxfam or a Barnardo’s. Much like a public library, unless you use charity shops regularly, their unique magic will have totally passed you by. In my area, the charity shops – where you can snaffle out bargains amid a hodge-podge of people from all walks of life – feel like a cornerstone of the community. From Cancer Research to Sue Ryder, all 11,000 of the UK's charity shops raise over £300 million per year for great causes but on a more local, micro level, the shops themselves are vital to so many. Since 1899, when one of the UK's first charity shops opened, they've provided accessible clothing for those living below the poverty line, decent furniture for young families building homes, toys for children who would otherwise go without, and a social circle for the elderly and alone through their networks of volunteer staff.
Thrillingly, there are five charity shops on my little high street, from the fashion-savvy Mary’s Living & Giving, where I once found a pair of classic 2002 Vivienne Westwood Roman three-strap sandals for just £15, to St Christopher’s Hospice, where five years ago I bought a £10 oak chest of drawers that has come with me to every rented flat since. Seasoned charity shop devotees won’t need me to wax lyrical about the unmatched joy of discovering a gem, vintage or otherwise, in a discombobulated pile of bric-a-brac. Many would liken unearthing an amazing piece of fashion in a charity shop to finding a diamond in the rough but I believe that particular turn of phrase to be an insult; one woman’s trash is another’s treasure and time and again I've donated an item only to buy back the very same thing from another charity shop years later, falling in love with it all over again thanks to someone else’s spring clean.
Alongside its vintage accolades, the charity shop is the original sustainable fashion source. We’ve long known that the best way to dress sustainably (after wearing what you already own) is to go secondhand, something Oxfam highlighted with last year's Second Hand September campaign. The charity invited people to combat the 11 million items of clothing which end up in landfill every week by buying only secondhand for 30 days. And while the marketing-savvy likes of Etsy, Depop and eBay have dominated this space digitally, the charity sector is catching up: Oxfam’s online shop has a host of beautiful pieces from the 1920s onwards and is far more affordable than its trend-driven competitors. Most charities, too, now have a specific vintage Instagram account to document the more covetable donations that come their way.
Although I have bought pieces online during the last few months – my most-worn lockdown dress, an easy cotton gingham midi, is from Barnardo’s digital shop – the lack of human contact has had me dreaming of the simultaneously thrilling and mundane experience of an IRL shop. Sure, getting a vintage Burberry trench in the post after an intense bidding war at 3am is great but what about talking to a chatty volunteer while you rifle through the rails of Lacoste polo shirts and Jane Norman blouses to uncover a ‘90s floral Laura Ashley prairie dress? Or striking up a conversation with an eccentric elderly gentleman while you rummage through the dusty denim section to find an elusive pair of Levi’s 501 red tab jeans? There’s nothing like it. Much like taking the same route to work each day or sitting in your favourite café every Saturday morning, you meet the same characters over and over again as you browse a charity shop; some you spark up a chat with, others you make up narratives in your head for – either way, it’s the most interesting place to people-watch on the high street.
If you’ve turned up your nose at a good old-fashioned rummage in the past, now is the time to reconsider your view of the humble charity shop. In the early weeks of lockdown, as the days melted into each other and time stretched so very far ahead of us, everyone and their mother sorted through their attics, basements, garages and wardrobes, spring cleaning every last inch of the house. From sewing machines to tea sets, designer dresses to rare vintage handbags, charity shops up and down the country are expecting to be inundated with pre-loved donations this week and beyond. Robin Osterley, chief executive of the Charity Retail Association, told the BBC: "We're not just anticipating a normal three months' worth of donations but also the extra stuff that people may have picked out to donate during their clean-ups." Be mindful to stagger your donations, of course, and if possible clean everything before shipping off to your nearest branch (although items will be disinfected for 72 hours before hitting the shop floor). I for one can’t wait to dive back into my favourite shops – the original secondhand heroes – to find some familiar faces and perhaps some treasure, too.