Thrift and the City

Shopping here will save your pennies for an evening’s round of dry martinis and still make you purr, “Hello, lover.”

A shopping trip to New York City is typically about the big names. It’s where travel guides and Hollywood have you riding the elevators at Barneys Uptown, splurging on cult fashion labels such as Miu Miu and Proenza Schouler. You must also gush over the haute couture and accessories at Fifth Avenue classics Tiffany & Co, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman.

In the original Sex and the City TV shows, freelance columnist Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, spent her share of retail therapy at Saks Fifth Avenue and Jimmy Choo and even famously dropped her rent on a pair of Manolos.

Sex and the City was all about the brands. Fashion-hungry travellers “come to New York for the two Ls: labels and love”, Carrie keenly observed.

So, what about all those less-than-recognisable items – the newsboy caps, floral boho skirts and ironic T-shirts – that Carrie sported? And remember, in the first film, the simple, label-free skirt suit she was going to marry Mr Big in? Her girlfriends scrunched their noses at it and she ended up wearing a Vivienne Westwood wonderdress.

While Carrie is, let’s face it, a label *bleep*, her aesthetic does have a mix-and-match tone, a sensibility pushed by Sex and the City superstylist Patricia Field, who has often lauded some of the least expensive ensembles worn on the show as her favourites. And while the show’s producers held tight to the idea that Carrie represented the fashionable career woman, the question remained: how could a freelancer, who wrote little more than 1,000 words a week, afford those thousands of pairs of designer shoes? The answer: consignment stores. We’re talking thrift alley, baby!

Here’s a list of NYC’s thrifty must-visit gems – outlets that buy and sell preloved designer wear on consignment – where you’ll find labels (and no-name garments) for significantly less than the original price. Shopping here will save your pennies for an evening’s round of dry martinis and still make you purr, “Hello, lover.”

Housing Works

One of the coolest organisations in the city, Housing Works is a not-for-profit with the mission to help homeless people living with AIDS and HIV. Housing Works’ big business is vintage furniture but it also stocks haute couture as well as chic street brands that have been donated by fabulous New Yorkers, including Sarah Jessica Parker herself.

It has nine thrift locations in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn. Shopping here can be a bit hit-or-miss, but what you do find will be of high quality, and new merchandise flows into the locations every several days.  Items are up for auction on the website every week, so if you find yourself pining for that rhinestone choker after you’ve left the store, log on and bid for it.

FAB 208

Smack in the centre of the East Village and its streets of boutiques is FAB 208, which is run by husband-and-wife team Jo Custance-Smith and Alan Smith. The Smiths opened the store in 1992, then selling vintage clothing. Now FAB 208’s original designs, added to the vintage mix, are a favourite of R&B hottie Kelis and apparently designer John Galliano visits annually for inspiration.

After dealing in vintage for years, Jo has made a name taking garb apart and turning it into something new again. One-sleeved sweaters and restructured Levi’s miniskirts are popular wardrobe staples. Jo has a penchant for batwings, big bangles, lace, bold colours and asymmetrical profiles.

However, the ’80s tone needn’t be overt – she also does wicked feminine ranges that include floral tanks or wrap tops made from vintage silks. These can be ‘toughened up’ with a military-style studded cap or made flashier with a piece of costume jewellery, which you can also find on the shelves here.

Tokio 7

Just up the street from FAB 208 is this jam-packed super-trendy store that bustles like a street market, especially on Sundays. The owners pose no effort to make browsing easy, and that’s because they have so much to offer and so little space – it’s Manhattan, people.

Vintage and second-hand hats, handbags, blazers, boots, pendants, belts and gowns are draped, stacked and tucked into cabinets. The labels run the gamut, from cult designer Issey Miyake and street labels Diesel and Acne to haute couture standards Prada, Gucci and Christian Dior.

Beacon’s Closet

Beacon’s is a haven for many a stylish New Yorker. This enduring store seems to operate by the mantra that woman (and man) can live on vintage alone. Entire wardrobes can be assembled in just a couple of hours and an individual piece can go for anywhere between $3 and several hundred.

The two Brooklyn locations are large and there is as much space devoted to menswear as there is to women’s fashion. Some of the best finds are from mainstream labels – vintage Levi’s, ironic T-shirts from Urban Outfitters and clubbing dresses bought two years ago at H&M – and the constant influx of garments from fashion-savvy locals means a pair of Marc Jacobs platforms or a little black dress by Catherine Malandrino are not a rare find. And what you don’t find on Sunday may well be here on Tuesday.

Encore

Encore boasts that it was the first consignment store in the US, and it probably was. It opened on Madison Avenue in 1954 and shop lore says that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a regular client. Encore doesn’t buy any old stuff. In fact, this is no vintage outlet at all, as everything the store buys must be less than two years old and barely worn.

Much of it comes from doyennes and socialites who simply cannot be seen in the same ensemble twice. Fashion insiders also trade in items not long off the catwalk. The tattered communal change rooms – which do not reflect the wares – are filled with women, men and even children trying on all manner of glam. Here, Chanel pants suits, Hermès scarves, Prada silk blouses, Alexander McQueen skirts and Moschino motorbike jackets all sell for a fraction of the original killer prices.

Carrie Bradshaw would simply die in the shoe department, where Manolo slingbacks sport nary a scuff and Oscar de la Renta pumps stand at not a millimetre lower than their original height. And for a day at the races, don’t skip the store’s millinery section.

Ina Designer Consignment

You won’t find fobbed-off Gap jeans here, as INA primarily buys from fashion insiders. It’s mostly unworn attire – which may come straight from the catwalk or a photo shoot – and it’s slashed to at least half the retail price.

What you would once have found here was the Sex and the City wardrobe library when the TV show wrapped in 2004. Those days are over, but INA’s influx of garments is constant and its policy pragmatic: after 30 days, prices are reduced by the week until sold. Plenty of men are regulars, rifling the racks for Thom Browne shirts or an Emilio Pucci necktie.

For women, Christian Louboutin pumps, Fendi bags and Oscar de la Renta evening gowns are a common find, as are one-offs by Gucci, Prada, Dries Van Noten, Jimmy Choo, Burberry and Louis Vuitton.

Resurrection

Resurrection is not a shabby, needle-in-a-haystack affair. The boutique is in tiny Nolita, the stamping ground of NYC’s nattiest locals. Resurrection owners Mark Haddawy and Katy Rodriguez describe their inventory as “collectable and historic clothing”, which amounts to a dapper selection of attire that could be hanging in the wardrobes of a Bond girl or a Jackie O look-alike.

The standouts are the jewellery, with precious pieces from Lanvin, Chanel, Hermès and Yves Saint Laurent. Think chunky gold neckbands studded with rare jewels, belts that could almost survive a nuclear meltdown and, for example, a Kenneth Jay Lane super-sleek cuff in the shape of a zebra. 

Cobblestones

Delanee Koppersmith is the owner of this hole-in-the-wall East Village bastion that smells a little like nanna’s living room and looks like it could double as her wardrobe – if your nanna were, say, Lauren Bacall. 

Koppersmith is East Village born and bred. With her black curls in a casual beehive and her immaculate pink nails, she presides over Cobblestones as if it were her home, singing, ironing, unloading merchandise and intriguing shoppers with tales of old-school NYC.

Elite labels can be found on the crammed racks, as well as vintage nightgowns and wedding dresses. It’s also the place to pick up an elaborate rhinestone brooch, a classic silk turban or a pair of rose-coloured stilettos that have been worn in just so.     

Words by Emma Pearse - Published in Voyeur June 2010
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