Belfast Telegraph

How we found fashion that's cheap & chic

So you think charity shops are all old T-shirts and nylon trousers? We challenged five women to put together new outfits ... and the results may just surprise you. By Marie Foy

Why not be like the Beckhams and donate your unwanted clothes to a charity store? Ok, you might not have designer leftovers like Victoria and David, but if they're good quality and you simply don't love them anymore, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland says it would be delighted to take them off your hands.

There was a time when charity shops weren't too cool, with a mish-mash of bric-a-brac, nylon and knitting patterns that were never going to be on-trend.

But times have changed – charity shops have had makeovers and revamps to make the shopping experience more enjoyable.

They're bright, uncluttered, airy and welcoming – and a mine of hidden gems.

Angela McGrath, retail development manager for Cancer Focus NI, says: "We have a wide selection of goods to suit everyone's tastes, but more and more we see young people trawling through our clothes rails looking for something that's really good value, chic, classic, vintage or retro.

"Some of our customers are impressively inventive – with a couple of stitches they'll take up a hem, add on a collar or take in a seam to give a dress or a blouse a completely new, modern twist.

"With a bit of imagination you can add a bit of jewellery or a belt and get a whole outfit, often for under £10.

"We have a very high turnover and regularly need new stock, so if you have anything lurking at the back of your wardrobe that you know in your heart you're never going to wear again, please give it to us.

"We are holding a Donation Day in all our 12 stores across Northern Ireland (see the shops section at www.cancerfocusni.org for locations) on Saturday May 3, so why not have a clear-out today and give us your overflow.

"May 3 is a special day but of course you can also bring your donations to us any time – they will always be gratefully received."

Retro fashionista Suzi McIlwain (28), from Belfast, is a charity shop convert.

She recently bought a stunning red Fifties cocktail sateen dress in one of the Cancer Focus NI Lisburn Road shops. She says:

"I was driving by one day when I spotted the dress in the window – it just popped out at me. I pulled into the nearest parking space and ran back.

"They also had a similar dress with a pink flared skirt with big hearts on it, but someone already had dibs on that. I insisted that the assistant took the red one out of the window for me before anyone else saw it.

"It was a Vivien of Holloway vintage repro that would cost you around £90 new. I paid £7 and spent a few more pounds having it taken in around the neck and waist so that it fits me like a glove. I love it – there just aren't enough parties to wear it to!" laughs Suzi, who is a community fundraiser with Cancer Focus NI.

"Fashion is cyclical and most trends come around again and again – so charity shops are the perfect mining ground. If your wardrobe's got a bit of leather, a bit of monochrome and a bit of animal print, you can't go wrong," she advises.

"It's fun to browse but it can be good to have a shopping list so you're focused, too.

"Sometimes you won't see anything you fancy and other times it's a treasure trove. The trick is to call regularly so you see all the new stuff as it comes in. Don't be afraid to try things you normally wouldn't. And have fun!"

Three placement students at Cancer Focus NI, Caroline McNelis, Danielle Logan and Aoife Hull, were let loose in one of the charity's shops and soon bagged a few items for themselves.

Aoife Hull (21), from Lisburn, says:

"Now that I'm on my placement year, I've suddenly realised that the clothes I normally wear to university aren't always suitable for the office, so I'm trying to build up a work wardrobe. I came across a black Jaeger pencil skirt (£10) and a white and pink striped shirt (£3.50) that fits the bill perfectly for a cash-strapped student. I also tried on a floral blouse (£4) and leggings (£3) which were bargains."

Also on the hunt for work clothes is Danielle Logan (21), from Culcavey near Hillsborough, who says:

"When I was browsing through the rails I found a smart red dress (£3), which makes me feel more professional. I also found a few lovely little summer dresses. I'm petite, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a good selection of smaller sizes in stock. I'm chuffed when I discover something that would cost me an awful lot more if I bought it on the High Street."

Caroline McNelis (21), from Beragh, comments:

"You can find some incredibly affordable nuggets – and it's totally guilt-free shopping because you spend so little. I was delighted with a pair of print trousers that you could wear casually during the day or dress up with big jewellery and a jacket for the evening.

"They were a steal at £4. Together with a vest top (£2.50) and necklace the whole ensemble came to £7.25. I also spotted a smart black Jaeger jacket but sadly it was too small."

Not only are the shops extremely good value, they are, it goes without saying, an invaluable source of income for charities, raising thousands of pounds for a wide variety of vital projects.

Queen's University Belfast, for example, recently announced an important breakthrough in BRCA 1 research, which could signal new treatments for women at high risk of breast and ovarian cancer, which was funded by Cancer Focus NI.

The charity also provides free art therapy, family support, a bra-fitting service for women who've had mastectomies, a Helpline (0800 783 3339) and many more care services for cancer patients and their families all over Northern Ireland.

It does extensive cancer prevention work in schools, community venues and workplaces. And it plays a central role in community life.

Some 100 volunteers work in its shops including young people who want to gain retail experience, foreign students improving their English and retirees with time on their hands, who want to give a little back and meet new people. More volunteers are needed too.

For the environmentally friendly, charity shops are also the green option, cutting what we send to landfill.

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