How I became a fully fledged Charity Shop fan.
I'm often asked how my business came about, and in my book In the Jumble I share not only how it all got started, but lots of tips and ideas to help others discover the delights of charity shopping for treasure to add to their wardrobe. In this months blog, here's an extract from the book which talks about how I found my love of shopping in charity shops:
"In 2006 I found myself staring into my wardrobe on the verge of tears. At my feet were just about every pair of trousers I owned, and not one of them fitted me any more.
I’d had my second daughter about six months earlier, and I was due to return to work the following week. My shape and size had changed so the only things I could still get into were a pair of maternity jeans and a pair of pyjamas. I didn’t think my colleagues would be too impressed with me rolling back to work in a pair of tartan PJ’s so I reluctantly decided I would have to get something new. The idea of trundling along to the shops in my baby sick t-shirt to find something to fit me was far from appealing. Like opening the latest credit card bill.
So I did what I always did when I got a bit stuck because I needed some clothes but didn’t know what I was looking for and didn’t have much spare cash; I went to the Next sale. I managed to get a suit and a couple of tops so I thankfully wouldn’t need the PJ’s, but the pale grey pinstripe suit did absolutely nothing for my confidence, my colouring, or my figure.
A good friend of mine tactfully suggested a trip to see an image consultant to sort me out. That visit completely transformed the rather dim view I’d fallen into that shopping for clothes was tantamount to torture and completely unnecessary because clothes didn’t really matter. Actually the clothes themselves don’t, but how they make you feel and what they do for your confidence absolutely does – I know that now! That day I learned why everyone always thought I was ill when I wore black, and how I’ve always looked a bit startled when I try pink lipstick. I realized I should never have dyed my hair that shade of blonde, and I discovered that my love of flares was completely natural, in fact encouraged, as was a hankering for wooden jewelry and chunky knit jumpers.
Looking back now, I can see that learning my rules of what suited me and complimented the natural me was something of a mild epiphany. It really helped me to define and express who I felt I was at the time, to merge all the roles I had (wife, mum, sister, employee, friend, daughter etc.) and to feel more of a whole person. I changed my hair, wiped off the baby vomit, bought some new clothes and ditched the utility trousers – why was I even wearing those? I looked like one of those outdoor-y adventure mothers who would light fires and carry their babies in various impressive body slings. That wasn’t me at all; I guess I just thought all the pockets would be useful.
After my turnaround I remember buying a new outfit from Jigsaw for my baby’s christening. It was a pair of linen trousers and a metallic loose knit top, which I put a teal belt over. It was the first time in a very long time that I felt great about how I looked. I really started to think ‘hell, yeah, this is me people!’ It was a fantastic feeling that I had completely lost in my life, and I know now that it was an important feeling. Wearing clothes that really express who we are is what makes us stand tall, chin up. It’s a caffeine hit of confidence right between the eyes. It’s you, going out into the world wearing your identity. When that happens the world says, “OK then, well this is someone awesome.” The way other people interact and respond to you changes, improves, and this feedback makes you feel even more confident in your new skin.
It’s quite amazing actually.
I have of course made mistakes along the way, plenty. That day I went to work in a bright floral silk dress with a grass green cardigan and magenta shoes was definitely a mistake. Hawaiian Show Girl looks are no longer in my repertoire after that disastrous management meeting. But looking back, the mistakes have been as useful as the triumphs (dark brown wool crepe dress that made me look ever so slightly curvy and got lots of compliments springs instantly to mind) because that’s how we learn. And I can promise you that I’ve learned a lot.
My image consultant experience gave me a huge boost of confidence when I needed it most, re-ignited my love and enjoyment of being creative with clothes, and then some time later even led me to seek out the amazing Gail Morgan in order to train as an image consultant myself. Lucky me, I now get to help other people re-love their clothes (and themselves) every day.
The main thing my experience with an image consultant taught me, and what I now try to teach my clients is actually not really about clothes at all. It made me think more about who I was, and what messages I wanted to get across about myself. It made me more aligned with my true self, and able to express that through what I wear. I stopped having a wardrobe of clothes that were earmarked for ‘work’, ‘home’, ‘best’, and ‘going out’ and just started having clothes that were earmarked for me, that I could wear across different roles I had in my life. I felt happier and more confident, and freely able to express that through my wardrobe. Yes, I was a different shape, and yes I was a couple of sizes bigger than I had been pre-baby, and yes at the bottom of my handbag was a couple of broken crayons and a half eaten biscuit, but suddenly that was OK. I realized I had been using my change in size as an excuse to avoid shopping, mirrors, clothes, getting dressed. Partly because I was, well, exhausted, but partly because it meant facing up to thinking about myself and who I was, and who I would become when I went back to work. Underneath all of that avoidance was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to handle being a working mum. Also probably some dread. I loved my job, but there’s a whole heap of guilt thrown in when you have to drop your beautiful blonde babies off at a nursery in order to do the work. And I was also really enjoying my maternity leave – if I had been really honest with myself, I probably didn’t want to go back to work at all, and was avoiding making any decisions or provisions for it. Wow, all those thoughts just milling around under the surface of me not wanting to find something nice to wear to work.
This leads me to an interesting discovery I’ve made.
Clothes are never the issue.
When a client comes to see me with a wardrobe dilemma, I know that it’s never actually about the clothes. Unless they turn up naked, I’m assuming they do have garments they can put on most days to preserve their modesty. It’s not a lack of clothes that’s the problem. It’s a lack of clothes that reflect who they are now, or who they want to be. Under every clothes dilemma is a person dilemma. After all, our clothes are our outer surface, and our outer surface (whether we realize it or not) reflects what’s going on inside.
Often with clients that come to me, something has changed in their lives. Maybe they’ve got a new job, a new partner, or had a baby, or the kids have left home. This change has challenged them, led them to question their identity, who they are, what their role is and how they fit into the new scheme of things. Their clothes simply haven’t caught up with them yet, and they need some new ideas of what to wear to fit with their image of this new person emerging from their cocoon.
What I’ve learned is that at the root of most ‘what to wear’ dilemmas is actually more of a ‘who do I want to be’ question. Answer that, and the clothes dilemmas go away.
When I’d got my head around who I was as a working mum, and what that meant in terms of what I wore, I actually began to enjoy shopping again. But working mothers have large nursery bills to pay and not much spare cash, and I wasn’t enjoying shopping in the places I could actually afford to shop in. I’m the kind of person who shops with their hands – I like to feel the fabric, touch it, decide if it will be soft and comfortable, or if it will generate a Mohican from all the static it creates.
I’m sure this fear of man-made fabrics stems from when I was a child. As a child of the 70’s nearly everything in my life was that highly flammable polyester type material, and one night I went to bed in my polyester nightdress with polyester sheets on the bed. I thought there was lightening in the bed, I could actually see the static electricity bouncing between the sheets and my nightdress. My mother thought I’d made it up when I shouted that I was on fire and sent me straight back to bed.
No more lightening bolts for me, thank you very much.
I wanted nice fabrics, I wanted clothes that were a good fit, and I wanted things that would last, but I simply couldn’t afford them.
One day, as I was trundling along with my pushchair to meet some mum friends for a coffee, my eye was drawn to the clothes displayed in the window of the Cancer Research shop. Before I knew it, I’d wheeled my pushchair in and started browsing around. I found a lovely Monsoon green wrap top and a set of green, orange and wood beads and I spent a total of £5.49. Light bulbs were going off in my head. If I wanted to find clothes that I could enjoy wearing and spend hardly any money, why hadn’t I thought of it before? I could shop second hand! The idea wasn’t new to me, I’d practically grown up on charity shop finds and hand me downs. But in that moment, I wondered if I could do it again as an adult?
When I was a child we didn’t have much money and it was a treat to go to a jumble sale with 20p tucked in my hand. My Nan would take us most Saturdays and we’d come home with real treasures; a jigsaw puzzle (often with pieces missing, which we seemed to enjoy as a sort of puzzle roulette), or some baby clothes for a doll. But my Nan would spot a jumper she could unravel and use the wool for something else (probably a multi-coloured cardigan for which she was quite famous), or at the very least to keep us quiet for an hour making pom-poms. Or she’d find (joy of joys) some fabric we could cut up and make into book covers or picnic blankets for our teddy bear picnics.
Through my rose tinted spectacles, jumble sales (and roller skates) were highlights of my childhood.
Now and again, we’d find a dress, or more often, an older cousin would have a clothes clear out, and we’d be presented with a big black bag of hand-me-downs that we were allowed to choose whatever we wanted from. This was like Christmas to my younger sister and I; and she had a double whammy because she knew that whatever I chose would eventually trickle down to her anyway.
One year I found a brown and gold striped dress, which had a delightfully 80’s swag detail across the neck, which I thought was to die for. I wore it and wore it and wore it, and then my sister wore it, and then we passed it on to someone else. I’ll say one thing for those early man-made fabrics – they might set your hair on fire, but they certainly were completely indestructible.
In the small town I grew up in, our high street was limited. We had plenty of hairdressers, newsagents and estate agents shops, but there was one clothes shop in our town (where I worked on Saturdays dressing the windows, but I could never afford the clothes that were sold), and everything else was a charity shop. If I wanted to spend my money on something more than magazines and sweets, the only places I could look round was the charity shops. Many a Saturday afternoon saw my sister, my cousin and I diving in and out of charity shops, looking for interesting things.
As I grew up and started to save for university, a lack of money led me to start searching in charity shops for things I could adapt to fit the current trends. My mum had given me an old Singer sewing machine and I remember cutting out pictures of outfits from the Littlewoods catalogue. I’d then try to find similar things in charity shops I could alter to look like the pictures. A blue spotted dress that I turned into a shorts suit was a particular hit (although it did take me about half an hour to get out of it every time I needed the loo). I loved adapting clothes that someone else didn’t want anymore and making them into something new that I could enjoy wearing. It was creative, fun, and cheap – and not many activities fall into all three of those categories.
When I left university and got a job, I had more money and no time. This is not a good mix for fuelling a charity shop habit. I needed clothes for work fast and I could afford to pop in to M&S and buy something. So I did. I got out of the charity shop habit and into the high street. And for a while that was OK. The only time I went near a charity shop was to donate my unwanted clothes. But when I think back now, that transition to shopping on the high street signaled the start of the slide. The creativity moved out of my wardrobe and went to live with someone who had time for it. My clothes became useful, practical, functional. Who wants a wardrobe based on those adjectives? Yes, I looked smart at work every day, but so did everyone else. That’s what had happened. In an effort to conform in my job, I had such a conformist wardrobe, that I had completely lost sight of the clothes I liked, and I think that over time that led me to lose sight of who I was too.
After my experience with an image consultant, with my combined newfound confidence and my lack of cash came a rekindling of my love of finding beautiful things from charity shops. I realized quickly that it is perfectly possible to dress amazingly well from other people’s unwanted items, and I began to look forward to going out to hunt for something second hand, enjoying the thrill of the chase and the joy of finding a treasure. I gradually shopped less and less in Fat Face and more and more in charity shops. My confidence grew further, and by the time my girls were older, and I’d left my job to start my image consultancy business, I was a fully-fledged second hand junkie.
I started my image consultancy business Frankie & Ruby firstly because I had finally admitted to myself that I wanted a career I could fit round my babies rather than the other way around. Secondly I started it because I wanted to help other women. I wanted to help them to make sense of the endless choices of what to wear. I wanted to give them that skipping down the street feeling, that easy morning of picking out something to wear rather than heaping everything on the bed and reaching for the Sauvignon.
Initially, I was reluctant about sharing my love of second hand shopping with my clients, I mean, who had ever heard of a stylist who buys things from charity shops? Surely my clients would be expecting me to take them shopping in boutiques and on designer rails and persuading them to part with a months salary to look good?
This little idea was burning away inside me, because I knew that looking fabulous needn’t cost the earth. People were noticing and commenting on what I was wearing, and the truth came out – I started sharing my treasures, and my love of dressing from charity shops.
What I’ve realized is that through my business, I can show my clients their unique rules of dressing, and then show them how to achieve that second hand. My clients love it. They love it that I can find them a whole new wardrobe for under £100, and some are happy to part with their hard earned cash to pay me to find treasures for them. Those that aren’t into second hand, that’s fine. I can take them to the high street and apply the same principles; I don’t force anyone along to a Jumble sale if it’s not their thing. But instead of it destroying my business as a stylist, sharing my love of second hand has brought me a unique, fun, interesting, and creative way of living and working that has the added benefit of helping a few lovely people along the way.
Today my wardrobe is probably around 80% sourced second hand and the rest is either stuff I’ve had for ages, or a few basic essentials I’ve bought new. When I get dressed in the mornings I feel confident in my choices and I have more than one possible outfit to wear. There’s not a drop of baby sick, and I never have to resort to the tartan PJ’s. I feel creative when I go shopping now, and not in a bonkers eccentric way, but most importantly, my wardrobe reflects me and who I am right now. I know I need new things to keep up with changes in me, but I also know they only have to be new to me. I don’t have a huge wardrobe. At all. But I do have 2 sets of clothes, one Spring/ Summer and one Autumn/ Winter. I sort them twice a year and switch my wardrobe, carefully packing away the season we’ve just been through for 6 months. I find this an excellent way to stop getting bored of my clothes – I don’t see them for six months of the year and absence does make the heart grow fonder, so they say. When my summer wardrobe comes out to play again at the start of spring, it’s like having a giant shopping spree; everything feels new and exciting again. There’s more on this in later chapters, but I find that from rekindling my love of second hand shopping, I’ve got a wardrobe that works, clothes that I love, a style that I think is ideal for me, and cash in my pocket. Result."
To read more order your copy of In the Jumble on Amazon, or download an e-book. If you'd like to join in in January for a Sustainable Style workshop or 12 week online course, head over to Sustainable Style Studio or get in touch for more details.