Once upon a time, kids, brands like Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Marks & Spencer and BHS were the pride of the nation. Dependable, quality design that represented an investment of time, craft and money – not just for the manufacturers but for their customers too, who were so much more likely to commit to their clothes for the long haul. The average woman in 1930 had nine outfits. The average garment now is worn just seven times. Somewhere in the middle of that timeline lies the sweet spot; a golden age when high street fashion was accessible enough to let ordinary women live out their sartorial dreams, but nobody ever threw a barely-worn dress in the bin.
The good news is, plenty of it is still out there. You just need to take a slight detour via that other bastion of the Great British high street: the charity shop.
Last year, the UK’s 9,000 charity shops kept around 339,000 tonnes of textiles out of landfill, equivalent to around 1.7 billion shirts or blouses – and among those piles will be plenty of relics from the stores we’re mourning now. While it’s traditionally the fabled designer finds that get a thrifter’s pulse racing (everyone has that friend-of-a-friend whose aunt allegedly found an Hermes Birkin for 50p in an Oxfam bin), recent years have seen heritage high street brands develop an allure all of their own.
“Clothing brands from traditional high street retailers are popular in charity shops as they are both familiar to shoppers and have a reputation for being well-made,” confirms Robin Osterley, Chief Executive of the Charity Retail Association. “With many of these brands having been around for decades they have built up a loyal customer base, who will visit charity shops to look for their favourites.”
As a charity shop volunteer for the past couple of years, I’ve witnessed firsthand just how covetable those stalwarts of the British high street can be. An old Debenhams blouse or BHS jumper can prompt more tussles among the rails than some Zara notion from six months ago. St Michael, Marks & Spencer’s beatific alias until 2003, has a new Gen Z fanbase, stirring the same craving for fashion heritage that saw Laura Ashley’s archives skyrocket in popularity while the brand itself was dying.