The latest fashion rules: buy pre-loved labels and just five new items a year | Vintage fashion

It’s 5pm on Friday night and a group of volunteers have gathered in an old, cold church in Willesden, north-west London, making last-minute adjustments to rails of floaty dresses, piles of sweaters, boxes of hats, shoes and scarves. Hosted by former Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman and novelist Zadie Smith, this isn’t any old charity jumble sale but a must-go event that sums up current trends in how people buy their clothes.

The provenance of much of the merchandise is starry. Shulman opened her address book and Sophie Dahl and Jemima Khan donated clothes. Labels spotted included YSL, Chanel, Jil Sander, Prada, Gucci, Manolo Blahnik, Margaret Howell and almost every other big name in luxury goods. Plus lots of Zara. Prices are £10 to £200.

When the shoppers are let in, the rummaging begins. Marina Beaumont, 40, who lives in nearby Kensal Rise and works in marketing, tells me she is prepared for the melee. “I’m wearing a vest and leggings to make it easier to try things on; you have to know what to expect.” She was encouraged to come out at the end of the week because “I knew that if Alexandra and Zadie had put their names to it, it was going to be worth it”.

And for her it is. She looks magnificent in a long black Bella Freud evening dress, which Shulman tells her is her own personal favourite from everything in the sale. A recent survey found that 67% of millennials buy secondhand now, and Beaumont is no exception: “I shop on resale sites a lot; most of my friends do too.”

Chiara Menage, who founded one such site, Menage Modern Vintage, in 2018, tells me the trend has gone mainstream with its obvious connection to sustainability. “That’s contributed hugely to why people are looking more favourably at secondhand and vintage. I aim to offer a really good alternative to buying new things that are as good as new, and 100% sustainable.

Customer Leah Foster-Aileru, right, seeking out new shoes at the sale. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

“It’s guilt-free shopping at a quarter or even a 10th of the price. So you can buy something like a YSL top, but not this season’s, and love it just as much.”

Menage hadn’t heard of the “rule of five”, a popular sustainability campaign to lead fashion followers away from overconsumption by challenging them to buy no more than five new items in a year. The campaign was started by fashion consultant and retailer Tiffanie Darke in 2023 based on research by the Hot or Cool Institute thinktank. Second-hand is not counted in the total. The Co-operative Bank’s 2023 Ethical Markets report reveals that secondhand clothing sales have increased by nearly 50%.

“Pre-loved purchases have climbed to £1.2bn with online marketplaces such as Depop and Vinted experiencing a surge in secondhand listings. Meanwhile, charity shop visits have become more frequent than ever before, leading to a 147% rise in sales,” reported the bank.

Chatting to a group of teenagers from a local school, I hear both budget- and climate-consciousness invoked as steering their buying choices. But the main reason they had come, in uniform, was for the entertainment. Istara Morris, 15, tells me: “Shopping in person feels better, and coming to this feels special, like it would be fun. And it was happening in our community.”

Leah Foster-Aileru, 21, works in retail and lives in Kensal Rise. Everything she is wearing – almost all of it hot pink – came from a charity shop. “This is best way to shop: you’re saving money and enjoying the hunt. I can’t resist going into charity shops, and I usually find something.”

One woman who lived along the road was pleased as punch with her DVF black dress and calfskin Mulberry wallet. “I got my aunt down from Cumbria, and she’s getting this Italian handbag.”

“It is leather, right?” the older woman asked. It was, and, at £30 for a barely used bag, she was getting a bargain.

Susy Bell, 61, came because “I am a huge Zadie Smith fan and I came upon the sale when Googling author events”. A writer herself, she visits flea markets every week in Los Angeles, where she lives. In Willesden, she went for low-ticket, brightly coloured items, “so I’m happy”.

The sale was notable for good value, sustainability, a warm, all-ages atmosphere, and being hosted by two high-profile locals with great individual fashion credentials. But there was one other element.

The reason why Shulman and Smith had done this was Laurence’s Larder, a food aid charity housed in the church where the sale was held. On Thursdays, it hosts a hot lunch for up to 75 people. As its chair, Mark Wakefield, says: “Our guests are not all homeless by any means. We welcome anyone who wants to come, and a lot of what we are dealing with is loneliness.” They also supply up to 120 food bags a week.

Smith is patron of Laurence’s Larder and, like many of the helpers at the sale, volunteers there. Shulman came upon the charity through Nextdoor and suggested the sale, as she had done something similar at Vogue to raise money for Pakistan earthquake relief. Sara-Jade Hussein, coordinator at the charity, loved the idea as “in some ways a vintage clothes sale reflects what we do: upcycling food that might otherwise be thrown away”.

Smith, who has mostly been on the tills, is pleased too, especially to know that it was largely locals who flooded in. “They’re great people, so I wasn’t surprised that it went so well.”

Shulman is thrilled with the sale: “All that time handing out flyers, pestering people for clothes, to find that people were prepared to queue for an hour, and most everyone went away with something.”

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