Complete guide to buying designer clothes from charity shops

Have you ever wished you could find designer goods in charity shops? This guide covers how to do just that! From an environmental standpoint, the more things we reuse and recycle, the better it is for the resources of the planet. And buying a secondhand vintage designer piece is also better for your wallet!

With such a big fashion revival right now, secondhand designer clothes have never been so on-trend! Keep reading to find out how to identify designer clothes in charity shops, how to avoid fake designer clothes, how to assess the condition of the piece and why you should only buy things that fit/suit you.

Find something that you actually like/suits you

This is rule number one, and I learned this the hard way. Don’t just buy a designer item for the label. Remember, no one will see that label except you. But a designer item because it is a work of art. A stunning reminder of the very best of fashion. A piece that inspires you to be something bigger than the boxes other people try to put you in. Because that’s the point of good fashion. Don’t be a fashion victim. Buy something you love. Buy something that flatters your shape and size. Enjoy your vintage fashion.

When we moved to China, I had to pack our lives into two big suitcases (one each) and a carry-on each. We were such inexperienced travellers that we didn’t know about sending your belongings around the world as freight (thank God we didn’t, I dread to think what rubbish we would have kept) and we didn’t know about paying for extra bags.

My designer collection now only includes items that I completely adore, which still fit me (sniffle, my favourite Vivienne Westwood shoes had to go when they started being painful to wear because I’d worn them too much), and which make me happy. But it wasn’t always that way.

Back in 2006, when I first started investing in designer pieces, I bought some minor disasters. My worst buy by a long shot was my Givenchy silk suit. It was £20 on Ebay which seemed like the bargain of the century. Except it wasn’t. First, it was a size 10 and I was an 8. Now, that shouldn’t have been a problem as it was vintage (80s at least) and everyone knows sizes have changed since then. However, when I actually tried it on, the skirt’s waistline was so low on my waist that my shirts barely tucked into it and left an unsightly silhouette around my boobs as they rode up over the course of a work day. The jacket, on the other hand, didn’t have a flattering neckline (this neckline was wayyy too wide to look good on my DD-cup boobs) and instead of making me look pulled-together, it just looked awkward and shapeless.

But by far the worst problem with it was the colour. In the Ebay pictures it had looked a beautiful deep grey-blue colour, but when it arrived, it was pale grey. None of my shirts or shoes matched it.

Did I send it back? No. I was 24 and too determined to hold onto something because of the label. I kept that bloody suit for 6 more years and only got rid of it when we moved to China, at which point, you’ll be glad to hear I at least sold it for the price I paid.

Another early disaster was my Armani jacket. I’d thought it was black. It was brown. And from a time in the 80s when shoulder pads were the same size as the wingspan of a jumbo jet. The waistline was… generous. The silhouette was very androgynous. And, again, a size 10. I looked lost in it. This year it would have been so on-trend it would have been a massive classic as oversized blazers are the biggest thing ever at the moment. But fifteen years ago, I had a jacket I was (mostly) embarrassed to wear. Did that stop me from wearing it? NOPE.

I’m stubborn.

If you don’t remember 2006, it was one of a few years in the early 2000s when Victoriana was the big trend in workwear. Everything suit-based was fitted. Skirts had fishtail hems and generally came down past the knee. And since we were still living with the hangover from the 90s to some extent, no one in the 2000s wore anything that looked like workwear outside of a formal office setting. It wasn’t like today, where you can chuck a blazer over a pair of skinny jeans (we didn’t have skinny jeans yet) and go out.

My big mistake of the following year was not understanding that designer sportswear is never, ever going to be a classic piece. And that designer brands all have sub-brands which are more affordable but not “proper” high fashion. I had this gorgeous Armani Jeans tracksuit (this wasn’t a shell suit, don’t worry), which comprised a hoodie and jogging bottoms in pale blue. I loved them and wore them on slouch days for about two years, but those sports lines are never made to be as durable as the expensive main clothing lines so buy them, enjoy them, but don’t expect them to last.

How to identify a designer item

Familiarise yourself with the names and logos of the brands you are looking for. This will make it quick and easy to recognise labels. Be aware that some brands have changed their labels/logos over time so if you’re looking at true vintage stuff, the label might be a little (or very) different. However, be aware this could also be the sign of a fake.

Avoid the really obvious fakes

You won’t always be able to avoid fakes, the thing about a really good fake is it’s indistinguishable from the real deal. However, you can learn to spot signs that something isn’t as it seems, especially if the item costs more than you wanted to pay for a secondhand charity shop item.

I’d avoid any secondhand Louis Vuitton bags and purses unless you can get it verified independently. Those Louis Vuitton brown bags with LV all over them are literally everywhere. I could easily pick up about a hundred fakes in the markets in Italy for the price of one genuine bag without batting an eyelid and they were rife in China, too. I actually tune those bags out now if I see them, and when I see people with them, I’m more likely to think you bought a fake than that you paid full price for one, unless you’re obviously dressed at the same price as your bag. The multicoloured LV bags suffer from the same issue. I feel very sorry for Louis Vuitton as a brand as the sheer amount of fakes is shocking.

If you see something like this (or a high street brand with a very similar design to a well-known fashion piece) my advice is to steer clear. Copyright infringement in fashion is rife everywhere, and you can actually get into legal trouble in some countries if you’re walking around with a fake item (notably, Italy, where many of the fakes are being sold, and where the police are trained to spot them).

Fakes are less well made and made from cheap imitation materials, so they damage easily and don’t last very long compared to the real deal. People bringing these things back from a holiday then tire of them and give them to charity shops, so always check inside.

Here are some tips for avoiding fakes:

Check the lining. Usually in a genuine product, the lining is attached in a way so you see almost none of the inside stitching. This is true of coats, skirts and bags.

Look at the stitching around the edge of the product. Is it neat, even and straight? A true designer piece will not have any mistakes in the stitching.

Check for loose threads and “imperfections” in the piece. Loose threads on any item, a weird black blob on a leather bag, purse, or belt, or a place where the edging doesn’t quite match are all giveaways that this piece isn’t genuine.

Smell it. For leather goods, if it’s supposed to be real leather, it should smell like quality leather. If it smells like plastic (a sort of oily smell), nothing at all, or very strongly of tanning dyes, it’s a fake.

Look at the sheen. If it’s supposed to be real silk, the sheen is slightly less shiny than satin (which is usually part-silk, part polyester, cheaper to produce, and used more often on fakes) and definitely less shiny than polyester. Silk is usually quite thin and delicate, and may show damage more readily than other fabrics, so take extra care buying anything made of this fabric.

Don’t rely on labels that say “100% silk”, or “100% leather”, or “made in Italy” (the amount of marketplace items I saw in China that said “made in Italy” on the label was unbelievable. Italy is NOT importing designer goods to Chinese markets, I’m sorry to break it to you). Always use your senses to check for yourself, because the best fakes won’t put their real materials on the label. Why would they? They’ve lied about the brand already!

Assess the condition of the piece

Check for bobbles, especially around the armpits, where you also might find stains. Some people have ways of getting stains out. I don’t buy anything with stains because I find it a bit disgusting. Bobbles, however, are just areas of fabric that have rubbed against each other too much. They can be removed with a cheap bobble remover.

Many high-end items are dry-clean only. However, charity shops often have a protocol dictating that they have to steam clean every fabric item that comes into them. Check the piece for steamer damage and washing machine damage (in case someone got confused and put it through a wash at any point in its life).

You’re looking for shrinkage. This usually manifests as lining poking out at the bottom of sleeves/hems on skirts, items being a little mis-shapen or tight in some areas while the correct size in other areas. If any shrinkage of the fabric has occurred, I don’t recommend buying the item because it won’t hang correctly or flatter your form.

Check the labels.

Always take a good look at every label on the piece. There should be a brand label in the neck (or back of the waist in skirts/trousers) and a care label somewhere else in the piece. If the brand label is cut down the middle, this is “seconds” quality, which means it didn’t pass its final inspection at the factory.

With a cut label, it’s still a genuine piece, but it may have mistakes. The tolerance for mistakes depends on the brand. Some brands will reject a piece if the stitching is more than 1mm away from where it’s supposed to be. Other brands will might have a 3mm or 5mm tolerance for where the stitching should be. Items with holes or snags that were caused during the production process may also be classed as seconds by one brand, where another might send items with such severe faults straight to destruction, never to be seen by a consumer. Some companies don’t have seconds at all.

Seconds tend to have a much lower resale value later down the line, even if they’re a second of a very rare item, because it’s understood that the quality isn’t the same. However, they can still be worth buying as long as you’re happy with the item and it fits and flatters you, as you can get a great bargain compared to buying a first-quality piece.

If a piece has no label at all, it probably isn’t even “seconds” quality. Whether you decide to buy it anyway or not is up to you. I would probably look for a better quality piece.

Which areas of the UK are likely to have designer clothes in their charity shops?

I don’t know every area in Britain so comment on this article if you have suggestions, to help out other readers! Basically, you’re looking for a reasonably affluent residential area that doesn’t have a (proportionally) huge tourist/student footfall. This is because you want a shop that gets a good supply of designer stuff but without so many shoppers snapping it all up.

You also want an area that doesn’t have grabby charity shop managers. I’ve known a couple of managers and several volunteers at various shops in York tell me that they get the first pick on the best stuff, leaving none for the actual customers!

Google Maps Reviews of the shops in question are a good way to spot which ones often have designer wear and also which ones are selling overpriced Primark tat.

These reviews are also a good way to get the measure of the manager at any given shop. If they’re only responding to positive reviews, or if they’re arguing with negative reviewers (or accusing reviewers of lying or not being genuine customers), you know they’re a bad sort and that it’s not worth wasting time visiting their shop. If they’re not responding at all, you know they’re probably busy running their shop.

Northern Ireland: Holywood

Scotland: Edinburgh Morningside area or Leith (gentrification, y’all).

The North: Hebden Bridge, Harrogate.

Midlands: Lichfield, Ashbourne.

South East: Aylesbury, Ascot.

South West: Chipping Norton, Bath.

London: Kensington. The charity shops here are absolutely designer central. There are some outstanding ones in walking distance around South Ken underground station. I’ve also heard similar about Covent Garden but I haven’t seen it myself.


This is part of a series on buying ethical Christmas gifts. Here are the others:

How to buy ethical Christmas gifts for children and teens

Seven ways to become an eBay bargain ninja