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Return Engagements : Consignment Stores in Orange County Offer Like-New Designer Fashions at a Fraction of Their Original Cost

June 22, 1995|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At last fall's glamorous Opera Pacific ball, a socialite in a stunning black ball gown admitted something once unheard of in these circles: She'd bought her gown at a secondhand-clothing store.

Such an admission used to raise a well-plucked eyebrow or two, but now people openly boast about buying their clothes at resale shops. They love to show off the Donna Karan jackets, St. John knit dresses and Chanel suits they bought secondhand.

For proof that resale shopping is on the rise, one need only observe the many used clothing stores that have opened all over the county. Some areas have turned into resale rows, notably, stretches of Pacific Coast Highway in Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach and the old town districts of Fullerton and Tustin.

"In the past three or four years, consignment stores have popped everywhere," says Audrey Patterson, owner of Recycled Rags in Corona del Mar, which has been in the resale clothing business 25 years.

"When I first started in resale, there was a stigma to buying consignment. Now it's the thing to do," she says. "It used to be if people were caught shopping in here by a friend, they'd make up an excuse for being here. Now they brag about it."

Many socialites from wealthy Orange County neighborhoods frequent Recycled Rags. They willingly run the risk that they'll be seen wearing a castoff by the garment's original owner.

"If they're buying an outfit for evening, I'll tell them, 'This belonged to someone in your circle.' But most of my customers don't care," Patterson says.

People shop resale because they can find expensive designer clothes that have seldom been worn for a fraction of their original cost. High-end labels such as Donna Karan, Escada and Chanel usually sell for one-fourth to one-half of the retail price.

At Recycled Rags, a St. John jacket that sold for $800 to $900 a year ago sells for about $300. Most items are no more than a year and a half old. The shop carries "everything from T-shirts to furs," Patterson says.

Who would sell off a half-dozen St. John knits that look scarcely worn and cost $800 to $1,000 apiece a year ago?

"Someone who spends $50,000 on this year's St. Johns," Patterson says. "There are people who spend $60,000 on one shopping trip. This is nothing to them."

Under most stores' consignment agreements, those who put their clothes up for sale usually receive 40% to 50% of the price, unless the store benefits a charity.

The quality of the clothes varies by store, but the better resale shops accept only current styles that show little, if any, wear.

"We want only clothes that look new," says Lynn Hayworth, manager of Labels in Newport Beach, a resale shop specializing in designer and career clothing for women.

Most resale shops strive to keep the merchandise and the store looking no different from any other boutique. They offer the same frills, including displays and dressing rooms, as regular stores. Labels serves coffee in a comfortable sitting area.

"Some of the customers who wander in don't know we're a consignment store until they look at the tags," Hayworth says.

Labels recently offered a black silk Chanel dress with gold buttons for $268 and a three-piece red and gold St. John knit jacket, blouse and skirt for $286--both about one-third of their retail price.

With so much resale competition, consignment shops have become increasingly specialized. Some carry only certain designer labels--nothing less than Nordstrom quality will do. Some carry only maternity; some specialize in bridal, and some shops are just for kids.

Mi Place Backroom in Laguna Niguel carries unsold merchandise from its two upscale retail stores, also called Mi Place, as well as used clothes from customers' closets. Most of the used clothes were originally purchased at Mi Place.

"It's stuff you don't see in malls. They come from designers like Jil Sanders, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani--the names people die for," says Kirsty Heffern, manager of the Mi Place Backroom. The clothes sell for up to 65% off of their original price. A $1,400 designer dress can go for as low as $200.

"You're not going to see someone else wearing it because a lot of the clothes were custom-ordered out of trunk shows," Heffern says.

2nd Look Bridal & Formal in old town Tustin carries consignment bridal gowns and accessories, tuxedos, bridesmaid and mother-of-the-bride dresses--virtually everything to outfit the wedding party. Gowns that brides paid $1,000 to $4,000 for average $300 to $800.

"Sometimes brides don't want their gowns to sit in the closet, and sometimes they never got married and bridal salons won't take the gowns back," says Barbara Lane, owner of 2nd Look.

The Knitwear Doctor in Costa Mesa buys and sells designer knitwear on consignment. Knit dresses, jackets, suits and sweaters, some spun of cashmere, sell for 25% to 30% of their original price.

"Usually people bring us their knits to sell because they've gained weight," says Boris Gukaylo, owner of Knitwear Doctor.

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