Every Monday morning, volunteers at the nonprofit Orangewood Boutique in Corona del Mar sort through a pile of closet rejects, from nondescript sweaters to never-worn Chanel jackets.
"Not a day goes by that we're not amazed by what we receive," said Pat Miller, the boutique's assistant manager. "We'll have ladies who have gone into Escada, found something they liked and bought one in each color, then decide they like one and not the other. They'll donate the rest to us, and the clothes will still have the tags."
With designer clothes costing hundreds or thousands of dollars, those cleaning out their closets often try to recoup their losses by getting money back on used threads. Many find, to their dismay, that even a pricey Donna Karan that never made it off the hanger has depreciated to a fraction of its original cost.
There are ways to increase the return on a too-tight skirt or tired sweater, but which methods work best depend on one's time, style of dress and even tax bracket.
If one has invested in expensive designer clothing, it's often worth the effort to sell the items.
"The advantage to selling your clothes is, you get money back, and we could all use money," said Patsy Fowler, owner of Patsy's Clothes Closet, a consignment store in Santa Ana.
Demand for used clothing has grown, and so has the number of stores that want castoffs. When she opened her shop, Fowler had scant competition. Now the Orange County Resale Network has 20 member shops.
"I've been in the business 26 years. In 1972, nobody would buy used clothing. Now everybody's into it," she said.
Garments don't have to have a high-end designer label to become a hot commodity on the resale market. Grandfather's old sweaters and Mom's swing dresses have become sought-after styles at vintage clothing stores, such as Stray Cat and Geez Louise in Fullerton and Flashbacks in Orange.
Although charities take all castoffs, vintage clothing stores and consignment stores can afford to be choosy. Most resale shops ask that clothes be dry-cleaned or laundered, and they reject any with stains, holes or visible signs of wear.
Flashbacks sells clothes "in any decade but the current one," says owner Nancy LaVariere. "The clothes have to be fun and cool. No mall clothes--we don't want anything with a label from a store chain. People want vintage because the clothes are unique and the quality is better than the clothes made today." The store is stuffed with men's suits, trench coats, loud polyester shirts, '40s and '50s shirts and T-shirts, and women's cardigan sweaters, cocktail dresses, jackets and disco clothes. Those who bring in old clothes receive either cash or a store credit.
Upscale consignment stores such as Labels in Newport Beach accept only designer threads in near-perfect condition.
"We look for a recognizable label," said Patricia Sytnyk, Labels owner. "We're strict. The clothing has to be clean and ready to go on the floor, although I did have one woman who came in with a bunch of Escadas all rolled up in her trunk. We accepted those. But if we send them out to be pressed or dry-cleaned, the bill is deducted from your total."
Labels, Patsy's and other resale shops typically want clothes that are no more than 3 years old. They also want clothes in season.
"No one's looking for a white pique dress in the fall," Sytnyk said. "Right now we're not taking anything white, although I did take a white Chanel, and we'll take a wool Escada in the summer. There are exceptions."
Once the clothes are accepted, stores issue a contract detailing what they're going to sell and how long it will remain on the floor. Most give the customer an oral or written estimate of the clothes' selling price.
"We have professional pricers who assign values to the clothing. We price a designer garment at about one-third the original cost, so a $900 Escada will be around $298," Sytnyk said.
A few people take back their items when they learn what they're worth.
"Some overestimate the value," she said. "We know it won't sell for what they want. But they usually go with our price. The majority just don't want those things back."
Most stores split the proceeds 60/40 with consignors, although a few divide the spoils in half. Stores usually issue checks monthly.
"A check for more than $2,000 is not unusual," Sytnyk said. "A lot of people here are into fabulous clothes. They go to all the functions and don't want to wear something two or three times."
Clothes that don't sell after the typical 30-day period can be reclaimed by the consignor or moved to the sale racks. Unsold articles usually get donated to a charity.
Many people prefer to donate their clothes to charity instead of trying to sell them. It's less work; the garments don't have to be in marketable condition, and they can still get money for their clothes by deducting the donation on their tax returns.