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Goodwill Hunting

For years Patt Morrison has used thrift stores as her personal Saks and Neiman's, and found big-name classics in the clutter

March 11, 2007|Patt Morrison

Just once, I'd like to show up at a major red-carpet event for the pleasure of having the TV fashion hens flock around demanding, "Who are you wearing? It's fab-ulous."

I would tell them, "Darlings, it's vintage Bon Volonte!" They would look alarmed--could they not know about some luxurious recherche label?

And off I would sashay, having just told the watching world that I got my exquisite ensemble at . . . (you French-speakers see it coming) . . . Goodwill.

Grossed out at the notion of setting foot in a thrift store? Good: The more people like you, the better. The more of you who wouldn't dream of searching the Salvation Army racks, the better stuff there is for me and my fellow shoppers who are willing to put up with 99% junk to find 1% treasure.

It's not a shopping excursion for the woman who tears a page out of a magazine and takes it to a store--be it Target or Bergdorf's--to buy the whole look, top to bottom. Nor is it for the woman who despises shopping and looks upon clothes simply as a means of not violating public obscenity laws. And it's not for fashion novices: When you've got your hands on a Rick Owens or a Lida Baday, you'd better know that you've scored. That's why such clothes are preceded with "a," as in "a Van Gogh."

It's destination shopping only if you have imagination and a sense of style and adventure. I started in college, when Edwardian and 1930s styles were in high vogue, and my bank balance wasn't. Over the years--and I literally mean years, because you don't walk into Goodwill and find Chanel couture hanging on the first rack, in your size--I've rounded up treasures, none for more than $40 and many, like my silk Judith Lieber bag, for a couple of bucks:

A 1970s Chanel pearl torsade necklace; a sage-green Bonnie Cashin leather coat; classic Sonia Rykiel knits; my first Moschino jacket; an amazing 1960s Rudi Gernreich knit suit; an Ann Demeulemeester sweater and a Dries Van Noten man's vest; a Tony Duquette-attributed brooch; a black-and-white tweed Alberta Ferretti jacket; a Byblos silk taffeta cape; vintage Norma Kamali and Todd Oldham; a Nina Ricci couture bolero; a gray Missoni sweater; real MCM and Chanel and Fendi bags; Bottega Veneta lizard shoes. I've discovered delish labels such as Lilith, Voyage and Ghost. Once I found a French-made skirt--with a $100 bill in the pocket. (Of course I bought the skirt.) The day I came across a Don Loper ostrich passport case, I started to laugh. Remember the "I Love Lucy" episode in which Lucy tries to wangle a dress from the Beverly Hills designer? The passport case was just a little brighter than Lucy's hair.

Once you could find the luxe silk and lace of prewar lingerie--and that's World War II, not Iraq. The linings of 1920s and '30s garments were more beautiful than the outerwear of today: a woman's coat lined in embroidered feather fabric; a man's jacket lined in heavy satin and printed like a bullfighting poster, which I immediately turned inside out and had cut into a vest. Then there were the vintage cashmere coats and beaded sweaters and Italian handbags "especially made for" Bullocks Wilshire and Saks.

Why walk into a department store where all you have to do is point at a garment, make sure it's your size and pay? What's the fun of that? Thrift-store shopping has all the thrill of hunting--but nothing gets killed, and you don't have to wear orange.

The word "unique" has been diluted these days, but I'm sure that some of these "survivors" are indeed unique. I have a coat, probably of the Dior New Look era, late 1940s/early 1950s, that I wear abroad, and Parisians have asked me about it.

To walk into a thrift store for the first time would drive most people nuts. Hundreds of undifferentiated . . . things . . . on hangers. Most people would walk out. I plunge right in. I've learned to trail my hand along a rack and, with my fingertips, single out the cashmere, discern between the silk velvet and the polyester velvet, Moygashel linen and Wal-Mart's.

Someone said we wear 10% of our clothes 90% of the time. The rest may never get worn at all, and eventually be given away. I've found things like that: Claude Montana boots and St. John jackets with the tags still on them.

If you don't have the nerve or the stamina or the time for a thrift store, there's resale--shops where rich women drop off something they may have worn once or twice, and pocket the cash. You can find au courant stuff for 50%, 70%, even 90% off retail.

For me, it's the farmers market theory at work: You get better stuff than you could afford in the usual stores, and there's no middleman. Resale clothes beat the system. They're "off the grid." No mega-inventory computer registers your purchase at some corporation, which responds with, "Buy more of that!" This is especially important for vegetarians like me, who can't bring themselves to buy new leather any more than they can eat a lamb chop. Buy resale, and there's no demand recorded, and no new demand generated.

What's still on my treasure-hunt wish list? So glad you asked. A vintage Roberta di Camerino cut-velvet bag . . . a Vivienne Westwood bustier . . . a Fortuny dress . . . a Schiaparelli hat. Let me know if you see one, d'accord? I'd be willing to go as high as, oh, 20 bucks.

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