Secondhand Clothes Get Brand-New Reputation

Valerie McKenzie, who owns Texas-based consignment chain Restyle, says she and other store owners have worked hard to overcome that image. McKenzie says her stores smell so good and are so organized that people walk in and ask if the clothing is really used.

There's usually no question the clothing is used in resale shops that specialize in vintage clothing, but that doesn't mean the standards are any lower. Vintage items, which include clothing from the turn of the century to the 1970s, are popular these days, especially platform shoes, handbags, chunky jewelry and anything designed by Emilio Pucci, says Uesa Robinson, a former Capitol Hill shop owner who will start selling vintage and secondhand designer clothes next month at uesagoods.com. The clothes need to be inspected carefully and treated delicately, but a really fun find can be "nirvana," she says.

Even used wedding dresses are attracting a following. White Chicago, which sells new and used wedding dresses, does a brisk business.

"Bridal stores often carry only five or six designers, but bridal consignment shops have dresses from a lot of designers and many that are discontinued or from previous seasons," says White Chicago owner Ursula Guyer.

When it comes to selling to secondhand shops, consumers report varying experiences, with many saying the shops were so selective — and stingy — that it made more sense to donate to a charitable group.

Bridget Menke of Jacksonville says a local resale shop offered her only $1 on a shirt she got from Baby Gap for $10 and her child wore only once. When the store told Menke it'd be selling the shirt for $6.50, she decided to give it to a friend. After a resale store near Lincoln, Neb., balked at Susan Bejot's basket of clothing from Urban Outfitters because its wasn't "more neatly prepared," she decided resale wasn't for her.

"It simply is not worth the hassle to get so little money for so few items and still have a lot to donate anyway," says Bejot.

McKenzie acknowledges being picky. She requires that clothes be styles that are from the past two to three years, be clean and free of holes or spots.

Robinson appreciates the high standards: She buys nearly all her clothes at consignment shops or estate sales. "I love the high of not knowing what you're going to find."

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