Fashions from Goodwill shops now downright fashionable

It may be the economy, or shifting attitudes, or it may be just a matter of style, but those buying second-hand clothes in Goodwill stores these days aren't all in the low-income bracket. Or at least they don't look as if they are.

"People are coming in wearing lamb's wool sweaters and khaki pants now," says Nancy Kocher, regional sales manager for Goodwill Industries in the Boston area.

One customer, in fact, was recently elected best-dressed in her high-school class. "I would just die if anyone found out where we get her clothes," her mother once told Miss Kocher.

Goodwill in Boston even held a fashion show recently -- a bouquet of 52 twice- bloomed garments. The idea, Miss Kocher says, was to show that Goodwill "isn't all old clothes that people are embarrassed to wear. We're trying to break down the stigma of wearing used clothes.

And the stigma seems to be fading, she adds: "I'm seeing our customers change from what you used to think of as needy people to all sorts of people."

Salvation Army stores, meanwhile, are seeing a similar shift in their clientele. While Miss Kocher sees a trend over the past few months. Allen Kennedy, her counterpart with the Salvation Army, notes a less-dramatic drift over the past couple of years toward more affluent customers -- "people who could shop anywhere they wanted."

Mr. Kennedy is reluctant to accept inflation as the reason for this second-hand renaissance. "I don't think it's so much the price as the product," he says.

A large part of Salvation Army's business is in furniture, and the older, used furniture it sells is usually better-made, according to Mr. Kennedy, than all but very expensive new pieces.

Miss Kocher, whose stores have turned almost exclusively now to clothing, finds a shift in attitudes at the root of the second- hand boom. She sees customers more interested in finding what they want at a good price than in worrying about where they buy their clothes.

"People are less status-conscious than they used to be about labels that say, 'I paid $150 for these pants,'" she says.

Miss Kocher recalls a pair of new-looking designer "disco pants" that retailed for $500 selling for less than $10 to someone who happened onto the right size.

Meanwhile, all sorts of people who never thought of being seen in used-clothing stores are turning up these days in wool suits and sweaters and trendily cut jeans that they couldn't, or wouldn't, afford at a regular retail store.

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