March 13, 2012

House of Salvation

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Ithaca, fashion hub of Tompkins County, nevertheless has very few opportunities for clothing shopping. There is Target, the affordable design superstore; Petrune, the local vintage boutique; Urban Outfitters, the typical hipster outpost … and not much else.

But amidst the modest local options, there is one diamond in the rough. Bizarre as it may seem, it was founded in 1820, is technically a church and is a shopping goldmine. Yes, this is the Ithaca Salvation Army thrift store.

The Salvation Army began as an offshoot of the Protestant Church in 19th century England. The organization offered poor citizens three things: soup, soap and salvation. This simple structure launched an organization that became one of the world’s largest independent sources of aid. The Army shops receive clothing as donations and sell them at lowered prices, allowing people of all budgets to shop there while donating the proceeds to free rehab centers. The wonder of shopping at Salvo’s, as some affectionately call it, is that it is accessible to everyone.

On the flipside, however, lies the stigma associated with used clothing among the upper class. It is interesting to compare that stigma to the zeal among consumers for the “vintage” cache — that is, garments sold for their retro appeal at premium prices. But the secret of high-end vintage sellers is that actually they frequent estate sales and local thrift shops to find these garments that they then re-sell at a wide profit. The difference between “used” and “vintage” is just culling and marketing.

Some of the vintage shops in New York City are as exclusive, expensive and curated as designer flagship stores. And that is exactly what the customer is paying for:  curation. They pay for someone else to sort through the dusty sweaters and find that gem, that silk Armani coat that got lost in the shuffle of a local thrift store.

It was this kind of gem that I was looking for when I headed out on a “Salvo Road Trip” with a few friends to check out not only the Ithaca Salvo but several other upstate New York Salvos also.  After a day full of detours and sorting through questionable grandpa sweaters, we came away with some great finds.

Among my purchases were a fun, black 60s patent leather raincoat with utilitarian metal buckles from Italian company Papagallo, an 80s Diane Von Furstenburg leopard-print silk tunic and a pair of 90s Bottega Venetta-style braided leather flats. The damage for those three items? Nine dollars.

So for the price of lunch at CTB, you can pick up a whole new outfit at Salvo’s while giving to a good cause and supporting recycling. It’s a win-win-win. If you are willing to dig around, some beautiful pieces are hidden in the racks.

The other joy of Salvation Army is seeing, through used clothing, the eccentricities of the people who originally wore or made these items. Case in point was a shirt and pant set festooned with fastidious hand beading and hand painting depicting a garish underwater scene. It looked like Lisa Frank had attacked the outfit with wild neon strokes. It was horrible, but fascinatingly so. Some grandma went to town on this outfit with her rhinestones and glue gun and it has yet to recover.

Occasionally one will find a suitcase with old maps in it or a blazer with someone’s library card tucked in the pocket. It is these human touches that make shopping this way its own little adventure.

This is refreshing compared to the sterilized environment of boring chain stores. Those retail outlets could actually learn something from the spontaneity of Salvo’s, the ad-hoc merchandising and odd categorizations of garments that riff on the traditional shopping experience. The great appeal of Salvo’s is that it is un-curated. The bored teenager working the register won’t try to sell you anything, the sizing won’t be obvious and there may or may not be a child’s Superman costume hiding in the women’s blouse section. Because of this, finding something cool in the racks is rewarding and personal.

In many cases, people are making a budgetary choice between, say, Salvation Army and Walmart. The Salvo is the more time-consuming (though sometimes cheaper) choice, because of all the digging and sorting. But it can be worth the time for more interesting styles than the big box offerings.

As for incorporating these clothes into a contemporary wardrobe, my friends across various style classifications and body types have managed to do this each in their own way. One girl buys up the 90s Levi’s high-waist cutoffs by the bag and wears them in summer with cropped t-shirts and aviators for a cool look. Another scouts out flowing dresses from local designer Flax, made in organic fabrics in simple cuts, and cinches them with stylish belts. Once you know your Salvo style, you go on the lookout for your era, your colors, your shapes.

The truth about fashion is that it is one big recycling game. So it is surprisingly easy to pick out the trends of yesteryear that are back in style today, and Salvo-shop accordingly. Recycling sounds anti-fashion, but it is actually the definition of fashion. Just like the clothing, The Salvation Army is somewhat of a vintage organization in itself, based on a Christian duty to the poor. They see value in the underprivileged and under-loved, and similarly, in cast-off items that they give another chance.

A trip to Salvo’s is a rewarding adventure and a boon to local fashion-seekers of all budgets. If you dive in, you will surface with treasure, ready to be re-styled, reinvented, saved.

Original Author: Amelia Brown