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Goodwill Hunting

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Natalie Tass, veteran vintage-clothes shopper, rips through the racks of men’s shirts at the Goodwill in Costa Mesa until she finds a ‘50s-era plaid shirt for $2.99.

“This is kinda cool,” she says. “It’s getting pretty tough to find good [vintage] stuff. You have to know what you’re looking for.”

Thrift stores used to offer easy pickings of vintage clothes, but old Hawaiian shirts, ‘50s swing dresses and other past styles have become so trendy, it’s increasingly hard to find clothes that have languished decades in someone else’s closet.

Those digging through used clothing racks are going up against dealers and retailers such as Tass, who looks for fashions she can turn around and resell at her vintage shop, the Front End in Newport Beach.

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Shoppers must also compete with clothing designers who buy up vintage pieces to use as inspiration for their retro collections, and they’re vying for vintage with others like themselves who want to fill their personal wardrobes with kitschy clothes.

“Times have changed,” says Dawn Marks, who supervises the Salvation Army’s Orange County thrift boutiques. “You have to come to the thrift stores almost every day to see the new stock, because the good stuff goes right away.”

While the vintage supply might be dwindling, a sharp-eyed shopper can still find cool clothes, as Tass proved when she recently visited local thrifts.

Her strategy: First, identify those stores that carry the best old stuff. They’re usually far from tourist destinations, often in the county’s older neighborhoods, such as Santa Ana.

Tass frequents the Salvation Army, Goodwill and other thrift stores several times a week because the stores restock merchandise daily. The selection of used clothing constantly changes.

“It’s all about timing. Everything’s hit or miss,” she says.

Once inside the store, she attacks the racks, flipping through shirts, dresses and jackets hanger by hanger. She’s on the lookout for clothes made in the ‘40s and ‘50s, especially Hawaiian shirts, zoot suits, plaid golf pants for her “geek chic” clientele, dress shirts with French cuffs and even vintage pajamas--if they have campy ham-and-egg style prints.

“Where most people are looking for new stuff, I’m interested in the old,” she says. “Anything different or unique. I don’t want stuff you can get at the mall.”

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Tass identifies vintage pieces by watching for old labels and unusual fabrics, including gabardine and fake fur.

“You have to develop an eye for it,” she says.

At Goodwill, she snaps up an armload of merchandise, including the plaid shirt with an old Robinson’s department store tag, a teal-colored gabardine jacket from the ‘60s for $11 and a Pendleton plaid shirt from the ‘50s for $7.50.

“How hot is this?” says Tass, showing off a gold metallic lipstick case she’s spotted in a display case. The case costs a buck.

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After loading her truck with her finds, she heads to a Salvation Army store down the street. There, she pulls a tan-colored men’s short-sleeved shirt with a ‘50s-era JCPenney label for $5.99, a pair of plaid chef pants for $5.50 (very trendy, she says), and a bright orange cardigan that screams the ‘60s for $4.50. She digs through the men’s ties and pulls out one with a garish brown and orange print, circa 1970s.

“I might have to get this one. It has alligators on it,” she says.

Her vintage store is a riotous mix of finds from successful shopping expeditions. Tass travels all over the country in search of the best feather boas, old hats, handbags, polyester shirts, swing dresses and other used clothes.

Prices here reflect just how desirable vintage has become. A Lucite bag from the ‘40s (now highly collectible) goes for $149. Among her rarer ‘50s finds: a swing dress for $49, a pair of burnt-orange wool twill pants, never worn, for $46.99, and men’s brown slacks for $49.

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Thrift stores, too, have come to recognize the value of their vintage stock and now price their old clothes accordingly.

“Where we now call something ‘vintage,’ we might have called it ‘used’ and ‘old.’ Now we know better,” says Julie Dover, director of sales and retail operation for Goodwill, which has 12 Orange County stores.

Goodwill staffers now visit swap meets, surf the Net and study catalogs that sell vintage clothes for an idea of fair market value, to keep from practically giving away something valuable such as old collegiate sweaters or Nikes. The thrift store will sell vintage Levi’s for $20 to $100 or more.

“Otherwise they would have been $6.99,” Dover says. “In the past, maybe we weren’t as wise. We were pricing things too low. Now we’re pretty savvy and aware of the value of our goods.”

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One Goodwill customer--a vintage clothing dealer--recently complained that the $4.99 price on the thrift store’s Hawaiian shirts was too high.

“He wanted to know how was he going to make money off of them,” Dover says. “But we’re not interested in wholesalers buying out half of our store. We’re trying to get the best value for what’s donated to us. We do our best to be good retailers.”

Thrift stores have also become smarter about how they market their vintage merchandise.

The Salvation Army opened five specialty shops in Orange County called Sally’s Boutiques where they sell their best vintage clothes as well as designer clothing. The boutiques are inside their thrift stores in Fullerton, Garden Grove, Lake Forest, Orange and San Clemente.

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“The boutiques are a little higher-priced, but you don’t have to fish through everything to find something really special,” Marks says.

Used clothing prices run about 60% higher in the boutiques; a pair of pants sell for $3 at the thrift store might go for $8 at the specialty shop.

While specialty boutiques and vintage stores can save shoppers the chore of digging through piles of dingy old clothes, those willing to hunt through thrift stores can find the best bargains.

“Some vintage shops are asking the same as department store prices, and people pay it,” Marks says. “But if you have the time, and enjoy it, shop at a thrift.”

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