Finding your vintage soul: underground fashion Melbourne style

10 November 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

There’s a veritable army of dedicated fashion friends and fiends that stalk the aisles of dusty retiree-run op shops far and wide. Amelie De Bie represents this coterie at the elite level, as founder of collaborative blog I Op Therefore I Am, a website for fashion-conscious Melbourne folk. For Jessica Rae, op-shop style is more than a fashion decision, it’s also her business: Melbourne Op Shop Tours. She specialises in taking people around on tours of her favourite stores. Here, they answer your questions about vintage shopping, and share some of their tips on finding your op shop soul.

Jess shares with us her main reasons why we should embrace the trend.

1. ‘Buying things cheaply’

For students this is a real saver. From shoes to clothing and accessories, it’s possible to assemble a whole outfit for under $30. In addition, if you’re a crafty one, op shops are full of interesting fabrics and accessories to modify outfits. A serious op shopper should consider taking sewing classes in order to achieve that true one-of-a-kind look.

Many dedicated shoppers are also their own personal seamstresses, and get quite a kick out of making a great, unique outfit from their finds. It’s worth investing in a good sewing course. Grandma would be proud.

2. ‘The fun of assembling an outfit by yourself from various op shopped clothes’

This is a chance to really get creative – try mix and matching clothing from different eras and fabrics to discover your own unique style. Jess says the ‘thrill of discovering unique items’ keeps her coming back for more, and it’s true that there’s nothing like dress-ups to lift the mood. Unless you’re going on a short trip, always bring friends. You can help in their selection process and share the giggles together. Amelia says that, ‘getting something unique or getting something that creates/completes a certain look that you can’t manage elsewhere,’ is another motivation. And hey, you’ll certainly cut down on the chances of dreaded ‘She’s wearing my dress!’ horror stories.

3. ‘Shopping sustainably’

With the environment such big news globally, op shopping is an easy way to ensure your dollars go towards recycling garments. Not only are you getting great gear, but no carbon has been burnt to produce a new garment. With the average cotton t-shirt clocking in 2000 litres of water on its way to the department store (Hoekstra and Chapagain, 2007), it’s something worth considering. To maximise your sustainable shopping experience, remember to bring your own bags and use public transport where possible.

4. ‘Avoiding clothes that have been made in sweat shops’

While possibly originally being made in factory environments, your garments have not further contributed to the sweat shop trade. Not having to rely on evil corporation’s exploitation of cheap labour is yet another reason to pull out the Singer and get altering.

5. ‘Giving back to charity’

With Generation Generosity such a hot topic right now, finding clothing in second-hand outlets is a simple way to donate to charity. Most op shops support great causes. For example, Savers supports Diabetes Australia and Ronald McDonald House, The Brotherhood of St Lawrence supports underprivileged communities, and The Salvation Army support the homeless. For this reason you should show good manners and never bargain for goods bought.

6. ‘Exploring new areas of Melbourne’

There’s so much to explore in the suburbs of second-hand Melbourne. A suburb’s op shops tend to reflect its personality, so it’s a great chance to get out there and explore. A girl needs some refreshment on her travels, so why not take some time to get better acquainted with the suburbs? There’s every chance you’ll stumble across a great coffee shop or brunch place. It’s a great way to discover new suburbs in this city of villages.

In the end, op-shopping is a great and unique experience, and if you look hard enough, you just may come away with some real gems.

How do I ensure I come away happy?

It depends on the kind of trip you want. If you don’t want to spend a whole day, it’s best to have a specific idea of what you want in mind. For example, a little black dress. This narrows down the selection and keeps you focused. ‘It’s nice having your choice cut down,’ Amelia says.

‘Devote enough time’, Amelia adds. Op-shopping gobbles up the hours more than normal shopping. If you can – devote a whole day, or at least have a meal break. Then you can sit down and show your finds off to each other!

‘If it’s a maybe,’ Jess says, ‘it’s a no’. Sound advice.

If you can’t sew yourself, find a well-regarded seamstress. This will save you money in the long run.

‘Last season will always looks like last season’ says Jess. ‘To be sure, go a few seasons back.’

If you really want to embrace the experience as the gods intended, keep your eyes open. ‘Look everywhere,’ says Jess. Be patient – rifle through every piece of clothing on the rack. In the op shop wilderness, Murphy’s Law is most definitely in effect – that amazing Chanel vintage dress will be in the last place you look. Just imagine the stunned looks when you tell your friends your great new dress was squished down the back of a nondescript rack.

Amelia says: ‘Be prepared to have a look at everything with a fresh eye – alter it, dye it, refashion it, give it to a friend.’


So where are the best places to shop?

This depends on what kind of experience you are looking for.

Inner-city shops likely have a greater turnover and better quality stock, but beware: they can be up to five times more expensive than your average store. Also, check that you’re going to a charity op-shop and not a vintage store. Vintage boutiques are great, as the goods there have been pre-selected and arranged for your browsing pleasure, and the stores are usually well-lit and staffed, but this will be reflected in the price. Here you can pay 10 – 20 times the price items are sold for in charity shops.

As a guide, Jessica says, inner city shops, such as in Hawthorn or Kew, are pricier, but are more likely to carry label items. Outer-suburbs or ‘dodgy’ areas are more likely to have interesting stuff, and cheaper – but be prepared to work for it. Tiny church-run shops in the outer suburbs don’t have merchandising staff.

If you’re new to the op-shopping, professionally merchandised charity stores such as Savers or Salvos Stores may be your best bet. These shops are well laid out and ideal if you are looking for a specific thing. Their websites are also easy to navigate and can often recommend a store close to you. Check  for op shop listings. 

‘I prefer the ones where you have to really dig around for a bargain,’ says Amelia, ‘this is funner than stores where it is all laid out nicely, as you just never know what you will find!’

Finally – if you get a chance to go to the country, make sure you drop into the nearest charity shop. Some of the most unusual and best buys are here, if you’re willing to put in some effort and have a high tolerance for dust particles, you’ll often be richly rewarded. ‘I’ve had a lot of luck in country op shops,’ says Amelia.

Additional Ideas for Sustainable Shopping

Arrange a vintage swap night – you get clothing for free, and it’s a great night in! Donate any leftover clothing to your local op-shop. Alternatively, attend an organised night such as The Clothing Exchange which holds regular clothing swap events for a small door fee, in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth.

Volunteer at your local op-shop – help out your local community and get first dibs on great finds!

Remember – good karma makes the world go round. Take some clothes you no longer want to the stores and help feed the cycle. Happy hunting!


Melbourne Op-Shop Tours run 4 times weekly in various Melbourne locations, running four approximately four to five hours and  visiting between six and eight shops.

Susan Munro is a first-year Media Studies  student at La Trobe University, and also  works as a part-time freelance writer. Her new blog is called ‘Cheap Chic City: Melbourne on a Budget.’