Let?s Make a Teal: Marquez decides which sweaters are worth .
Let?s Make a Teal: Marquez decides which sweaters are worth . Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Frugalista reminds me of my favorite old thrift shop in D.C.

The merchandise is similar. And both stores have the same location, the corner of Mount Pleasant and Irving Streets NW.

So what’s different? My favorite old thrift shop was a shop with no recognizable name, and no outdoor sign, where merchandise sold according to how much of it you purchased—the last deal being three items for $12, up from three items for $10 in 2007.

Then, last spring, bam: My favorite old thrift shop’s owner got all caught up in branding. He apparently figured he could make a better haul by calling his place “Frugalista,” slapping some fancy “Frugalista” tags on most items, installing an outdoor sign with rainbow lettering, and upping the prices 100 percent or more in many cases.

This change was not subtle.

Soon, “Frugalista” had an online identity: a Facebook page. With fans! (OK, only 38 of them.)

And then various blogs picked up on the store. In August, it appeared on a “Funemployment” Web site (Tagline: “Funemployment. Fun things to do while other people are at work.”) Just recently, Citysearch also added a write-up.

Harvard Business School moral: Name your business. It makes a difference, especially in the crowded and multitiered world of secondhand clothing sales. Let’s review:

At the top of this wrinkled, smelly pile sit your pristine vintage couture boutiques. The shelves are filled with quilted Chanel purses! The racks dazzle with graceful Givenchy and Halston gowns! The ones that I’ve heard of are all in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City.

Just down the ladder from the high fashion boutiques come your fancy resale stores—like Dupont Circle’s Secondi, which allows clothing owners to sell their “‘like new’ wrong shopping choices” for an amount split with the store, as its Web site states.

Then there are the die-hard, independent vintage stores—like Meeps Vintage Fashionette in Adams Morgan and Remix Vintage Shop on Capitol Hill—loaded with 1960s cocktail dresses, stiff leather trench coats, and plenty of garish orange skirts that your grandma rejected in the 1970s, selling in the $20s and up, and occasionally well past $100.

Oh, the classifications are endless. We haven’t even touched on national resale chain Buffalo Exchange!

But why bother? They are no fun. There is no sense of accomplishment—of money saved, of patience rewarded. Only independent, uncurated thrift stores produce that satisfaction.

There’s a certain skill to the process: How many Jones New York matte tops can you rifle through? How many heavy L.L. Bean sweaters can you push aside? How many cheap vinyl and fraying rope belts must you part to find that perfect leather number? It’s all a prelude to finding the perfect thing you didn’t know you were looking for, the long-lost relative to your existing outfits.

Am I romanticizing clothing that didn’t survive the spring cleanings of others? Perhaps. Nonetheless, the cheaper the items—$2 to $5 for a shirt; $3 to $7 for a skirt or jeans is realistic—the more delightful the experience. And that’s what I’d come to expect from my no-name Mount Pleasant thrift store.

Now, this “Frugalista” place suddenly had dresses for $17. I wanted answers.

But the man behind Frugalista is rarely on the storeroom floor. You have to seek him out by leaving a voicemail message on his work line and hoping that he checks it soon. He has no BlackBerry, no cell phone. His name is Moses Robbins. He’s 64. He used to run a clothing shop called Georgetown Cotton; he closed up his business and started the Clothing Recycling Company in 1999. He wanted to stay occupied nearing his retirement years, he says.

So Robbins founded his new enterprise, which has grown from one resale store out in Alexandria’s Hybla Valley to a Columbia Heights shop in 2003 and the Mount Pleasant location in 2004. Robbins is often assisted by his 28-year-old son Aaron, who showed him around Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood—the land of bearded white hipsters, ice cream shops with both vegan and dairy offerings, and indie bands aplenty—and took him to Beacon’s Closet, a mammoth, self-described “fashion destination,” which advertises “buy•sell•trade vintage + modern clothing” above its front door. In Brooklyn, the three for $12 deal does not fly. Everything is priced individually.

“It just amazed me, and I said ‘Whoa! We’re going at this all wrong,’” says Robbins.

Robbins came up with the “Frugalista” name when he read the term in a 2008 “On Language” column by William Safire.

And thus began the transformation of the Mount Pleasant store: one almost-retiree getting hip to the thrift shop world.

Since starting the Clothing Recycling Company, Robbins had always offered a pre-selected collection of merchandise—not totally “uncurated,” as it turns out—at his thrift stores. His intake process is complex. He buys clothing in bulk from various charities and church groups with collection bins around the D.C. metropolitan area. If you’ve ever dropped off items at the green bins by the Lauriol Plaza parking lot in Adams Morgan, they may well end up back at Frugalista.

A three-stage process follows. First, the items purchased by Robbins go to his processing space in Springfield. Then, 10 full-time employees evaluate the clothes and send a lot of them back to homeless shelters. Next, they’re divvied up among Robbins’ three stores, with the premium merchandise now going to Frugalista. Then they’re re-sorted and priced at the store. Today, racks are regularly jammed with items from Club Monaco, Banana Republic, J.Crew, French Connection, and other popular upscale brands.

When Robbins decided to transform his Mount Pleasant shop, he instituted a few major changes right away, in addition to the sign. He also enlarged the dressing rooms—more space to try on piles of clothes!—added more mirrors, and moved them to another part of the shop.

The store’s appearance is a little more thought-through than before. Now, instead of being tossed in a bin, scarves are tidily displayed on a circular table, laid below a clothed mannequin’s torso, just like they might be at Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom. The men’s ties are also neatly folded near the cash register up front. Recently, the front windows’ bars were removed so the mannequins would be more visible.

But what’s most profound is the change in the curating process—and the pricing. Barring promotions, all items of clothing are at least $7 and often range up to $35, sometimes more.

Just a year ago, Robbins was still offering Ralph Lauren button-downs for $4. Now, to avoid such reckless underpricing, his employees pore over the latest copies of Glamour, Vogue, and Neiman Marcus’ catalog to get a sense of the labels and the latest trends.

“Hey, that’s part of their job, to just look at what’s in magazines and get an idea of what’s going on,” says Robbins. And thus far, their efforts are paying off, he says: The store’s revenue is 15 to 20 percent above last year’s—“noticeably different.”

On a recent visit to the store, I spot manager Sonia Marquez in the back room that once housed children’s apparel in the pre-Frugalista era. She’s now surrounded by boxes labeled women winter 7-16-09 stacked against the wall. A few other people back here, label guns in hand, are examining the clothing. Every week, 90 boxes get dropped off and Marquez and her crew evaluate about 10 a day because that’s how much merchandise needs to be replenished by the evening.

“We see some people every day,” says Marquez, wearing a blue scarf, pulled together with a shiny broach, around her neck. “There’s this lady that comes in every day at 4 p.m.”

Occasionally, Marquez will spot some brand new designer item, and then the $7-35 ideal is out the window.

“Sometimes we get Versace jeans that are brand new. Then, we can do $75,” she says. “We see stuff in magazines almost a thousand more.”

Behind me, there’s a Proenza Schouler tweed jacket—Proenza Schouler is expensive. Google informs me that both Mary Kate Olsen and Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester attended the label’s last winter fashion show.

One day, this entire room may become a shop within a shop, a mini resale boutique loaded with these designer items.

Word of the store’s cache of haute is getting around. Whitney Soenksen dropped by just before Thanksgiving on the recommendation of her roommate, who’d recently bought a sharp-looking blazer at Frugalista and shown off her purchase at home.

“She’s frugal, but she has a designer-type eye,” said Soenksen, hanging out near the coat racks toward the back of the store. “I told her it looked really expensive.”

Across the store, Erik Wassenich reminds me of what I’m missing with the new Frugalista. He lives in Ryazan,

Russia, and came to the District to visit his son Andy, a Columbia Heights resident. Both had never entered Frugalista before—but Wassenich is very impressed with the merchandise.

New imported clothing is extremely expensive where Wassenich lives, and many people buy things secondhand. A lot of the items come from international donations. Wassenich’s wife doesn’t work anymore, so she has time to meticulously search through racks upon racks of clothing.

There is a certain “kind of enjoyment of doing it—the ability to find something for very little money,” he says. “Like if you find a new imported shirt!”

It’s not exactly the same thing. But the sensation sounds familiar.