London is not what you would call a ‘cheap’ city. If you wander down a typical West End street, evidence of the forbidding expense of the capital is everywhere. There are a lot of gloomy, disappointed faces that squint up at the towering, glittering emporia; a lot of sweaty, fidgeting grasps of the price tag and a low murmur of economic caution. Apart from the generic chain stores, the odd discount week and the Jermyn Street shirt sales, value for money is hard to come by.
If you live in the city, you become accustomed to it. You shop around, rule out certain streets and get to know the quieter times of day. If you visit for a day, hoping that you’ll find something more worthy than in your humble local town, you are often disappointed, not to mention exhausted. The scene is sometimes so pitiful it verges on the Dante-esque: people so tired, worn and dishevelled they resemble human litter, queues so long and winding they are physically painful to even contemplate – and at the end of it, a right old black-eye beating for your credit card.
It’s not pleasant and, temporary though the sweat, swollen feet and zoo-like atmosphere may be; the damage to the finances is permanent. I was offered a remedy for this last malady; a visit to a Hackett sample sale. Sample sales of legend were to me the very image of barbarity: a seething mass of desperate and despondent shoppers, grabbing and snatching their fix as cheaply, and as abundantly, as they could find it. The reality was not far off but as unpleasant and inelegant a shopping experience it was, the result – the day’s hoard – was well worth the effort.
It took place at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane in East London. Not, it is safe to say, an area strongly associated with the sort of ‘settled’ image that Hackett attempts to portray but an atmospheric and spacious enough venue that had character and, mercifully, opened doors and high ceilings. At the door, an entrance fee of £2 was paid and black bin bags were made available for ‘collecting.’ The swag bag was barely useful for my meagre haul but others had reason to upgrade to large cardboard boxes. They then proceeded to kick them along the gritty, tiled floor in their search for more booty.
As it was the last of the sample sale days – there had been Thursday, Friday and Saturday openings – I was not expecting to find anything at all and, instead of contemplating a satisfactory treasure of pocket squares and ties, had expected to leave empty handed. Indeed, were it not for the deep and much disturbed boxes of ties, pocket squares, bow ties, cummerbunds, scarves and socks at the front of the Boiler House, I would have done.
Laughably late for the suits, jackets and trousers, I still had time for a futile browse. Other items – jumpers, chinos, outerwear and shoes – were of less interest and, ironically, in great supply. Never have I cursed my childlike frame so intensely than when I found 40R pinstripe suits and tweed check jackets at 2 for £50; never have I wanted bulk so badly than when I saw linen double breasted waistcoats in 46R – for £5. Shirts were another bargain area – 5 for £50, purchasing multiple polos and rugby shirts offered the same value for money and even my area of interest, accessories, offered a ‘buy more pay less’ value; 5 ties or hankies for £15.
Admittedly, though it was a successful day, it was not a particularly enjoyable shopping experience. Corpulent organisers shouted inaudible commands through megaphones; people pushed, grabbed, chucked and plundered; cashmere trousers that once were folded and hung on polished Jermyn Street hangers lay trampled and dirty on the floor of an East End industrial ghost. It was a surreal and slightly sickening experience, even before the mighty serpent queue had grown to its full and torturous size. Wilde’s words came to me as those around me piled more and more into their bags and boxes; “There are many things that they would throw away” I thought “if they were not afraid that others might pick them up.” Though certainly an exercise in achieving true value, this was turning into another example of the inescapability of greed.
Despite this grim ending, I was somewhat cheered by the sympathetic words of the make-shift till duo; “You’ve been waiting in that queue?” they frowned “for five ties?” In actual fact, it was for three ties and two pocket squares but yes, I had been waiting. Somehow, I had managed to conceal any indignation. And out of the vast industrial space I stumbled – from the manic, soup-kitchen atmosphere of bargain shopping – into the evening sunlight. My companion commented “I think we’ve just been through one of the great Circles of Hell.” I nodded. It was worth it.
For information on upcoming sample sales in London, go to http://www.samplesaleslondon.co.uk/