Dressed for success
Birmingham’s Forgotten Vintage is much more than just a second-hand fashion store. Laura Jane Johnson reveals how it is helping the city’s homeless
With its retro-inspired store displays, dapper sales advisors and Dean Martin crooning in the background, Forgotten Vintage has the same quirky, nostalgic charm as many other vintage fashion shops - but that’s where the similarities end.
As well as offering the style conscious of Birmingham a more affordable vintage fashion fix, all sales profits will go towards tackling homelessness in the city.
Homelessness charities across the UK are struggling. Demand for their services is rising, budgets are under pressure and government funding is hanging in the balance. They’re being forced to make tough decisions about the support they can offer communities.
Forgotten Vintage, a social enterprise, was opened by Trident Reach the People Charity - the arm of 3,000-home Trident Housing Group that provides accommodation and support to vulnerable people across the Midlands - and Birmingham homeless charity SIFA Fireside in November. It is an example of how organisations are searching for inventive ways to make some cash.
The aim was to set up a charity shop to raise money for their organisations and reduce their dependence on external funding. ‘It’s something both organisations wanted to do but couldn’t achieve independently,’ says Richard Leighton, Forgotten Vintage’s resident social entrepreneur.
‘SIFA is at the front line of homeless services in Birmingham, then you’ve got Trident Reach that provides hostels and behind them there’s the housing association. It’s a great partnership.’
Key to the success of the project was keeping the running costs low: negotiating rent, sourcing stock and employing a loyal team of volunteers to staff the store. By pooling their resources and contributing £5,000 each, the two organisations got Forgotten Vintage up and running and now share the basic operating costs of £280 a week plus the salary of one full-time member of staff.
From the retro 1980s T-shirts to the acid-bright 1990s baseball caps, everything on sale is donated. Before hitting the rails many items are
lovingly repaired and given a new lease of life by volunteer tailors in the store’s ‘clothing hospital’.
Other items are personally altered to meet customer requirements, offering a Savile Row service to those on modest budgets. The Forgotten Vintage team also offers masterclasses in sewing and knitting to give individuals the skills to customise items themselves.
At the moment the shop is breaking even, but it’s hoped that it will soon start to turn a profit and that it will be shared equally between the two charities, giving both organisations access to finance without the restrictions of government subsidies.
‘We’re now plotting out how we’re going to invest the income and SIFA is making its own plans,’ says Anthony McCool, charity lead for Trident Reach. ‘The beauty of the money we’re raising is that it can go directly towards providing what our customers need.’
Having seen how successful setting up a social enterprise can be, Trident Reach recently gave its service users the opportunity to shape future initiatives. It ran Dragon’s Den-themed events - one last month, and another earlier this month - at which the housing association’s 10 staff members worked with residents to come up with concepts for social enterprises that would benefit the local homeless population and then pitch them to a panel of ‘dragons’. Profits from Forgotten Vintage will help bring some of the best ideas to life.
Training on offer
Trident Reach has supported 1,699 homeless people into their own accommodation since 2009 - 1,446 of these have come via the charity’s homeless hostel in Birmingham. For it, social enterprises are not just about raising money to pump back into its front line services, they’re also a way of giving service users a chance to gain vital work experience.
For example, users and ex-users of both Trident Reach and SIFA’s services can get involved by volunteering at Forgotten Vintage. ‘At the moment it’s difficult to get a job in a shop if you haven’t got experience in retail,’ says Mr Leighton. ‘If people haven’t got this experience, they can come here and get it. We also want to continue to grow the business to create apprenticeships for young homeless people.’
Second chances are what Forgotten Vintage is all about after all - whether it’s clothes that would otherwise end up in landfill or giving support to a community member looking for a fresh start. By offering a safe environment for homeless people to introduce work and routine back into their lives, the shop is helping vulnerable people in Birmingham take the first steps towards rebuilding their lives.
How it helps
One person who has experienced the benefits of both Trident Reach and SIFA Fireside’s services first-hand is Tony Kelly.
An alcoholic who would feed his addiction through thieving sprees, five years ago Mr Kelly was homeless and had hit rock bottom. Today his life has turned around. With the support of SIFA he has not touched a drop of alcohol since 2007 and now has a home thanks to Trident Reach.
‘I live a good life now because of SIFA and Trident,’ he says. ‘Now I want to give back what’s been given to me.’ He’s doing this by volunteering at Forgotten Vintage and acting as ambassador for homeless people by showing how far he has come in rebuilding his life.’
‘I was here for the first day the shop opened and I’ve been here ever since,’ he adds proudly.
‘I don’t miss a day because I love it.’