High-end labels like Oscar de la Renta and Chanel are in abundance at the Helpers store near Golden Gate Park.
Words and Photos: Kayla McIntosh
It’s a crisp winter afternoon in the Inner Richmond neighborhood and a small house on the corner of Fulton Street is reaching full capacity. The doorbell rings and the door is opened to a tall gentleman wearing black-rimmed frames and a warm smile.
His greeting is just as genuine as his grin, and he ushers guests into the main hallway. Three gorgeous gowns are draped on mannequins directly in front of the door. Each one is from a different designer. A backless, beaded John Galiano is the stand out garment amongst the three. Once inside, guests are offered water or white wine and told to dilly-dally into whatever they so choose. A small party is in full swing and several high profile clients are wandering around the apartment looking for anything that catches their eyes. Volunteers, some standing behind the glass classes that house one of a kind jewels and others wandering around the other rooms, engage in small talk with clients. Many of the exchanges express complete disbelief that a place like this exists.
At first glance, the place is shocking. Shoppers are immersed in a world of well-kept vintage and designer pieces. Several rooms in the home are sectioned off to particular areas: one for items priced $10-99; another for accessories and impressive jewelry; one for menswear; one for home goods; and finally, one full of high-end designers.
Joy Bianchi, a savvy lady, runs the whole joint. Wearing a metallic gold Chanel jacket with a matching head wrap, she walks around the place and encourages clients to buy whatever they love. Clients are spillng into each room fawning over the rare jewels and garments.
Helpers House of Couture is just one of the charity-based vintage stores in San Francisco. Bianchi, a veteran volunteer, has been with the charity since she was 14 years old. Now, 74, she is still finding ways to give her all to a charity so dear to her heart. Through donations from “grand dames” she has been able to create an exclusive boutique that is appointment-only for shoppers who love high-end vintage clothing. From Oscar de la Renta embellished boots, to floor length red gowns by Monique Lhuillier, all sales from each item sold goes directly back to the Helpers of the Mentally Retarded Charity.
Bianchi converted a spacious home into an impressive vintage boutique with numerous rooms overflowing with vintage duds in impeccable condition.
These fabulously dressed women usually donate their clothes because they have bigger and better options in their closets. “These are ladies who shop for lunch,” Bianchi says.
Helpers also has a sister store located at Ghirardelli Square that sells items with smaller price tags. Juicy Couture and Polo by Ralph Lauren are just a couple of the labels that can be found.
Charity-driven vintage stores are a hot commodity in the San Francisco area. Another store, Seconds to Go, operates the same. Tucked away in Pacific Heights rests this do-good boutique. Labels like American Eagle and Banana Republic line the racks of the store. The general manager, Laura Lorton, says the stores sales all go to the Schools of the Sacred Heart.
“Every dollar that we take in goes directly to financial aid at all four schools,” Lorton mentions. “So they’re able to offer a wide variety of financial aid options.”
The store opened in 1974 and has been serving the Sacred Heart schools which include four different private Catholic schools. The store’s location is based on the fact that the school is located just up the street on Broadway.
Located on Fillmore’s charming street, Seconds to Go is surrounded by high-end stores like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Alice + Olivia. Once inside, variety of designer garments can compete with the likes of Helpers. Her store is full of threads with labels like Prada, Manolo Blahnik and Dior Homme.
“People are willing to buy something that’s been gently used if it’s quality merchandise,” she explains.
Which is quite true. The beauty of shopping at high-end vintage boutiques is that a shopper will stumble upon a rare piece of clothing at a decent price and in impeccable condition.
“There’s obviously a lot of options for second hand shopping in San Francisco,” Lorton goes on to say, but she wants to make sure that her store is held to certain standards in comparison to other stores like ThriftTown in the Mission or Held Over on Haight.
Price points are a huge thing for stores like these. Making sure that the pieces are priced at appropriate levels is critical to attracting the right buyers.
What makes these stores so great is that they are both volunteer run. At Bianchi’s brownstone-turned-boutique, each volunteer has joined on board because they saw how impactful of an organization that Helpers was and continues to be. Each have their own unique story with Bianchi and how they became affiliated. One met her while he was working at Saks Fifth Avenue and was asked to do her makeup for an event. While another was working at his vintage shop in Union Square and sold her a one of a kind haute couture Carden dress.
Volunteering and fashion are two unlikely pairings. Many can argue that fashion screams superficiality while volunteer work is the complete opposite. Either way both stores are promoting heartwarming agendas that seek to better the word one garment at a time.