It is a Saturday afternoon less than two weeks before Christmas in one of London's most popular shopping areas. There must be scenarios closer to the seventh circle of Hell, but not many. So how is it that a bunch of shoppers in one corner of London's Covent Garden are positively enjoying themselves?
As harassed mothers jostle with bewildered tourists outside, shoppers inside a temporary "pop-up" shop are rifling through racks of the pop star Elton John's clothes. The stark white-washed walls and simple metal fittings of the venue n a former theatre n highlight the flamboyance of the clothes. Not that they need much emphasis.
Racks of the musician's brightly coloured, silk Versace shirts hang alongside a green boiler suit and gold leather trousers, all up for grabs as part of a week-long "Out of the Closet" sale to raise money for the Elton John Aids Foundation.
To the strains of the Elton classic "I'm still standing", 27-year-old Martin Ijaha is trying on £299 Armani shirts, in migraine-inducing colours.
"I'll buy loads, I've only just arrived and I've already seen some sunglasses that I definitely want," says Mr Ijaha.
Trawling her way through a rack of shirts is an elderly lady with waist-length blue and green dreadlocks, a silver turban and a vast white fur coat; Elton's wardrobe is tame by comparison.
"When we opened, there were lots of people waiting; some of them were collectors looking for key pieces," says Simon Prytherch, the charity's fundraising director. "Quite a few people have bought the silk shirts to display in glass cases."
Fans hoping to take home one of the musician's stage outfits may be disappointed. A row of mannequins displaying Elton's stage costumes towers above the shoppers.
From a green 1970s catsuit slashed to the navel, to a heavily embellished gold Versace jacket and matching patent leather trousers, these outfits are being sold in a silent two-week long auction, and are expected to sell for tens of thousands.
The most ambitious customers can place their bids at the till, but will find themselves up against stiff competition: the Victoria and Albert Museum, for one, has expressed interest in some outfits on display.
For those who don't match up to Elton's generous physique, his partner, David Furnish, has also generously provided. "I don't think I'm Elton's size," says Jonathan Beaumont, 40, a television producer from London, as he slips on a navy blue Lanvin jacket. "This must be David's."
Quite a few are not here to shop, they confess, but "to see how the other half live", or in the hope of bumping into one of Elton's famous chums.
"I'm just here to have a nosy," says Julie Cooper, 50, from Leeds. "I'll buy things if I like them, not because they are his. But not at £100 for a jumper."
She is not to disappointed. Leafing through the rails is the broadcaster (and the Independent's Editor-at-Large) Janet Street-Porter, a patron of the charity.
There is a frisson as a rumour circulates that Liz Hurley, the actress/ model and close friend of the singer, is expected later in the afternoon. The former Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland is also slated to put in an appearance over the weekend.
Some shoppers have rummaged through Elton's wardrobe before. This is the eighth sale of the musician's clothing: five have been held in London and three in the United States. The last UK sale, in 2002, knocked out 15,000 items and raised £400,000.
"I went to the first of his clothes sales on the Fulham Road, and bought a very nice mac," says Andrew Rose, a doctor from London. "I go every time. I'm very interested in the charity, partly because I'm a doctor and know a lot about HIV. It is a difficult disease and there is a lot of work to be done."
Despite the recession and a general sense that people are spending less freely than at the previous events, the fact that all the proceeds are going to the foundation provides a credible excuse, and many shoppers seem buoyed by the idea that their hard-earned cash is going to a good cause.
And so with n fairly n clear consciences, shoppers mill around a table groaning with shoes ranging from gold winklepickers to Chanel motorbike boots and Louis Vuitton trainers. Vicarious fame and good causes notwithstanding, many are just there to bag a bargain.
Alongside the boiler suits and catsuits and leopard-print shirts are more competitively priced designer accessories, including a brown Burberry holdall for £495, and Versace sunglasses for £99.
"I've bought three pairs of shoes and a jacket n at about £99 each n but it is for a cause quite close to me," says Mr Beaumont. "A lot of high-profile people have been connected with the disease, and that has helped to raise its profile."
- THE INDEPENDENT