Auckland's best vintage and designer bargain stores

By Bronwyn Sell

Bronwyn Sell finds inexpensive designerwear — after a fashion — in inner-city Auckland.

Coucou is a girly-girl's paradise. Photo / Michael Craig
Coucou is a girly-girl's paradise. Photo / Michael Craig

To me, clothes shopping in Auckland's CBD has traditionally meant popping into a chain store in my lunch break for an unimaginative staple, or browsing the High St designers and wondering who pays $450 for a casual frock. Until a few weekends ago.

I dragged a friend into the city to visit my secret source for interesting new clothes - the City Designers Market on High St. I also wanted to try out a cheerful and girly vintage boutique on the city side of Britomart called Coucou, as well as the new Workshop Outlet and a few other vintage stores, both venerable and new. The list started getting long.

And then it struck me. Some time over the past few years, the CBD has become a destination for affordable designer and vintage clothes shopping in its own right. And I'm talking south of the long-standing vintage hotspot of K Rd.

Our quick shopping trip turned into an epic day of bargain hunting, and even then we didn't get to all the stores on the list, and I ended up returning later to complete my mission.

(Next time I'm saving up, clearing the weekend and booking a hotel.)

When I later mentioned to Ute Bohnert, the owner of High Street vintage store Emporio U, that I was writing this story, she laughed and thanked me. The fashion journalists around town, she said, keep assuring her that they'll keep her their little secret. I can see this would be most beneficial for their wardrobes, but perhaps not so good for Bohnert's bottom line.

So maybe I'm breaking an unwritten rule and I'll be frozen out at the next media launch, but for the benefit of the bargain hunters among you, here is my list of 10 of the best spots for designer and vintage bargains in the CBD.

Tango
Little High St, 55 High St, ph (09) 300 7165, open Mon-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri 10-8, Sat 10-5, Sun 12-4pm.

There is a trinity of vintage and second-hand clothing stores along High St that have been quietly plying their fashionable trade for the past decade or two. Tango is the glamour puss among them. This is the place to go if you have a big occasion coming up and you want to make an entrance - with a guarantee that no one else in the room will be dressed the same. On this visit, I fell in love with a shimmery, slinky Diane von Furstenberg gown (certainly not a mere "dress"). Unfortunately, the only "gown" that my current lifestyle demands is of the cotton bathrobe variety, so as far as I know it remains on the rack. At this atmospheric store on Little High Street you'll find anything from Victorian and Edwardian pieces to glamorous treasures of the 1990s, including costume jewellery and coats that look like they've emerged fresh from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Smoove
Little High St, 55 High St, ph (09) 307 2799, open weekdays 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12-4pm.

Also one of the High St trinity, and a few steps from Tango, is Smoove. Owner Matt Lark calls it "an alternative eclectic wonderland; like Willy Wonka for clothes", but the clothing here is more wearable than that might make it sound. Lark finds promising vintage numbers on overseas buying trips and has them reworked into cool and interesting retro pieces to suit the local market. He also stocks new clothes that have a vintage attitude. I picked up a fun reworked dress that I decided was somewhere in between 1980s Rendells checkout chick and Sandy from Grease, and a sweeping, clingy, dotty, black-and-white number. (Audrey Hepburn meets Rachel from Glee, maybe?) Total bill: $150. I also resolved to direct the husband here to check out the men's retro section.

Emporio U
Basement, 9 High St, ph (09) 356 6985, open weekdays 11am-5pm, Saturdays 11am-2pm.

You'll never be tempted to buy designer knock-offs again once you've taken the stairs down to Emporio U, at the Shortland St end of High St. The longest-standing of the High St trinity, 17-year-old Emporio U sells clothing and accessories from big overseas designers at small local prices. We're talking Miu Miu, Marc Jacobs, Prada, Armani, Burberry, Lanvin - in many cases selling for two-digit dollar amounts. Some even still have the four-figure original price tags attached. Owner Ute Bohnert says, somewhat enigmatically, that she has good sources in New Zealand and overseas - fickle shoppers who buy clothes from the biggest-name designers and hardly wear them (if it all) before tiring of them and flicking them off.

Coucou
30 Customs St, ph (09) 366 1694, open weekdays 10am-6pm, Sat 10am-5pm,
Sun 11am-5pm.

When it comes to clothes shopping, the Britomart Quarter is dominated by big names and big prices. And then there's Coucou. Tucked around the side in Custom St and adjoining its higher-end sister store Made, Coucou arrived last spring and immediately brightened up the quarter, and lowered the average price tag. It's a girly-girl's paradise, from the red polka dots on the walls to the colourful and feminine clothing on the racks. You'll find new items from European stores such as Top Shop, Zara and H&M as well as carefully selected vintage dresses, skirts and tops.

City Designers Market
Corner of 1 Freyberg Place and High Street, ph 021 711 710, open Fridays 9am-6pm, Saturdays 10am-5pm.

I find it impossible to leave the City Designers Market on Freyberg Square without a little (or large) brown paper bag filled with locally made wearable goodies, often bought from the designer herself. With the wares of six up-and-coming contemporary local designers crammed into the indoor market every Friday and Saturday, the bargain-to-square-inch ratio is seductively high. I found a gorgeous Oriental-style red satin dress, but upon stepping out of the changing room I discovered my taller, slimmer friend was wearing the same one. Needless to say, I let her have it, and instead bought a cute and cosy blue merino top that I've worn almost every day since. Sign up to the emailing list to get the heads-up on sales - they're well worth the trip into the city.

Recycle Boutique
Darby St, ph (09) 379 8891, open Mon-Thurs: 9am-5.30pm, Fri 9am-8.30pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-4pm.

My most fashionable friend by far has been frequenting the Recycle Boutique since we were first-year students - and that's (gulp) almost two decades ago. Her downfall is that whenever she goes in with a pile of clothing to sell for a bit of extra pocket money, she goes out again with a pile of different clothing. You'll find plenty of good-quality chain-store and designer clothing and accessories, and a bit of vintage. Check out the $4.50 rack - the store sells items on behalf of the owners of the clothing, and anything that hasn't sold within six weeks and isn't collected again gets hung here.

Tatty's
47 High St, ph 09 373 3126, open Mon-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-5pm.

A Ponsonby Rd fixture since 2006, the upmarket second-hand clothing store Tatty's opened a city outlet about 18 months ago in the former World store on High St. It's a shop to take a bit of time over, with great designer finds stashed in every corner. After reluctantly passing on a divine but tiny baby-pink cashmere jumper, I stumbled upon a seemingly unworn Keith Matheson wrap-around dress. (Designer: tick. Vintage: tick.) At $40 I figured it would be perfect for both the school run and the odd dinner out. It was only when I got it home that I found the original price tag attached. Turns out I bought myself a $450 designer dress from High St after all.

Workshop Outlet
Shed 4, Cnr Wellesley and Nelson Sts, ph 021 0272 4882, open weekdays 10am-6pm, 10am-5pm Sat-Sun.

The newest arrival on our list, the cavernous and cool Workshop Outlet store opened in an old warehouse off Wellesley St a couple of months ago. You'll find a table stacked with their signature jeans at cut prices, and racks of samples, seconds and end-of-line women's and men's clothing, from floaty silk dresses to stylish winter coats and shoes. It's a bit of an uphill hike from High St and has free parking right outside, so pop in on your way in or out of the city.

Peachy Keen
Inside Real Groovy, 438 Queen St, ph (09) 377 2337, open daily 10am-6pm.

Located inside Real Groovy, vintage store Peachy Keen is well worth the wander up from High St. The unofficial slogan is "from deco to disco", with most of the clothes here sourced from the United States and dating from the 1920s to the 1980s, plus a few modern pieces. The owners aim to stock something for every budget and style, from cool slogan T-shirts for as little as $5, to cowboy shirts and boots, to elaborate 1950s and 60s gowns costing up to about $300. A great place to come if you have a dress-up party to go to - owner Jill Peterson (who also owns Corseterie in St Kevin's Arcade) has a formidable knowledge of vintage fashion.

Cassette Super Markets
Cassette Nine, 9 Vulcan Lane, first Saturday of every month, 11am-4pm.

Once a month of a Saturday afternoon, the uber-cool Cassette Nine bar on Vulcan Lane becomes a low-lit and cosy little market, selling a bunch of interesting stuff, including hand-made accessories and second-hand clothing, mostly dating from the 1980s. I left wearing a cute scarlet crocheted hat, made by the girl who sold it to me. (And, fittingly for the theme of the day, eating a retro-style perfect pink macaron, which I think was made by the same girl). It's the kind of place where you'll never know what you'll find.

- Herald on Sunday

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