The exclusive fashion boutique that puts homeless people first

Alex Penman chooses clothes with help from store boss Paul Walsh
Alex Penman chooses clothes with help from store boss Paul Walsh
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A UNIQUE Bruntsfield ‘shop’ with retro decor and rails of colourful clothes is giving the Capital’s homeless an enjoyable and dignified way to spruce themselves up

A LEG emerges from the fitting room first, gives a little high kick, then out leaps Alex Penman with a loud “Ta-da!”.

He gives a theatrical twirl, strikes a pouting model pose and grins his approval. The dark blue cargo pant chinos and the cream and brown checked cotton shirt have passed his strict fashion test and now the hunt begins for a trendy jacket to finish off the look.

Moments earlier Alex had shuffled through the door of what is quite possibly Edinburgh’s most exclusive boutique dressed in battered trainers and an electric blue Adidas tracksuit that had seen better days.

Shoulders hunched, painfully self-conscious, slightly despondent at the lousy twists and turns that life has thrown his way, he’d come to flick through the rails of fashionable and colourful T-shirts, crisp cotton shirts, soft woollen sweaters and well-cut chinos and jeans, hunting out something new to not just wear but to help raise his spirits.

“You feel better when you have something nice to wear,” he smiles, admiring his fresh new look in the full-length mirror and giving a jokey twirl.

“Hey, check this out,” he demands, then sets off on an exaggerated sashay across the boutique floor like a catwalk star, posing and wiggling, chuckling all the time.

Paul Welsh sits on a Union flag-covered pouffe, watches and smiles. He has seen similar transformations many times at the secretive Bruntsfield boutique before, admittedly most of them more contained than Alex’s light-hearted theatrical performance. People walking through the door, down on their luck – indeed, down as far as they can go – shed their grim outer layers behind the fitting room door to emerge smarter, tidier and suddenly more confident and a shade happier.

Of course we all know the buzz buying a new outfit can have. Even browsing rails of outfits can be a distraction from the daily trials and tribulations. But what makes Paul’s “customers” different is that they leave, swinging their purple Paisley print carrier bag stuffed with new goodies, without a penny changing hands.

And when they head off to try on their new look, it’s not to the comfort of their own home, but to the room upstairs, their temporary shelter until they can finally find a place to stay.

For the boutique, with its trendy retro style décor, Marilyn Monroe prints on the walls, Union flag furnishings and location in the heart of Bruntsfield’s niche shopping patch is, in fact, only open to a very select few – down on their luck homeless men and women who have nowhere else to go.

“It used to be that the people who stayed here who needed clothes would come downstairs to an unused kitchen and go through whatever was left behind by the other residents,” explains Paul, depute manager at Gowrie Care’s Bruntsfield Place home, which provides temporary supported accommodation to people with nowhere else to go.

“But it meant rummaging through boxes or bin bags. We were washing clothes that had been left behind by people who had moved on or stuff that had been handed in, but we felt there had to be a better way.”

A plan was set in place to create a boutique within the former home for the deaf, a sprawling Victorian villa with dazzling stained glass windows and dramatic curved staircase, where homeless occupants from similar accommodation units across the city could “shop” for new outfits without having to part with cash or sacrifice already battered self esteem rummaging through stuffed bin bags.

While the idea of ripping out a former kitchen, installing clothes rails, pop art pictures, funky stencils and artfully disguising old pipework behind rolls of chicken wire to create “Clothes Line”, might have seemed lavish, it’s proved a major success with the “customers”.

Creating the “shop” was made possible by a Waste Action Grant from Edinburgh City Council, which took into account the organisation’s attempt to recycle clothes. It’s proved so successful, it’s been nominated for a Care Accolades award, which recognises groundbreaking work within social services.

Paul, who used to work at the now 
defunct second-hand clothes specialists Flip on South Bridge, says the boutique has borrowed from the cult outlet’s “retro” style to make it feel like a genuine shop. The result, he adds, means people who are down on their luck can enjoy something most of us take for granted.

“There are charity shops that sell 
second-hand clothes, but they’re not as cheap as they used to be. If you only get around £40 a week in benefits, you don’t have much spare to spend on clothes.

“Homeless people want to look good too. They might have job interviews to go to or family events like weddings or funerals.”

According to homeless organisation Shelter Scotland, 4310 families and individuals were classed as homeless in Edinburgh last year. In March this year, there were 752 households – which can include entire families – living in temporary 
accommodation.

They end up there, adds Paul, for countless reasons. “It is a huge mix. Maybe learning difficulties are involved, drugs, alcohol, mental health problems, and family break-ups.

“But there are also many people who don’t have any of those issues who maybe find themselves with financial problems, they lose their job, maybe their relationship with a partner breaks down and they don’t have the funds to look after themselves.

“It can happen quite suddenly. Homeless people aren’t all unemployed either,” he adds, “we have someone with us just now who has a full-time job and has done ever since they arrived.”

Learning difficulties meant Alex, 33, from Muirhouse struggled to cope with the pressures of holding down his own home after leaving Pilrig Park Special Secondary School in Leith. “How long have I been homeless? A hell of a long time,” he groans.

He is staying at the Edinburgh City Council-funded accommodation while he waits for permanent supported accommodation – a flat to call his own but with help to ease him through the difficulties of running a home.

For Gavin Donald, however, the fall into homelessness was a sudden sharp shock. The 24-year-old father of two from Pilton was assistant manager of the Ferryboat pub in Ferry Road when his world began to crumble.

His relationship with his partner collapsed, he left his job and as life unravelled – stupidly, he now admits – he got into trouble. Before long, he was left with the option of homeless bed and breakfast accommodation or a spell at Gowrie Care’s home.

“I used to shop at places like USC. I’m a bit of a poser, so I like to wear decent clothes. I spent £85 on a Gio-Goi top once – don’t think that would happen now,” he shrugs.

“Now I have a criminal conviction and no-one will want to employ me,” he groans. “I did something daft, it was the first time I’d been in trouble, but you don’t get a chance to try to explain, people don’t want anything to do with you.”

He sifts through the Clothes Line rails and swaps his grey tracksuit for a dazzling red polo shirt and baggy “skater” style jeans. “This place is good,” he nods, casting an eye over the jeans, neatly folded according to size. “It’s good to come here and look through the clothes. It feels like 
proper shopping.

“I look back, one year ago I was assistant manager of a pub, had my own house, my kids and now I’ve got nothing,” he adds. “That’s how quickly it all 
happened.”

sdick@edinburghnews.com

How you can play your part

Gowrie Care’s Clothes Line ‘shop’ was set up using cash from an Edinburgh City Council Waste Action Grant.

Grants of up to £2500 are available to householders, community groups, youth clubs and schools to fund eco-friendly projects that will encourage more people in the Capital to reduce, reuse and recycle.

In 2010/11 18 groups received a total of £25,000 in project funding. These initiatives saw an estimated ten tonnes of waste recycled as opposed to going to landfill. They included a grant to The Living Memory Association to set up an exhibition based on Edinburgh residents’ experiences and memories of their environment and how people dealt with waste in the past.

Applications for this year’s grants close on Monday, August 27. For information on applying for a Waste Action Grant, contact wasteaction@edinburgh.gov.uk.