Thrift a la Mode

St. Vincent de Paul and local designer join forces to keep fashion out of the waste stream

Mitra Chester
'I would love to see St. Vincent de Paul be the place to come to source materials,' says Mitra Chester, at her DIY department.

Each month, St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County receives about a half million pounds of clothing. To put that in perspective, Boeing’s 747-8, one of the largest aircraft ever made in the U.S., weighs one million pounds. That is a lot of old clothing to sift through, but to some, that’s half a million opportunities to find a hidden treasure or a raw material.

St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) is on the cusp of changing how it processes such a mass of textiles. Traditionally, SVdP has sorted through its used clothing donations according to signs of wear and tear: If a garment only shows light signs of use, it’s put out on the floor, but if it’s stained, torn or beat up in other ways, it goes into the discard stream. The nonprofit has already siphoned off some of what SVdP feeds into the discard stream by refurbishing mattresses and melting down used candles by color and reselling them as Brick-O-Wax and Extreme Brick-O-Wax, for crafters and skateboarders respectively, among other projects.

Now, SVdP Executive Director Terry McDonald has paired up with local fashion designer and entrepreneur Mitra Chester, of Deluxe Fashion Shop, to refine the sartorial flow. This upcycling project is unique to SVdP too; no other large-scale nonprofit thrift stores in the region have created a position for someone to intentionally sort apparel based on style and trend merit. McDonald recently hired Chester to be a full-time special projects manager, aka fashion guru, a position in which she is developing a DIY department and “Original Styles,” a curated collection of trends that will soon be on display and available for purchase.

“She has an eye for fashion,” McDonald says of bringing Chester aboard. “That style is value-added. We don’t have that skill set.” McDonald explains that most nonprofit thrift shops are for treasure hunt shopping; if you’re determined enough to search through the bulk of product, you may just find a gem. “It’s a problem with the industry,” he says. “Most nonprofit thrift shops have no fashion sense whatsoever.”

For Chester’s first endeavor, she set up the DIY department at the Division Avenue store where customers can access tear-sheet tutorials that teach how to use damaged clothing as raw materials. The department is about “changing people’s mindsets,” Chester says. For example, the current DIY project is “sweater creations,” in which the tutorial directs people how to convert a used sweater into a beanie, beret or hand warmers. Then, with what’s left of the knit, a “scrap monster” can be made (a ridiculously cute stuffed animal).

She’s also transformed flawed leather jackets into purses, wallets, cuffs or tops with leather detailing. Chester says, as the department gains traction, she’d like to do two to three new DIY ideas each month and eventually film video tutorials that customers can access online.

The other development is Original Styles, which will be introduced soon at the Oak Street store location. Chester and a team of SVdP employees that she’s trained to have a more acute eye for fashion pull clothing from the stream that may have been discarded in the past for a small dysfunction. Now it will be put on display because of its trend relevance and fashion value. This collection could feature anything that’s currently on trend, from vintage band T-shirts to sweaters in Native American-inspired prints, but the prices will remain the same as other clothing in store. In other words, Chester and co. will do the treasure hunting for you.

“It takes time to find things,” she says, adding that it’s a “full-time job to stay on top of what styles are current.”

McDonald says the possibilities don’t end there; both the DIY department and Original Styles will open in other SVdP locations. “We’re not going to just do this. We plan on expanding it out,” he says. There’s even chatter about SVdP opening “a cut shop,” where local designers could work with access to the raw material stream and share production machines.

“My art is about my ability to be resourceful,” Chester says. “I’m inspired to impact the bottom line.”

St. Vincent de Paul accepts donations of clothing and accessories, books and magazines, kitchenware, toys, sports equipment, furniture and more at SVdP donation centers, attended collection centers, as well as by truck pick-up. For a complete list of accepted donation items and donation locations, visit