When someone asks Vicki Bonnington where they would wear one of her extravagant, one-of-a-kind evening gowns at a BerkChique sale, she replies, "How about your living room?"
"I think it's crazy not to own something that makes you feel good," she goes on to explain. "My goal is to have some fun, put some enjoyment in your life."
When you're standing among the racks and racks of clothing in Bonnington's rented loft space in Pittsfield — kept as neat and organized as a department store women's floor — it's hard not to get wrapped up in all the fun, like one of the hundreds of beautiful scarves and wraps she has in all fabrics, colors and lengths.
If you're like this reporter and you want to riffle through Bonnington's closet, you'll get your chance at the 7th annual BerkChique!, a pop-up clothing sale and fundraiser where buyers can score donated designer wear at a 1/3 of the retail price, all for a good cause. This year, the sale is being presented by, and in support of, WAM Theatre and its programs, with additional donations going to the Berkshire Humane Society, Community Access to the Arts and IS183 Art School of the Berkshires.
Bonnington, who is event chair, will be bringing at least15 racks of clothes to the sale from her private collection. But how does she decide what to donate every year?
"I ask myself, can I live without this? Have I worn this in a while, has my taste changed?" she said as she pulled out the racks, marked by designer, or dress type and even two "priceless" racks that hold one-of-a-kind items that she'll price on the spot at the sale, which will be held Friday through Sunday at the West Stockbridge Historical Society.
The once lawyer, now turned Berkshire County fashionista — seriously, Bonnington is known in some social circles for her gala attire, which often borders on costumes, complete with wigs, giant accessories and head gear — helped start the fundraiser in 2012 with her friend Nancy Fitzpatrick when they realized they had a lot of great clothes they no longer wore, but could sell for a cause.
"Originally, I was a volunteer," Bonnington said. "That first year, I had just finished being a lawyer, so I had all these professional clothes I didn't need any more, about 500 items, that I donated."
According to event coordinator Rebecca Weinman, many of the clothes, shoes, bags and accessories donated by others (this year they received donations from at least 50 other people, some giving one or two items, others bags of donations) are from people in life transitions, who might not need a work wardrobe any more. But what they will get from year to year, they never know.
"Half the fun is getting the donations and seeing what we have to work with," said Weinman, who has been running the sale for the past five years with a team of volunteers, who help her sort, clean and tag all of the items in the weeks leading up to the event. Since its inception, the sale has raised and donated over $150,000 to support local nonprofits.
"We'll start staging the space this week," Weinman said. "We want to make it a fun, comfortable shopping experience for everyone."
This year's lead beneficiary and host, WAM Theatre, came to the shopping party through a mutual friendship between Bonnington and Kristen van Ginhoven, artistic director of WAM.
"I first met Vicki Bonnington in 2012, when she became a WAM supporter," said van Ginhoven in a press release. "I knew that she loved clothes and I also knew that as WAM grew, I was going to need clothes for galas and meetings with sponsors, etc. The problem was that I never enjoyed shopping and was not confident that I could put together an outfit. So, I invited Vicki to lunch. She figured I would be asking her for a donation or to help with an event and instead, I asked if she would be my personal stylist. Vicki laughed, but lucky for me, she agreed. Over the years, she has patiently worked with me to expand my style and encourage me to step out of my comfort zone. Thanks to Vicki, I now always feel wonderful at the Berkshire galas. I've never gotten more compliments on my outfits since having Vicki help me select my wardrobe."
Bonnington beams when she talks about pairing up clothes with the right people. While she's quick to point out she isn't a stylist or designer, Bonnington is a self proclaimed collector of clothes who scours Ebay for deals and one-of-a-kind finds. Her style is hard to pin down — "I do like dresses the best," she confessed, but points out her taste can range from "girly girl, to pirate" amid an array of black skirts — and her collection includes sizes that range from 2-16 because she's never sure year to year what size she might fit in.
Nothing makes her happier than sharing her love of fashion.
"It makes me happy to help someone get out of their comfort zones," she said. "I want women to know, you can look beautiful at any age, height, weight."
Weinman describes the effect of trying on clothes you might not normally touch as the "BerkChique! fever."
"We have some of the happiest patrons and a great crew of volunteers — I would describe the atmosphere as almost giddy," she said. "If you're at all curious about what the sale is, or maybe you're intimidated about the amount of clothing, we're here to help make it a pleasurable experience."
The sale is separated into two halves. Downstairs, this year, will be the donations from friends and residents. This year, they have quite a few prom dresses and 100 brand-new bathing suits donated by a manufacturer. This area typically ranges in the $10-$30 price range, with higher prices for designer brands, according to Weinman. Upstairs, Bonnington will set up her shop, where the prices may be higher, but the assortment will be things you don't see in the average clothing store.
Bonnington encourages people to try on different things, even if they think they'll never wear it.
"It's fun to look like a movie star every once in a while," she said.
And even if you're not looking to buy anything, Weinman points out that the experience of shopping and pouring through the clothes can be half the fun.
"It's very much a celebration, a positive environment," she said. "We have a lot of fun."