A Shopping Manifesto

Shopping in BerlinLet's face it, in these days of a new frugality and increased consciousness about need vs. want, shopping is deeply uncool.

It's about time. Even the ultra-rich have pared back on blatant consumerism - or at least are hiding it much better. And this is a good thing. Better for the Earth, better for our souls. But what do you do when you have to shop?

The Varmint and I ran into this when he scored a many-months-long on-site consultancy awhile back and realized: He had just 3 Garanimals-like business-outfits. Everything else? Jeans and t-shirts, baby! (Hey, it's one of the bonuses of being your own boss. You can have a concall in your flannels if you want!)

A long, long, loooong time ago, I used to enjoy shopping. My passion has waned - or maybe transferred - since The Kid appeared on the scene. I do still love clothes, but shopping's a necessity rather than a pastime these days. 

Loving clothes however is very different from being a fashionista. I dislike that term. Besides being sexist, fashionistas are dimwitted label-freaks, shopaholics that will spend thousands to follow every trend or have the latest, starlet-driven must-have.  

Lady in Finery I couldn't give a shit who's wearing what. To be frank, I don't shop fancy. I'm happiest in comfy, casual clothes. Old Navy and Target? Fine by me much of the time. I just have adopted some strong rules in general about what to buy, how to shop - stuff I've learned over the years from thrifty friends, designers, editors and my mom.  I also learned a lot from the other instructors at FCC (I taught at the fashion college for a few years) who were teaching costuming and fashion history.

But mostly, I learned from having a mother with seamstress-level skill, who taught me the difference between well-tailored, beautifully-made clothes designed for your body - where thought is given to fabric, cut and seam - versus the cheaply-made, highly profitable, slap-stitched crap you'll find on most racks. That doesn't mean buying designer is where it's at, either. Growing up, my best friend Megan and I would spend hours combing the racks of used clothing stores and vintage shops and found amazing treasures that wouldn't break the bank.

I still shop used clothing stores, Ebay, vintage boutiques, low-end department stores and now, the Internet. Once the item is on your back, no one gives a damn where it came from.

Since three friends asked for shopping info in one week, I decided put some notes together; I'm throwing a few ideas out there (and am hoping you'll dish out some of your own). If you have any additional ideas for smart shopping - add them to the comments section, below.

Oh, and for the record? These strategies work for guys as well as gals...

Most of my rules for shopping surround the Cost Per Wear (CPW) of stuff I buy. It works like this:

- Let's say you find a heavy, lined, wool trenchcoat you like. it's just 50 bucks - on sale for 75% off. It's a cold weather item. You're not sure how often you'll wear it in sunny San Diego. But, it's 75% off! Should you buy it? I reason this stuff out by thinking of it in terms of Cost Per Wear. Being as it's San Diego, let's say you'll wear it twice a year and use the coat for an average of 8 years. That means at sixteen wearings, you'll have spent $3.13 each time to wear it. That's pricey.

- By contrast let's say you spend $100 on a pricier, lighter weight cashmere piece and use it as a layering item, wearing it an average of 3 times per month (or 36 times per year) for 8 years. At that rate it costs .17 per wearing.  Now that's more like it!

- Buy less stuff of better quality for your basics.

- Remember: More expensive does not mean better. This is my number one rule. LOOK AT HOW IT'S MADE. Then try it on and see if it is flattering. Always use the dressing room, even for sweatpants.

- Designer labels do not necessarily manufacture better quality clothes, either. It just means they're more expensive, LOTS more expensive, especially if the label is showing. Which is why...

- In general, I never wear designer labels - of any kind - that show. Unless you're paying me to advertise, I don't care if there is a Coach or Prada label on my ass or not. Neither should you, when the markup can literally be 600%.

- That said, a designer brand can easily be resold on Ebay, or in a consignment shop, for cash. If there is something that hits all the rules, in form, function and fashion and I adore it - but it's a designer item - I might buy it, if I think I can resell the item easily. Purses, shoes and outerwear are easy resells, if kept in good condition. (I just sold a Prada tote for 3/4 of what I originally paid for it, after using it nearly every day for 4 years. The CPW was less than 15 cents.)

- Check your seams. Is the garment well-made? Is it lined, half-lined? How is it finished? Is there a hem or is it a Serger seam, machine finished and quick-cut? Are the seams pressed flat - or could they be? Are the buttons double-sewn? Is there room for tailoring?

- Special occasion items like dinner dresses are usually super-pricey. I always ask: Why spend big money on a fancy dress, when you will likely only wear it twice, total? I'd much rather put the money toward the accessories, beautiful separates that I'll wear ten times as much, delicious shoes or the right purse. Not only will I use those items more often, but will likely be able to sell them and get at least half my investment back in cash!

- It's a personal preference, but I usually buy only natural fiber blends. If the fabric is 100% manmade, skip it. Just Rayon. Or Polyester. Or shiny, in general... no thanks. Unless you're actress-skinny and nothing jiggles, it can look cheap and universally flatters no one. But throw a little Spandex blend in with a lot of cotton or silk? Or, if it's cashmere? Heaven. I'll pay extra. Good fabric means more comfort, breathability and durability - and it hangs better on your body without highlighting flaws.

- Know your body. There are so many stylish cuts that I would LOVE to wear, but I pass them by, because my big shoulders, non-existent waist and short stature  would instantly Oompa Loompa me. Not good. If you're going to buy fewer items of better quality, make sure they are flattering. (We scored The Varmint bought a pair of well-cut dark jeans that narrow at the cuffs and work for work and play - and make his booty SO juicy. He's already worn them 25 times at least.)

- Know your colors. I can't wear pastels, period. Pink - and I like pink, thankyouverymuch - Barbie-fys me, so it's a no-go. Likewise, I've got to ease up on the black. Too stark, shows all the blotches, ruddiness and freckled skin; with black, you receive no benefit of light reflection and you drop back into anonymity - which can sometimes be a goal. Now that I'm older, jewel colors are becoming more and more my friends. Except certain shades of red. Because as a tomato-faced blonde, an orangey-red turns me into... you guessed it! An Oompa Loompa. Brunettes generally look great in that color, though! 

- In general, I spend less (to no) money on trends, and more money on classics. I'll not bat an eyelash at spending $150 on a pair of well-fitting black trousers or jeans that I'll wear hundreds of times, but will freak at spending $75 on a trendy pair of pants. Why? Because trendy means less wears.

- I limit large patterns in general, unless they're neutrals. One, I'm small. (Small people and big bright patterns don't go well together.) Second, people remember patterns, which once again limits the number of wearings you'll get. 

- I spend more money on good tailored basics, and on accessories that matter. Like my purse. Or a colorful scarf. Or a belt I know I'll wear the hell out of. Notice I said tailored basics - like jackets, pants - and these days, jeans. But T-shirts? Skip the pricey ones. Head to Target, baby. $9 scores you a winner.

- I shop less than I used to; and am happier, and 100% guilt-free about buying fewer, nicer things.

- Shop by feel. Touch the fabric. Is it soft? Are there scratchy bits? If so, don't buy it! You won't wear it because it'll be uncomfortable. If it's comfortable, flatters, doesn't show my ass-crack? I'm in. (I'm 40. Dressing like a 17 year old is stupid.) Cashmere sweaters never go out of style, and when finally holey and worn out, make fantastic pajama tops on cold nights. Another friend I know sewed her old sweaters into a gorgeous and funky scarf.

- I totally recommend bringing a brutally honest friend (or ask a professional shopper if you've got that kind of dough) when it's time to push past your comfort zone and clean out the closet. If you don't know if it's time, then it's probably time. I ask my friends Megan or Sally every couple of years for an intervention; what's ugly; what works. And they'll tell me. In a soul-withering, nail-studded baseball bat to the ego kind of way. Donate or sell the stuff you don't wear. Never throw it away. (One pair of leather shoes takes 40 years to decompose in the landfill.)

- We all develop blind spots and tend to buy the same stuff over and over in different versions. You've got to pop yourself out of that. Ask a good friend will rip the Band-aid off and tell you what's what; there's no picking at the edges. It hurts, but it saves a lot of time. (Too bad both Megs and Sal live out of town; I think I need to woo one south. I'm overdue for both a closet spanking and a come to Jesus.)

- By all means, if you're busy and can afford it, have your delicate clothes professionally laundered. But never, ever dry clean. The chemicals not only cause cancer and are toxic as hell, they are proven to reduce the life of your clothes. I request gentle laundering, in cold water, even for cashmere. (Also, you can have your sweaters professionally shaved, if they're pilling - extends the CPW and keeps things neat.) Good laundering means more wearings.

- Shop where there is less competition. I've found some of my sweetest finds in boutiques catering to an older demographic. The grannies don't want the stuff I do, and people my age don't shop in the granny section. Cull the herds, kids!

- I still love quality vintage shops for one-of-a-kind pieces. (I can't afford couture, so this is really the closest most of us will ever get to that in terms of quality, cut and uniqueness.) Vintage dresses and separates are great for fancy dress events.

- Use the Internet! I rarely shop department stores. But if I do, it's usually during a sale or for a bigger budget item (like eyewear, totes, shoes). Then I write down the brand and style # of the piece I like - then hit the Internet to compare and shop. I've saved hundreds doing this, and also by taking advantage of www.retailmenot.com. You can even save big money by shopping the same department store you're ONLINE instead of in-store. In person, they're counting on impulse buys and you're nearly guaranteed maximum price and a more limited selection. Online you'll find sales, coupons, incentives, selection - even entire lines of product unavailable in-store. Be patient by a day or two - it pays.

So there it is. Now more than ever, with the economy in the shitter, when you have to shop, it pays to get strategic. We ended up completely updating The Varmint's wardrobe with workable wear for less than $500. And let me tell you, his pelt has NEVER been shinier.

What about you? Have any strategies for shopping on a budget that work? Spill!



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I am a writer and lazy artist who loves travel, architecture and design. Right now, I'm into photography. My fabulous husband (a.k.a. The Varmint) and I are also the principals of a San Diego-based creative agency - and new parents to the divine Baby Mak. Read More >