Friday, October 3, 2008

Assemble an entire fall wardrobe for less than $500 -

We scoured local shops and consignment stores for 10 affordable essentials

Given the current economic situation, my allowance for new clothes and shoes has shrunk as the cost for things like food and gas has grown. Since many of us are in the same boat, my editor at NWsource challenged me to outfit myself with 10 fall essentials -- a coat, boots, jeans, a purse, a top, a skirt, a layering T-shirt or tank, a belt, a hat and tights -- for $500 or less.

I eagerly took up the gauntlet and began searching the city's shops and boutiques. Now, to my small surprise, a few weeks later I am ready to claim victory. It seems that many local stores have anticipated shoppers' desire for quality goods at reasonable prices and have stocked their shelves with affordable clothing for fall.

There's something on my list for everyone -- those who have $50, $100 or $500 to spend; those who like to shop at vintage or consignment shops; and those who prefer to buy eco-friendly clothing. With one exception, I chose to shop at small, locally owned, independent boutiques. Happily, this experience showed me that it's possible to shop at small stores and still save money.

Along with my 10 picks, I've included some general tips on how to maximize your spending power on new items and how to make the most of your current wardrobe should you choose to spend no money at all. You'll find these helpful hints in bold type throughout the article.

The anchors: boots and a coat
I decided to begin with the most challenging big-ticket items: boots and a coat, which anchor a fall wardrobe. I wanted to find a coat that will carry me from fall to winter, and boots that are as stylish as they are sturdy.

Since I'm a West Seattle girl, I started at Carmilia's [0] near the Alaska Junction, which carries well-priced clothing from lines like Kersh, Free People and Tulle. I found a stretch twill trench coat from Tulle for $92, perfect for fall and generously sized to allow for layering as the temperature drops.

This coat comes in a chic winter white and vibrant evergreen. Carmilia's owner, Linda Sabee, tells me that she has more styles of coats coming from Tulle this fall, including a double-breasted wool peacoat and a vintage-inspired wool coat with oversized buttons in brilliant jewel tones, both retailing for around $120.

These coats combine a pop of color with a classic tailored silhouette. When investing in a major piece like this that you will want to wear for a few years, choose a vibrant color over a pattern like plaid or paisley, which may fall out of vogue and seem dated.

During the fall and winter, I love pairing a skirt with tights and a cool pair of boots. This recipe can be used to create both daytime and nighttime looks, so finding a good pair of boots comfortable enough for work and sleek enough for dressing up is important.

The friendly folks at Market Street Shoes [0] had just the boot I was looking for in the pull-on "Meaden" boot. Made by Clarks (so you know it's going to be comfy), this clean, modern black boot has a reasonable two-and-a-half-inch heel. Best of all, they retail for just $80.

A classic black boot made by a well-established company like Clarks is a basic that will last longer than the current season. Spending money on a quality pair of boots rather than skimping on a cheaply made pair will save you money in the long run.

A pair of jeans
A good pair of jeans can take you far in this town, but can also take a bite out of your wallet. Denim doesn't come cheap when you're shopping in boutiques. Newcomer Pink Ginger [0] on Queen Anne has a pair of dark wash Level 99 denim trousers for $90 that fit a variety of body shapes due to their mid-rise waist and loose-fitting legs. Denim trousers are versatile and can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion.

I read somewhere that the average American woman owns between seven and 10 pairs of jeans. I know I do, but I have to admit that not all of them fit me well, so they languish in my closet. The right fit on a pair of jeans is just as important as the right fit on a bra, so it can be worth your while to take your ill-fitting jeans to a local tailor [0].

If your jeans are too wide through the leg or too big in the waist, it's cheaper to have them altered than it is to buy a new pair. Other garments, too, can benefit from tailoring. I recently bought a vintage cashmere sweater for $26, but its sleeves were a bit too big and there was a small hole on the back. I took it to Judy's Custom Alterations in Fremont, and she updated the drape of the sleeves and fixed the hole for me for $45. So for a total of $71, I now have a beautiful cashmere sweater that I will wear for years.

A purse
I love a good, well-made handbag, but they can be spendy, so this is where vintage and consignment shopping really comes in handy. Driftwood [0] in Madrona consigns high-end designer clothing, shoes and purses at one third of retail. On a recent visit, I found a black leather Armani Exchange bucket bag for $67. This bag is deep enough to carry a laptop and would work perfectly as a briefcase, school bag or everyday purse. Like everything at Driftwood, it was in immaculate condition and reasonably priced.

A skirt, a shirt, a layering tee
Consignment and secondhand shopping isn't just a good deal for buyers, it's a smart choice for sellers, too. At the turn of each season, I make a date to clean out my closets, donating clothes or selling them to consignment shops. I find that if I edit my wardrobe -- cutting out clothes that are cute, but not on me anymore -- I'm able to see what's left in a different light. It allows me to figure out what I need to buy to fill in the gaps.

Often, it's skirts and shirts that I need to update. Damsalfly [0] in Ballard and Frock Shop [0] in Phinney Ridge both stock their stores with cute, trendy and affordable new clothing. At Damsalfly, I found a denim chambray miniskirt with pockets and button details for $30, and at Frock Shop, a fun pink-and-gray-striped silk-blend, long-sleeved shirt with black trim and slight ruching at the neck for $52.

I always ask myself how a new piece will fit into my existing closet. Will I really wear it or will it end up in the bag for Goodwill? I choose pieces that will blend easily into my existing wardrobe, creating new outfits with the clothes already there.

When looking for a layering T-shirt, my first inclination was to look at Target [0] or H&M [0] -- you can't beat their prices and selection, and it's hard to justify spending a lot of money on an item that may not last longer than one season. But I was thrilled to find an organic cotton T-shirt for $18 at American Apparel [0] on Capitol Hill. It isn't a small local boutique, but it is a sweatshop-free company that uses U.S.-based garment workers in its manufacturing. It's a good feeling to be able to afford to shop with my conscience.

The accessories: a belt, a scarf and a hat
Accessories tie an outfit together, and it's easy to use them to add a bit of vintage flair on the cheap. Every European woman knows that throwing on a scarf makes the most casual outfit look couture.

To complete my list of fall essentials, I chose a vintage brown snakeskin belt ($10) at Last Waltz [0] in the Central District, a cute hat made out of repurposed wool and cashmere sweaters ($28) by local designer glam.spoon at Bouncing Wall [0], and a pair of thick brushed-cotton black tights ($22.99) at Lavender Blue [0] in Fremont.

Mission accomplished
I spent $489.99, completing my task with $10.01 to spare. Just enough left over for a nice bottle of wine to congratulate myself on a job well done. Not only did I assemble a realistic fall wardrobe for less than $500, I supported my local economy and helped the environment by buying used, recycled and organic goods. I'll raise my glass to that!


Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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