Thursday, October 9, 2008

Vintage shopping advice from a true master -

By Isabel Schwab
Staff Writer
Published: Thursday, October 9th, 2008
Hi, I'm Isabel, and I'm an eBayoholic.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, right? Believe me, I know that I am one of those crazy people, called "power buyers," who salivate as they scroll down the long pages of vintage Burberry trench coats, hoping desperately to find one for less than $100, the steal that everyone else somehow missed.

Just like any other addict, I don't really understand how this happened to me. It started innocently enough: A sweater here, a new (and by new I mean from the '80s instead of the '70s) pair of boots there, all sound investments for my bulging closet. But it soon snowballed into something worse: a hunger, a fear that, at every moment of every day, there were great deals out there that I was missing. Missoni skirts for $50 that would never be mine because I was sitting in English lecture without a computer. That gold and jade necklace that someone in Russia swiped from me by 55 cents. An aching pain when I thought about all the clothing I wasn't even aware existed and would never own.

Often, my obsession earned me ridicule, especially from those who think it's "dirty" to wear someone else's old clothes and who would rather wear Abercrombie. But it has never been my goal to dress like everyone else, and vintage shopping, on eBay as well as in consignment or thrift stores, provides me with a relatively inexpensive way to fuel my need for funky clothes.

And recently, more and more of those disbelievers who always laughed at me with a touch of superiority have been asking me questions about where the best vintage shops are and how to buy things on eBay.

Maybe the porcelain-bound economy is forcing people to think twice. Or maybe they are just realizing that it's way cooler to own actual Frye boots from the '70s than the imitations from Bloomingdale's.

Whatever the reason, if sharing some of my expansive knowledge of the secondhand world makes a few people better dressed, then I think it is almost my civic duty to help.

That being said, the number-one rule in vintage shopping is to be patient. Unlike regular boutiques, vintage stores do not display only a few choice items that are guaranteed to sell; they have tons of ghastly, sometimes scary pieces that make you gape in a combination of wonder and horror. For me, this is all just part of the fun: Why shop just to buy clothes when you can do so much more? Once a friend and I were shopping in one of my favorite New York haunts, Cheap Jack's, and we stumbled upon something that looked like a straitjacket. Long, white and oddly contorted, it was, in fact, an adult onesie. That anyone had ever once worn it was appalling. Even worse was its $140 price tag.

Don't let the stories and shoulder pads discourage you. Keep digging, and eventually you will come out with a treasure that is unique, wearable and, best of all, cheap. These are not just urban myths; when digging through a rack labeled "Skirts, $4," I came across a beautiful Marc Jacobs skirt in my size. When you subtract the dollar that I found in the pocket, that $3 item is probably my greatest success story to date.

Many people aren't able to look past the initial ugliness of a piece of clothing and turn it into something wearable. This takes some creativity, but a good exercise is to go into a consignment shop, pick out the ugliest item and try to figure out a way to make it cool. Sometimes, all it needs is a few chops with some scissors and a few well-placed stitches to make it indistinguishable from anything in Anthropologie. The Princeton consignment shop Nearly New is a great place to do this, as there are loads of '80s remnants there as well as some truly nice clothing.

Remember, accessories are your friends. Though it's acceptable to buy a cheap dress, I never like to skimp on quality for shoes or handbags. Faux leather is not the way to go, and a good handbag will make even a $15 outfit appear more expensive.

Costume jewelry is the perfect way to add sparkle to a bland outfit. I reached the height of my eBay obsession this summer, when I planned to bid on 10 pounds of vintage costume jewelry from an estate sale. The only thing that stopped me was my mom, who walked in on me mid-bid and threatened to cut off my money supply if I brought 10 pounds of "worthless junk" into the house. I'm still not sure I made the right decision.

If you are willing to take the plunge and shop on eBay, the best advice I can give sounds like an after-school special: Know in advance about what you are willing to spend, and don't get so caught up in the moment that you end up paying $60 for a $40 necklace (not that that has ever happened to me or anything).

Be sure to check the feedback on the seller. Most people are honest, but there is always a chance they won't send you your item, and it's best not to get into a tangle with the eBay police.

In the end, it's all worth it for that indescribable thrill I feel when I get the message, "Congratulations! You have won this item on eBay." Whether it's giant costume clip-on earrings or a Cole Haan purse, every time I see those words, I lean back victoriously in my chair, content with the world. That is, until I think of something else I want to buy.

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