Chicago Manual of Style—November 4, 2008

Designer duds on a dime? No problem!

By Jessica Hester

Despite the old adage that says nothing comes free, even couture can be had for cheap.

I like good deals: the five-dollar lunch special at Wok ’n’ Roll; the discarded, oversized leather couch my roommate and I found in an alley and dragged up two flights of stairs; and, of course, the two for $20 T-shirts at The Gap. My preference is for easy, durable basics in muted color palettes that allow me to look like a million bucks for less than the cost of a deep-dish pizza. But some frugal fashionistas aren’t content to shop down-market. Still, label-lovers don’t have to lease a room in their apartment to pay for a pair of pants. There are numerous ways to don designer duds without breaking the bank.

Some of the best deals can only be found early and under the radar. When shopping in a stylish city, keep your eyes peeled for fashionable activity taking place in alleyways and warehouses. Sample sales are veritable fashion jackpots, opportunities to score beautiful clothes at less-than-boutique prices. These sales, which occur at the end of a season, are essentially massive purges of a designer’s leftover inventory, and clothes are priced to move. In September, my mother and I were strolling down Lafayette Street in New York when we noticed an army of well dressed women making a beeline for a seemingly empty building. Following their lead, we stumbled upon a sample sale for Matta, a designer who creates luxurious skirts, blouses, and dresses full of rich, brightly colored textiles and hand-stitched detailing. Five dollars bought me a beautiful high-waisted black skirt (original price: almost $200).

While I fell into fashion fortune in that instance, it’s generally crucial to plan ahead. Sample sales are fiercely competitive, full-contact sports. While they’re perfect for those of us with light wallets, sample sales are not for the weak of heart. The best items go early, so plan to wake up with the sun. Once you brave the morning, prepare to face off against the other shoppers. Fighting over items is par for the fashionable course. Since most sample sales are held in warehouses, they rarely have dressing rooms; so check your modesty at the door, or think about investing in a leotard. Many sample sales are not widely advertised, but google “sample sale listings,” and you will find databases specific to all of the major fashion destinations—including Chicago. Remember to bring cash, because many sales don’t accept credit cards or checks. Finally, examine all of the items closely before you pay for them, because all sales are final. If you find a tear in a pair of pants after paying for them, the pants—and the tear—are yours.

Discount designer clothing stores such as Loehmann’s, Filene’s Basement, and Barney’s Co-op are similar to sample sales in that they offer expensive clothing at accessible prices. Like sample sales, the inventory is usually a season behind, so you can’t show up in December looking for a winter coat. These stores are notoriously jam-packed with clothes, so they can be overwhelming and difficult to navigate. However, with patience and a well trained eye, you can find some amazing bargains.

Thrifty fashionistas who can’t commit swear by Bag, Borrow, or Steal, an Internet service that allows members to borrow designer purses, watches, and sunglasses. For a fee, members can rent purses by Louis Vuitton, Prada, Fendi, Gucci, Coach, and other luxury brands for a week or month at a time. Bag, Borrow, or Steal is like NetFlix for purses: You just rent and return. Coach purses start at just $15—that’s the equivalent of brewing your own coffee for five days instead of splurging on Starbucks.

On eBay, a wealth of designer wares await at reasonable prices, but buyers should be cautious. When it comes to eBay, you don’t always get what you pay for. I ordered a “D&G” t-shirt that looked just like one I had seen in a magazine and was immensely disappointed when the package on my doorstep bore a screen-printed American Apparel baseball tee. Be sure to read the reviews of the seller’s transactions, and take seriously the feedback from other buyers. A seller who doesn’t have a rating of close to 100 percent probably has a stockpile of American Apparel T-shirts ready to be sold to less-savvy sartorialists. While you can ball up the T-shirt and hide it in the back of your dresser, you might not be able to get a refund on your money—or your pride.

Also, don’t assume that designer clothing is always astronomically expensive. Sneaky sellers sometimes push an item for far more than its market value. Though $149 might seem like a steal for some chic Marc Jacobs rain boots, don’t be sucked into the scam. Before you place a bid, visit the designer’s website to check the market price of the product. You might save yourself a small fortune: Marc Jacobs rubber wellies sell for only $29 online and at the brand’s Soho boutique.

In our current economic climate, it seems crazy to pay full price for designer items—there are simply far more pressing, pragmatic uses for a few hundred dollars. But with so many budget-friendly ways to buy designer clothes, fashionistas can have their shoes and wear them, too.