Several years ago, I was speaking with a client in Alabama about jeans. At the time, I was a huge fan of Levi’s and casually mentioned she should just stop by a Levi’s store and try on a few styles. My client quickly brought me back to earth when she said, “Bridgette, you are assuming there even is a Levi’s store where I live.” I was embarrassed by my assumption but grateful for the reality check. We did have a good laugh about it and since then, I have remained mindful of how varied access to retail can be once you leave major cities.
I grew up in New Jersey, about 15 miles outside Manhattan and about five minutes from Paramus, New Jersey where I had access to several ever-expanding malls within only a few miles of each other. I always had plenty of retail options at my fingertips. As a New Yorker for 24 years who was educated at one of the top-ranked schools in the world for fashion design, The Fashion Institute of Technology, and has been in the fashion industry for 28 years, not only do I continue to have access to everything, I’ve had a long education that I very much took for granted until I really started virtually working with clients multiple time zones away. My work has humbled and taught me just how limited the options can be for women who live in rural areas, suburbs a distance from metropolitan hubs, and even in towns just small jumps outside of major cities. New Yorkers can be smug and arrogant about the way the rest of the country does most things —a quality I’m not particularly proud of —and if there is one area of this I’ve become more compassionate about, it’s the fact that the fashion choices made by women living in what some would judgmentally call “the flyover states” is not a matter of bad taste, it’s a matter of access.
Certainly, the argument could be made that in this day and age with online shopping that offers more accessibility to stores, there is no excuse for bad outfits because nobody is limited by geography any longer. However, to this I say, you’re not seeing the whole picture. Where I ask, is a person who has had limited access to better brands and stores supposed to develop familiarity with anything outside what’s available to them? Where does someone learn to trust the brands they are seeing online and know which ones are worth considering? And to give you an idea of just how limiting stores can be once you leave major metropolitan areas, I was once shopping with a client in New Jersey at a local Lord & Taylor not far from where I grew up. Assuming her Lord & Taylor would carry at least some of the same level of merchandise my (sadly now closed) flagship 5th Avenue Lord & Taylor carried, especially located so close to New York, I was shocked to see the lowbrow, garbage merchandise I would be embarrassed to put on any of my clients. It was depressing, sad, and terribly unfair. No wonder so many people think New Yorkers are a bunch of elitist snobs who get all the advantages.
HOW TO LEARN AND SHOP BETTER BRANDS WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS TO THEM
What inspired today’s blog entry was a comment made when I posted last week’s blog on resale shopping to Facebook. A woman, named Deborah, who is also one of my Facebook Group members, asked a great question. To paraphrase, though you can read the public thread with the comment in its entirety here, said that while she is interested in the idea of resale shopping for better quality, she is just not familiar with any of the brands I showcased in my blog post. No surprise, Deborah has a hard time assessing clothing online and has nowhere to go to learn about them. Given her preference to touch and feel clothing before purchasing, and how hard it can be to decipher sizing, not having access to these brands is a struggle.
Deborah’s comment really hit me hard because inequality in retail really bothers me. So in addition to offering her my own thoughts in that thread, I decided to take her question to the closed Facebook group. Sure, I could be Deborah’s style sherpa and gently take her through the process of learning about these brands, as I do with my clients who also don’t have access, but, jeez, spending a great deal of money to hire me for this type of information just shouldn’t be the only way to learn. With members of the group being from all corners of the world, with all different shopping budgets, preferences, and strategies, I knew a hive mind could help her. Knowing Deborah can’t be the only person on this journey, I wanted to share the advice given by me and by the group. Here were some of the tips offered to Deborah that will hopefully also help you.
Shop the Better Stores You Have Access to Build Familiarity
If you’re on a budget and want to take advantage of resale sites to shop luxury, there is no harm in taking a spin in the better and designer departments just to familiarize yourself with some more expensive brands. Of course, this is provided you have these types of stores in your immediate area. It’s not uncommon to feel a bit like a fish out of water when you enter the designer departments or visit a super quiet boutique where you feel all eyes are you and like you don’t belong. So I will l will tell you something my longtime Saks 5th Avenue sales associate and now dear friend once told me. She said that when a salesperson sees a woman dressed to the nines in the store they will rarely bother with them because those women are just there to “peacock” around. It’s the unassuming women not all gussied up that are there to shop and who salespeople really want to help. The point is, don’t get intimidated to shop in a department where you feel you don’t belong. Pretty Woman was a movie and, while, sure, everyone will encounter a sour, snobby sales associate, you have just as much business shopping at a designer store as the next woman, even if it is just to do a little research. Perhaps consider going at a time when the stores aren’t as crowded or there isn’t a sale going on so you won’t have to worry about taking time away from a sales associate in an unproductive manner. And nobody is saying you even have to enlist the help of a salesperson. You can get to know some brands just by allowing yourself to stroll through the departments and maybe try a few things on.
Use these shopping trips to learn the merchandise, to touch the fabrics, to get a sense of your fit and the styles you like, and then get yourself online to the resale sites if your budget is less than the retail price tags.
Shop Thrift Stores in Upper Income Neighborhoods
Even if thrift shopping isn’t for you, you can still use these resale stores like a reconnaissance mission. Retailers in your area may not be helpful with the less expensive or lower quality merchandise they carry but your neighbors can be. The key is to shop at thrift and consignment stores in upper-income neighboroods where you will have increased chances of discovering hidden designer gems for a steal. As you are building familiarly and taking some risks with new brands, even if you have the budget for better, often testing the waters with resale purchases can help you develop confidence that they are the right brands for you. It’s a lot easier to make a mistake when you pay less and the benefit of buying better is consigning or thrifting back is much easier.
Familiarize and Start With the Evergreen Products Better Brands Sell
With all the challenges that can come with elevating your taste level and familiarizing yourself with better, one of the easiest ways to develop your knowledge is to start with a brand’s styles and silhouettes that they run every year. There are a few benefits to doing this. First, there will be more reviews on things like fit, quality, and general feedback to judge when ordering online. Given the length of time these evergreen styles have been circulating, you can also use retail reviews when shopping for these styles on resale sites. Another benefit of starting with these well-known and established styles is when you are ready to get rid of them, they will be much easier to unload at a local consignment shop or online resale site because they have an already established following.
Pay Attention and Consider the Source
A few years ago, a woman raved to me about who made the suit she was wearing. She was so incredibly impressed with herself in such a superior way. Meanwhile, this was me.
If the woman wasn’t such a meanie, I probably would have had more compassion in my reaction, but my point remains. Somewhere along the way, this woman learned, likely from an equally misinformed woman or maybe even an inexperienced fashion blogger, that she was wearing a high-quality suit from a brand worth broadcasting to the world. And feelings aside about how terribly awful this woman’s personality was, how could she have known? The key is to not only pay attention to brands but also consider the source from where you pay attention as you begin to elevate the brands you shop for. Do your own research, start familiarizing yourself with the fashion industry. Get to know the classic iconic brands and what makes them that way. If you are interested in what makes a garment well made, take a sewing class to learn some basics about construction. Diversify your fabric knowledge so you can intelligently shop for better fabrics. Add some books about fashion to your reading list, you can even start looking on websites that list the brands your favorite characters wear from the shows you follow, like Worn On Tv.
I usually select from brands I get behind and while I try to be diverse in pricepoint, I tend to pull from higher-end labels. If you like something I feature, start paying attention to those designers and brands and look for how consistently you like each one. The ones you are drawn to the most are the ones you should start researching and building your knowledge first.
Check Out Amazon’s Try Before You Buy Option
Amazon has a Try Before You Buy option for fashion and while I’m not a huge fan of all the low-end brands you have to sort through, you can find some pieces from premium brands you can test out before committing. While this way of shopping may not be the most educational, you could use it to search for items from brands you want to test out before committing. Even if you don’t try before you buy, Amazon makes it super simple to return. If Amazon feels too lowbrow, you can sign up for higher-end subscription boxes like Nordstrom Trunk Club or Rent the Runway even for just a few months. Even if these subscriptions don’t capture your style perfectly, you can start getting your hands on some better-quality items. Access to a personal shopper at a better or high-end department store may not yield tremendous fruit in terms of helping you craft the perfect wardrobe but they can be an opportunity to work with someone who can guide you in introducing you to brands you otherwise wouldn’t know about.
Trial and Error
Unfortunately, ordering better clothing online will always come with lots of risks and frustration. I’m usually pretty good when I select sizes for a client but fashion is way too unpredictable to get it right each and every time. If a client and I are having a hard time nailing down their size in a label, we usually start out with them trying the size they most often wear, and then I have the client order a second size, either up or down depending on how the brand runs. I know it is a slog, it can put a temporary charge on your credit card, and it’s a pain dealing with returns but if you are determined to elevate the brands you shop, at some point, you’re just going to have to dive in and put some effort behind it, spend some money, take some trips to the post office with your boxes of returns, make mistakes and keep at it. Between trial and error and opening yourself up to learning, it won’t be long before your knowledge base grows.
A learning curve takes time to overcome but it can be overcome through resourcefulness and a willingness to put some time and energy behind it. Remember, we’re not discussing rocket science or curing a fatal disease, but elevating your taste level, shopping for better brands you don’t have access to, beginning to understand fabric and construction, can be like learning a new language. Consider, true fashion experts in this field, not self-proclaimed ones, have years and years of experience under their belts, so cut yourself a break and take it one step at a time.
How did you learn to shop for better when you didn’t have access to better and designer brands? I’d love to hear your process in the comments below.
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Thank God for Deborah! I was wondering the same thing myself but wasn’t brave enough to ask it! This is a very helpful post, especially your comment about shopping in higher end stores and departments when you aren’t used to it. I’ve felt like an interloper on the few occasions I’ve brought myself to do it.
I agree this is a very helpful post! It took a great leap of courage for me to ask about it in the first place. When I read Bridgette’s post about shopping luxury brands on Poshmark,etc, I was reminded of how ignorant of brands I’ve always felt when a friend from NJ shares with me her thrifting fashion scores. I never wanted to admit that I didn’t know Vince, or Theory, or Lafayette 148!
At Nordstrom Rack I’ve been baffled by the brand names I saw there, and would pick out things based on how I perceived the quality for the price of the item in question. I have to admit that a lot of times things fell short of my quality criteria and I would leave empty-handed more often than not.
The other day I went back to NR, determined to find something in one of these luxury brands for me to study. I found a pair of Theory houndstooth trousers that were very well made of nice fabric (except the style reminded me of clown pants!). And, I found a lovely Vince sweater in a falling leaves pattern, but it was too small and they only had one in stock to evaluate sizing. Although I didn’t buy anything, it was an interesting exercise. I think I might possibly be able to graduate to studying brands at our regular Nordstrom store without feeling like an interloper!
Deborah, I always want you to feel safe in knowing that a question like that is always welcomed and supported. This is how we learn and it angers me that the fashion industry has created an environment where women don’t feel safe feeling behind. You are not alone and very much the norm. Do you know how many women I have to explain to that Vince and Vince Camuto are two different brands. And if it makes you feel better, I once had to explain to a design assistant the difference between a knit and a woven. Gosh, it sounds like middle school all over again where women are so afraid of being called out for looking foolish that we stop asking questions or for help.
Start with the basic pieces from these brands. Often the novelty pieces you are describing can be like outliers and bad representations but you will get a sense of quality and how things feel. All that matters is you have taken it upon yourself to learn and you’ll be surprised now that you’re paying attention. The Facebook Group and this blog are here to help you along the way.
I agree. I was really happy she asked this question. I hope to always create a space where no question is a bad one. It’s so easy to develop that imposter syndrome and feel as if you don’t belong, particularly in fashion. And I will let you in on a little secret, even I get it sometimes. I’m not your typical “fashion person,” and sometimes I feel a bit out of place despite all my years of experience. So I can only imagine how other women feel. Unfortunately, those with the least amount of knowledge tend to be the worst, and when I started my business one of my top goals was to be a voice for the woman that fashion ignored. So it’s important that I listen. Deborah’s question really drove home a point that needed to be covered.
So informative. Thrift shipping has been my best teacher for quality and also personal style and fit. But on line is enticing as I am very rural. And I am not afraid to do the research to figure what is best. Never thought of ordering two sizes. Great idea. Thanks to Deborah and you, Bridgette.
Glad the idea helped you, Elle! It is a common practice when I work with clients in-store and am still getting to know their sizing so why not when shopping online? Even if I do know a client’s sizing well, it usually is more efficient just to have the other sizes at the ready vs. having to run around and get them. It does add an additional layer of returning and charges, but it can cut down on the frustration and wait times of sending back and then waiting for the next size to arrive. Besides, often when you exchange for a new size, a retailer will run the charge ahead of time before you’ve even sent your return back so there really is no difference in the expense on your card. The system isn’t perfect so we all have to figure out how to make the system work for us best we can.
This is so helpful!! Trying on those brands and then trawling Poshmark sounds like a great idea! 😀
Absolutely! Especially when shopping for those styles that a brand runs continually. I often recommend this very classic Akris Punto dress that retails for around $1400. I just sent a link to a client to pick it up on The RealReal for $56. I know the style, I’ve seen in on countless clients. The biggest bummer though is that places like The RealReal doesn’t use the style names of an item, so like Akris Punto’s very well known Franca pants, which they have been running for years, you have to know them by site and then really look close to recognize if it’s them. But once you start paying attention long enough, you can start spotting them.
So with this I would love to learn a bit more about cuts and types of fabric. For example I know cotton can shrink but it can also stretch! And it makes me a bit weary thinking about buying second hand online when I don’t know if the item is actually the size small or medium as stated or if it has shrunk or stretched. How would we know what to go by?
Well, it would depend on what type of cotton we are speaking of, what type of recovery the fabric has, the type of garment, and whether it would even be something you would bother buying second-hand. There is always a risk of how a garment was maintained by the previous owner and you can look at photos to see how worn out something looks. If you really wanted to do due diligence, you could ask the owner to offer measurements and run against the original measurements of the garment if you can find them online, although I’d be less inclined to trust this considering most people don’t know how to properly measure a garment and it’s not always easy to find original measurements of all garments if they are no longer available. There are some things I just would never buy resale, one being t-shirts. I just don’t see much of a point, given their price point and closeness to the wearer’s skin, and these are things that tend to shrink the most. For cotton sweaters, you can often tell if a cotton sweater has been put into a dryer multiple times just by its appearance of it looking a bit faded, particularly at the seams, misshapen, over-worn, or just not that fresh in appearance. Cotton pants can shrink but cotton pants can also give and often that is more about wear and the fabric’s recovery. We all know what happens after a few wears in our jeans or cotton pants and what they feel like when we take them out of the dryer.
You can ask the seller if you are buying through a site like Poshmark, how they cared for the garment, and hopefully, they will be honest. Besides that, there will always be a gamble but I will say I have yet to buy something that has clearly been shrunk or stretched and I think a lot of that comes from closely examining the photography and making sure it looks like it is in really good shape.
What does have a tendency to stretch a lot are things cut on the bias which I would never buy resale because most people have no idea how to store fabrics cut this way. I would say you have a 99.999% chance of getting something stretched out if you buy it second-hand. You can tell if something cut one the bias has been hung because the hem is uneven (looks like a 1/2 moon) or has rippling on the side seams.
I hope that helps!
Thanks for another very interesting and informative post.
I’ve noticed that although I can afford high end garments and live in a metropolis, I can’t force myself to walk into a Max Mara store, or a similar one.
It’s the staff, but only to a certain point.
I agree! There is something so satisfying about finding a gem for a steal and I do enjoy the slower pace and more expansive offering of resale. Even though it goes against my HSP needs, sometimes those small boutiques can be incredibly limiting.
Great discussion! I developed a latish life passion for Peruvian Connection dresses and skirts- simple, stylish and Waaay beyond my budget! I’ve always loved a dress and clean lines- one bound and you are Done- give or take a belt. I have managed to afford some fabulous pieces on ebay- one or two disasters of course, but some very reasonable finds SSShhh-.I did visit their store in London and tried on loads of things just to get an idea of sizing. Be brazen! Find the brands you want to own, and go hunting- charity shops here in UK still have some treasures.
I love this Susanna! I think finding the better labels you love and developing a passion for them is the way to go. This way you not only wear better items but you develop a true passion for them. Enjoy your treasure hunting!
You might also want to discuss diffusion (bridge) lines that designers create for the outlet or retail market using various name or label variations. It can be very confusing.
Hi Sharon, actually what you are referring to isn’t called bridge. Bridge was a pricepoint that fell in-between designer and better pricepoints that have for the most part vanished. DKNY was considered a bridge price point, for example back when it was an actual independent label that stood alone. What you are referring to can be licensed brands where 3rd party companies have the rights to use the name to create lower-priced products for the company. You can also have collaboration-type situations and then you have situations like with TJ Maxx that are really fascinating. I blogged about that a few years ago.
The bottom line is, if you are walking into a Kohl’s a Target or a Costco and see a designer product, it’s a distilled product, which can be fine and lovely and wearable and something you’ll enjoy wearing, but it’s not the same. I hope that helps because I agree, it can get very confusing. My personal feeling has always been that the way designers have diluted their labels has been an enormous mistake. The problem is, however, it’s the only way they really make money.
Thanks for this great post, Bridgette. Like you, I grew up in northern NJ, a hop and a skip from the malls. In fact, I worked at Gimbel’s in the GSP from HS through college. So right about Lord & Taylor, they lost their way long before they closed. I have avoided the malls for years, but I am lucky I still have some good thrift/consignment shops in my area, though many have closed.
OMG, I did too! Where was Gimbels? Was that where Nordstrom eventually went? I think it briefly became a department store called Hanes before it became Nordstroms, right? Remember when GSP wasn’t enclosed and then they expanded it…and then expanded it again. I moved right before the second expansion, I think. That place is enormous now. When I worked at GSP, it was in high school and I worked at this small boutique called Country Sophisticates. They sold wedding gowns, mink coats, and special occasion dresses. It was right by the Macy’s entrance and it was a bizarre store. I was 18 selling bad early 90’s wedding dresses. And no northern New Jersey person doesn’t remember the Alexander’s Mural. Did you hear they are installing it again somewhere else? I can’t remember where they are putting it. This many years later, I don’t even think I could navigate a mall but back in the 80’s I could probably walk through one with my eyes closed because that is where you just hung out. I would imagine malls are like caverns these days. I was shocked when I heard they build that huge one in Secaucus during a time when brick and mortar is in such decline. Apparently, they needed to add all other sorts of attractions like skating rinks and other things just to get people to go there. What a tone-deaf decision to build. As if northern NJ needed another mall…or an indoor ski slope. We all saw how badly that went.
Gimbel’s was indeed where Nordstrom’s is now. The Alexander’s mural has been in storage for years; panels of it are to be used at the Valley Hospital’s new campus in Paramus to be completed by 2023 (so it’s going home!) PS You have to PAY to park at the Meadowland’s mall!
YES! Valley! Thank you! I forgot and it was driving me crazy! “We buy at Alexanders…” Now I can’t get the song out of my head!!
Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It was exactly what I needed to hear, and I love how common sense it is! I can do this!
Thank you so much, Mary! You absolutely can!!