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.