The Savvy Gal’s Guide to Downsizing

Psh. Make fashion work for you!

Hi Comrades!

As the economy slowly begins to show signs of life, hundreds of thousands of us are left having taken on the chin an enormous financial hit.  Talk shows and websites are alive with advice on how to roll over your 401k, how to prepare a proper budget, and basically do all of the triage needed to stop the financial bleeding.

What I don’t see, however, is advice for how to downsize if you’re an American woman accustomed to taking care in your appearance.

Having been through the ringer, I can tell you that the first things to be cut are usually non-essential luxuries like facials, massages, mani-pedis, impulse makeup buys and, sadly, clothes shopping.

I don’t know about you, but as an American girl raised with all of the bells and whistles of retail allure, shopping has become a part of my design.  More than simply hunting and gathering (or shopping and spending), shopping is a social sport, that engages my prowess in selecting lovely pieces meant to show myself, and the world, that I take pride in the way I look.

Enter the recession.  Talk about a buzz kill.  Gone are the days of stopping into my favorite stores and walking out with some new something for the week, the month, or the mood.

But it’s not like the shopping gene or whatever it is gets switched off just because we don’t have the resources to feed it.

For many, in fact, this “thing” digs its claws in deeper.  I know a lot of women who are in debt up to their highlights, whose closets are teeming with clothing, most of which has never been worn, most still bearing the price tags.  It’s like their shopping has gone from a joyous hunting into a manic disorder overnight.  They lie about what they spend, hide their purchases from friends and family, hate themselves for doing it, then go do it again.  It pains me to see smart women stuck in this kind of trap.

This might not be you (and I hope it isn’t) – but even so, there’s something to look at here.  Why are American women in particular so prone to harkening to the siren song of retail?  And, more importantly, what can be done about it?

For decades, shopping gave me a vague, fleeting sense of fulfillment.  No matter how bad things were, I could find a mannequin whose clothing suggested that she was fabulous enough to weather any storm with style and ease.  J Crew and Anthropologie were my little temples, and each represented a carefully-constructed reality that I could tap into with only a swipe of my card.

Just a little shirt or skirt here and there…and the dressing rooms are so intelligently designed – good lighting and an ever-so-slightly skinny mirror…I’d feel a sense of freedom and vindication that I found such great things that looked so good on me.

Then I’d get home and they didn’t quite work with what I already had.  Into the back of the closet they went, with the others.  A little thing here or there added up to a whole lotta dinero as time went by, and I finally faced the fact that I could no longer keep up my habits without dramatically impacting other, more important areas of my life.  I love to travel with my wonderful boyfriend more than I love t-shirts with ribbons on them. A girl’s gotta have her priorities.

And it’s travel where I began to figure out how to stop the cycle.

Through my boyfriend’s work and my own artistic pursuits, we’re lucky enough to travel to Paris several times a year.  We don’t stay at the Ritz, but it’s still the City of Light, and living on a dime somewhere beautiful is much nicer than living on a dime at home.  It gives me an opportunity to look at my life at arm’s length.

And so, it was in Paris, during a blissful 3-month stay, that I began to truly realize that it was ok to step outside of the grid.  Not only was it ok, it was actually a relief to live out of one suitcase – there weren’t enough pieces of clothing for me to get twisted about, and I started to get creative with what I had.  I found that if I kept myself in shape (well, ok, with all the wine, butter and bread in that amazing country, it was a struggle), the simplest outfits looked great with a few different accessories.  Too, I made it my homework to sit at cafes and watch people go by and think about what they were wearing; I got the basic idea of what it means to look like a French woman – just a little makeup, lipstick, nicely tousled hair, one statement piece paired with casual component, and something pretty along the neckline.  The barest percentage were decked out in designer duds, but nearly all of them looked totally fabulous.

As soon as I got back stateside, I dumped over two-thirds of my entire wardrobe.  Most of it was donated to a thrift store, and a few things are waiting to be sold on eBay to supplement the cost of running this site.

Long story short, I downsized myself. By choice.  It’s awfully empowering to take stock of what I have, instead of focusing on what I don’t.

But, I still enjoy shopping!  The gene hasn’t left me, though my current goals are (finally) in line with my current budget.  However, by no means does that imply that I can’t enjoy the thrill of the hunt like I used to.

Enter the many cosmopolitan, upscale thrift stores in New York City and, my personal favorites, the lesser-known haunts that haven’t been thoroughly curated.

Let me tell you what I mean by “curation.”  Housing Works, for example, employs a legion of volunteers to sort through the donations they receive; they’re a wonderful group who raise more money for men and women living with AIDS than any other in the country.  My own sister, Alexis, died from the disease in 1995, so I’m a member and they’ve got my support no matter what.  However, because of their team of experts, it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to find a secret little designer item on the cheap!

I gravitate to the shops that most people don’t want to go into.  Bad lighting, disorganized racks, piles of bags and shoes – other people shudder at the thought, but for me, I smell adventure…and bargains.  In these places, I know that they won’t have taken the time or energy to figure out if a Demeulemeester is worth $2.99 or $29.99, and that gives me an edge.

Word to the wise – don’t buy things just because they’re designer unless they look stunning on you.  I had a pair of Cavalli jeans that looked like a Smurf barfed on me, and I thought they were supposed to make me look chic.  Buy what works for you.

And so – I have a little budget for personal clothing; I can either buy one (sale) shirt at J Crew a month, or spend my free time browsing in the thrift stores around the city.  The great thing is I never know what I’m going to find.

Sure, if I’m in a pinch and need to find a black wool pencil skirt, I can troll through a few of them and find one for less than $12 (and have it cleaned and tailored for less than the J Crew shirt altogether!).  However, for me it’s a joy to keep an open mind as I sort through the racks, a cashmere sweater here, a pair of beautiful vintage boots there – I now have a (smaller) wardrobe full of unique, quality items that I play “Garanimals” with.

Just to get your mind going on the idea – a black silk shirt paired with black wool trousers is the perfect blank canvas – with heels and pearls, it’s a romantic night out.  With boots and rocker jewelry, it’s drinks with the girls.  With demure flats and a statement piece of jewelry or a bright scarf, it’s office appropriate.  The same goes for a yummy cashmere sweater and my black pencil skirt.  Or a grandpa sweater and jeans.  You get the idea.  I rotate the pieces in my wardrobe with several different classics and I’m never left feeling less-than, never left feeling overwhelmed, and never left dreading my monthly spending totals.

I find thrift stores refreshing, as not only do I save a great deal of money, I’m recycling, and I’m helping people in need.  On top of that, and perhaps more directly important to me, I’m engaging my creativity by thinking outside of my current framework.

I’ve realized that I’m never going to be a complete fashionista, will probably never do a complete overhaul just to keep up with current trends, but I will also never (I hope) be featured on TLC’s What Not To Wear.  I’m just a normal woman who likes to look good during my daily life, and not spend a fortune trying to accomplish the task.

The point of this whole thing is this; before you go shopping, first take stock of what you HAVE.  Try on everything, and get rid of anything that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself.  Those “5 pound pants” that we all have?  Gone.  If they’re really expensive, sell them on eBay and use the proceeds to find some pants that look great on you.  If you haven’t worn it in a year, try it on with a few different pieces first.  If it’s still not working, then get it out of your house.  Just like people, any pieces of clothing that make you feel bad about yourself need to GO.  NOW.

Lifted from the JCrew catalogue. I can't afford their clothes, but I love their style!

Treat yourself to nice hangers, organize by type and color, and THEN think of what you need to supplement your wardrobe.  It takes a few hours, and having a good friend come over to give you honest feedback will take the sting and uncertainty out of it.

Then, just for giggles, take a bag of the stuff that doesn’t work for you to your local thrift store, and browse slightly through the racks.  Look for natural fibers and classic pieces, and decide for yourself if you could make any of them work for you.  (And remember how great tailoring can make a piece sing!)

I guarantee you’ll start to feel more creative, and can almost guarantee that you’ll feel as relieved as I did that you don’t have a bunch of stuff around you that has no business being there.  And, you’ll have downsized yourself to make room for wonderful things to come.

Over and out for now.
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As always, thank you for being a TSC Reader!
All best,
Nicole & the TSC Team

(Coming Soon – TSC Tips for the Savvy Guy!)


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  • Any fool can spend money. It takes intelligence, creativity and bravery to get what you want at the price you can reasonably afford.
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