How to get the cutest value fur your money!
By: Gabriela Garcia Medina
Illustrator: Yon Hui Lee
I was raised on a thrifty budget. When we’d shop at a store for something that was brand new, I could only choose from the clearance rack, and most times we’d go to Little India in London for all my birthday dresses—I used to look like a Hindi Cuban, but my mother didn’t care; dresses in Little India were cheap and negotiable.
I was ashamed to wear the hand-me-downs from my older cousins. Even though I went to a really poor public school, everyone else always seemed to have cooler stuff than me. I remember Katie Bowman in my seventh grade class wore all the cool, new outfits from C&A, and I used to wish her mom would kidnap me and take me on a shopping spree, but that never happened.
Ironically, when I came into my own money as an adult and could have indulged in new fashions to erase the shame of years of financial hardship, I instead took advantage of the skills my mother taught me. To this day I buy most of my clothes at thrift stores, flea markets, and vintage shops, and I will rigorously inspect garments for tears, tarnishes, stains, rips, broken zippers, and then use all of that information as bargaining chips in pleading my case for a lower price. So here are a few of my frugal shopping tips, to keep you well dressed and in the black.
There are lots of “Vintage” shops out there, how do you know which are the GOOD ones?
Smell: Notice how the store smells. Smell is a good indicator of how much the shop owner cares about their inventory. Really passionate sellers LOVE the garments so much, they wash, steam, and press them so that when you walk in, it smells clean and fresh. If the store smells like someone’s dirty yoga pants after a Bikram class, that’s the first sign for you to tread lightly, touch carefully, and try on ONLY if you must! And be sure to wash your hands after you leave a smelly shop.
Sight: Read the labels. Legitimate vintage shops will have garments with authentic old labels, worn out, washed out, and fading (though some won’t have any tags at all). This is a good sign. However, some stores will try to pass off low-quality vintage knockoffs (from stores like H&M or Forever 21) as the real thing by removing the tags. So if you see cut out tags, proceed with caution. You can tell quality from shit by examining the inseams and stitching. Look for items with straight, sturdy, reinforced seams. A store that takes pride in their items will also often mend broken zippers, holes, tears, etc; look out for these features, too, and note any damage. It is ok to pay $40 for a piece that has been dry-cleaned/steamed, mended, and cared for, but don’t pay $40 for a smelly H&M dress you could have gotten for $10 on clearance two seasons ago, or shorts you’ll have to spend $30 mending!
Touch: After the store has passed the smell and sight test, make sure you touch the garments. Close your eyes. Does it feel nice? You want to put these clothes on your body—they should feel good! But if you ABSOLUTELY must have that polyester dress, then remember not to pay more than the fabric is worth, which is…not very much!
Try it ON: So, your garment passed all the above qualifications! Now it’s time to try it on. Even if it looks a bit too big or too small, don’t trust the sizing, which changes over time. If you think it might fit, but it’s the wrong size, TRY IT ON ANYWAY! You may be pleasantly surprised. And remember, if an item is really special but is a little big, or a little long, you can always take it to a tailor; just factor the added expense into the total cost, and it may still be cheaper than buying a new dress. Plus, yours will be ONE of a kind and fitted to your measurements! But if the garment is made of cheap fabric, it may not be alterable, could fray or even fall apart, or cost more to fix than the garment may actually be worth, so make sure it passes the smell, sight, and touch tests first!
Leave It Alone: Part of being a thrifty shopper is making good decisions. OK, sometimes when you find something you love, you have to have it right there and then. But MOST of the time, even if you really like an item (and especially if it will need alterations), you want to try it on, leave the store, and think about it for a day or two. You can ask an employee to hold it for you, but if they won’t hold it, then leave it to chance. It’s kind of like gambling with the Universe. Vintage buying can be very impulsive, because it deals in unique items. But remember that the person selling it is just as lucky to get rid of it as you would be to own it (if not more!). Which brings me to my last tip:
NEGOTIATE: To you, it may be the dress of a lifetime, one you can see yourself wearing while walking through Paris in faux fur and Jackie O sunglasses, but the store’s employee don’t know this. Play down your interest. Tell them you’d like a few days to think about it. If they don’t want to hold it, ask for a discount there and then. If they refuse, walk away. If the piece is meant for you, it will be there when you come back. Vintage Shops aren’t like regular shops; once you buy it, you OWN it and there are usually no refunds, returns, or exchanges, so waiting two days is a good way to be sure it’s worth it, plus it gives the store owner an incentive to offer you a discount or some sort of deal if it’s still there when you come back. Many times, you will forgot all about it and change your mind. When this happens, as a courtesy I call the store and tell them to take the item off hold. In the end, you have to decide what the item is worth.
Gabi is an MFA-1 inter-school student of Theater and Writing. She does not like writing bios because no one reads them anyway! She writes, “If there’s something you wanna know, buy me a coffee and we’ll talk!”