Five Cheap Wardrobe Tricks

by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt on May 15, 2009 in Lifestyle

hangersThe dilemma: It’s spring, and you’re dying for the new look blossoming in fashion magazines and store windows—but you have very little money these days to buy anything.

This year, I had particular need for a wardrobe refresh. With my new book coming out (In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood), I was going to be touring the country giving readings. But since I work from home, my uniform generally consists of jeans, a T-shirt, and a comfortable pair of clogs. And like most people, my bank account is screaming extreme frugality much more than extreme luxury.

But transforming your look doesn’t have to mean spending an exorbitant amount—it just means getting creative. I called Samantha von Sperling, director of Polished Social Image Consultants in New York, for a little help. Von Sperling has produced style identities for celebrities, royalty, business executives and regular Joes. She usually charges $300 an hour for the works: A full-force closet attack in which she cleans out the old and through a combination of personal shopping and wardrobe redesign, helps “bring in a look that is your best ‘you.’” These days, von Sperling says, even her rich clients aren’t spending like they used to. Clients who used to spend $30,000 on a wardrobe are now spending $5,000; many are spending only a few hundred dollars.

My new style consultant tells me the key to getting a luxe look for less is knowing your own style identity, learning how to mix high and low, knowing where to make investments and where not to. She solved my warbrobe problems in five steps:

1. Reassess your assets

She begins by taking my measurements, asking about my favorite colors, and inquiring into my emotional relationship to my body. I tell her that a friend once dubbed my look “bohemian glam.” (Read Pegging Your Personal Style for more on your own clothing identity.)

“I’m seeing a lot of bohemian, but not a lot of glam,” she says, smiling. Ouch.

One vital strategy is to shop your closet. You can work with a professional like von Sperling, but you can also recruit a friend with a critical eye. “You have to take stock of what’s in there to see what’s working and what’s not,” von Sperling says, stepping into my closet. “It also helps you figure out what you need, so when you do go shopping, you do it in an economically smart way. It means not buying a skirt because you saw it in the window and just have to have it and thinking you’ll figure out what to wear it with later.”

2. Re-group (and be ruthless)

For the next three hours, she tears through my closet. She pulls out all my clothes and makes three “action” piles:

  • Clothes that are in good shape but that I never wear and should give to charity
  • Clothes that are old and worn that I should throw out
  • Clothes that I should remodel or dye to bring back to life

The rest can stay, she tells me.

3. Restore the classics

At one point, she discovers a piece of mink from my late grandmother’s coat, stuffed in a plastic bag. “Now this breaks my heart,” she says.

It’s not because of cruelty to animal, but that I haven’t treated the material with love. “We’re going to bring it back to life by taking it to the tailor to sew in a chiffon lining and turn it into a glamorous wearable scarf with sentimental value.”

She also pulls out a faded white collared shirt and tells me to dye it a “happy color,” and suggests that I mellow out the hot pink embroidered tank top I bought in India, dyeing it wine to make it more sophisticated. (More ideas in Making the Most of Your Closet Misfits) After she leaves, I take some of my classic shoes to the cobbler to be refurbished, then get down and dirty with some $2 clothing dye and my bathtub. (Read Shoes on a Shoestring for additional frugal footwear tips.)

4. Do some smart shopping

Meanwhile, von Sperling has created a list of items that I need. Updating a wardrobe doesn’t mean buying the most expensive clothing on the rack, she reminds me: “Money cannot buy you style. You can have all the money in the world and have hideous taste.  But if you lost your job and have only two pennies to rub together, you can still walk into a party and make a smash hit.”

We go to Runway, an eclectic Manhattan shop whose owner-designer makes most of the store’s clothes in her basement. I invest in a new blue suit, a good pair of black trousers that shape my figure and don’t wrinkle, a versatile 1950s-style flare dress, and great black belt—von Sperling tells me it will make any jacket or cardigan sweater more polished.

We then hit New York’s new Topshop boutique, an extension of the London chain, where she picks out a few items to spruce up my look for spring, including a purple dress and a fun necklace. Total outlay: $100. (See our Five Best Buys for Spring.) Finally, we slip across the street to a discount store: I attack the $5 rack for some cotton tanks, and happen across a great blue summer dress for $37.  Wear it with expensive shoes and costume pearls and I’ll like a million dollars, von Sperling suggests.

5. Revisit and remix

Back in my apartment for our final meeting, von Sperling takes my new clothes and mixes them with what I already have. She puts the newly wine-colored shirt from India with the black trousers from Runway and a refurbished pair of red suede shoes that I bought two years ago. The blue bargain dress get paired with classic black heels and my grandmother’s black faux-pearl earrings. Presto: Two fresh looks for my readings and parties. We also put together seven new outfits, using the new bargain finds and clothes that I already owned and had just never considered putting together.

The results: a fresh new look and attitude, without just following the trends. And because I got creative and shopped smarter, I’ve spent much less that I would have if I had just bought a super expensive off-the-rack new look. I feel all the richer for it.

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