Dressing like a French woman — and shopping less

By Caitlin Kelly

Clothing in history
Clothing in history (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the air gets chilly here in New York — and much of the Northern Hemisphere — we’re pulling out our sweaters and scarves, putting on wool and leather (or not, if you’re vegan.)

For some of us, that also means pulling out the same garments, shoes and accessories we’ve been wearing for years, maybe even a decade or more.

I loved this recent piece in The Guardian, by British designer Margaret Howell:

I think for someone to make something that’s going to last, there is undoubtedly an amount of love as well as skill that goes into that. And things that last are important. I’m happy to pay more for something if I see it as an investment. I would rather spend £80 on a saucepan if it means that I’ll be buying one that lasts. I’ve always felt that about things, rather than thinking something is too expensive. I’ve noticed that the French think like that about clothes – they’ll have fewer but better quality.

I agree with her.

I’m grateful for having grown up in Canada, a country whose consumer market was small enough that going shopping meant limited choice, (no Internet then). Canadians generally earn lower salaries and pay higher taxes than in the U.S., (where I now live,) so the whole notion of shopping-as-recreation never made much sense to me.

I also spent a year living in Paris when I was 25. That, and many visits back since then, also shaped how I view the buying/keeping/mending of my wardrobe.

I love beautiful things, (and have expensive taste), which de facto limits how much I can acquire. Keeping good things longer also lowers the CPW, (cost-per-wearing), a wiser use of limited funds. The CPW calculation essentially amortizes the cost of acquisition as the more you wear/use something, the less it costs you in the long run — if you buy a $30 pair of shoes that last six months, and have to go buy another pair — you’ve spent $60.

I’d rather find a $200 pair on sale for $120 and get many more seasons from them instead. I have limited time, energy and patience for shopping as well.

(Which is also why blowing $$$$$$$$$ on a white satin wedding gown you’ll wear only once is a crazy use of hard-earned coin.)

Like Howell, I’d much rather have one or two thick cashmere sweaters, (found in thrift or consignment shops for a fraction of their original prices), than a dozen cheaper ones that will probably shrink, pill or date.

Here’s one of my go-to high-end finds, found in a consignment shop, still cosy and warm after…five? years.

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Like Howell, like French women, I prefer to buy fewer things and keep them in good shape for years.

— It saves money

— It saves time

— It helps the environment

— It’s a good practice to consistently care for your things — polishing your shoes and boots; using shoe trees to keep their shape; making sure your footwear has new heels and lifts so you don’t wear them out; mending your clothes; tailoring things to fit you properly. The idea of simply throwing something away because it needs a little work? Bizarre and wasteful.

— If you can make/mend your own items, even better!

— Doing so also employs skilled experts, like tailors and shoe repair shops

— It re-focuses our attention away from the hamster wheel of get-spend-get-spend-getmorenow!

— It reminds us to focus on what we have, and to savor it, not simply to greedily rush to the next acquisition

— Wearing vintage, thrift or consignment shop clothing is a smart and frugal way to recycle

— Vintage clothes are often better-made of finer materials like silk, cashmere or wool

— We tend to care more for things we plan to keep for many years, so shoe trees/polish/suede brush and a good sewing kit, lint roller and steamer, good-quality hangers and storage options all matter

I admit, I’m also enjoying a few new purchases as well: a thick new Patagonia fleece (half-price), a long black four-season dress and two cotton midi-skirts.

Of course, the stylish Cadence, author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — recently relocated to London — just posted about an amazing vintage shop she discovered there:

One of best aspects of quality vintage clothing is how well some of it holds up. I peered through riding boots that are decades old but look and feel more solid and better than half of what I could find new at a store for the same price.

If you haven’t read this book, it’s worth considering what an addiction to trendy/cheap/fast fashion really costs.

Here are her 10 simple tips to shop more frugally and mindfully.

And here’s a fun book I own on Paris street style.

Men Shopping for Clothing Accessories
Men Shopping for Clothing Accessories (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Are you a big shopper?

What’s the oldest item you’re still wearing and enjoying?

Making your home lovely — on the cheap

It’s an ongoing challenge for many of us — how to make your home attractive and affordably? Dorm room, shared flat or your very own first house, the basics remain the same: you need charm, color, texture, function and comfort.

The world is jammed with design blogs, like Design Sponge, so there’s no shortage of advice out there for the taking. I love this post — the Ten Commandments of Buying Used Furniture — from one of my absolute favorite blogs, Apartment Therapy.

For you Pinterest fans, here’s a post on using it for this purpose.

I’ve been making a pretty home since I left my parents’ house at 19. Few things are as nurturing and healing as a home that makes you smile every time you open the front door, and few as draining and depressing as hating your four walls, (and ceiling and floor.)

In the late 1990s, I also studied at the New York School of Interior Design, which I absolutely loved.

Here are some of my tricks, and some images from our home:

Consignment shops

You can find terrific deals in consignment shops, (places where people leave quality stuff and hope for a percentage of the sale price.) I snagged a glass pitcher for $12 and a reproduction wooden Pembroke table, at one of my favorite spots in Greenwich, CT, about a 30 minute drive from my home. Greenwich is one of the nation’s wealthiest towns, so their cast-offs are awesome! The table wasn’t super-cheap — $350 — but well worth it; light, versatile, classic and well-made.

Thrift shops

People give away stuff all the time without a clue as to its real value, just to get rid of it easily. Visit often and you’ll score furniture, lamps, china, cookware and linens for pennies.

Auctions

Not every auction house is as pricy or scary as Sotheby’s! I lived for a while in a small town in New Hampshire, and attended a weekly auction nearby for almost 18 months. I learned a lot — like how to distinguish between the real thing and a reproduction or to know that a “marriage” means joining together two pieces that don’t belong together but look impressively old anyway. Read a few books on antiques, and you’ll pick up the basics of what a truly old, (often valuable but underpriced), object looks like. Keep your eye out for lower-priced treasures like quality rugs, serving pieces and candlesticks. This is a fantastic list of every antique term, from a comprehensive British website all about buying antiques.

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I found this flat-weave wool rug for $125 in a Toronto antique store. It had raggedy edges so I bought some black Ultrasuede and had our local dry cleaner add it to each end, for an additional $30.

The wooden box pictured here was about $10 at auction — perfect size for magazines.

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Curbside

Our bedroom door came from the curb, i.e. someone threw it out! It’s probably from the 1930s or so. I like its round brass knob.

Fabric stores

They always have remnants, cheap. Even a yard or two of gorgeous fabric, hand-stitched into a pillow cover, can add pizzazz to your chair, sofa or bed.

We’ve had this Crate and Barrel china cabinet for ages. I got tired of looking at dishes, so added this fun fabric, for about $40, inside the glass. It picks up the room’s theme, which is photos and engravings of Paris.

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Paint

The cheapest way to make everything look fresh and new. A quart of paint  — about $20 or so — can totally change the look of a small bookcase, a stiff cardboard lampshade, stool, chair, table or chest of drawers. Consider adding a hit of pure red, creamy white, glossy black, chartreuse or tangerine.

Save up for the good stuff!

I once waited for years, literally, until I could afford exactly the only lamp I wanted, the Tizio by Richard Sapper, a classic. It cost me a staggering $500 in the mid-1980s, (today, a small version is $300+), but I still use it every day and love it. I’ve never once regretted buying quality. I’m still (!) sitting on the sofa I bought in Toronto in the 1980s, slip-covered. It’s not cheap when you buy it — but if you amortize the cost over 10+ years, it is.

English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972)
English: Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper (1972) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shop everywhere

Garden stores, gourmet shops, sporting goods stores. You never know what you’ll find. I snagged a pair of fab pierced metal lamps at the back of a cafe in Minneapolis — for $13.50 apiece. I’d actually just gone there for lunch, but decided to poke around. I discovered sheets of soft, pliable, versatile copper at a local yacht supply store, a great material for lamps, votive liners, even covering a kitchen countertop. Jose was in Tucson teaching a workshop when he found some spectacular talavera planters and plates he shipped home. I hand-carried small framed prints home from Stockholm.

Including places you think you can’t afford

Everyone has sales sometime. Anthropologie has lovely homegoods, often on sale, as well as these sites I love, Mothology and Wisteria.

Use your imagination!

I found an old Chinese wooden frame ($75) and ordered up a custom-cut antiqued bit of mirror to put behind it from a glazier. It’s now our bathroom mirror; total cost $125.

Antique shows and flea markets

I scored a fantastic Moroccan metal lantern for $15 by arriving early at a local antiques fair. I had it sand-blasted smooth for $50 by my local auto body shop and painted it a delicious red from Farrow & Ball. (The coppery metal one beside it is a $12 on-sale find from Pier One.)

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Stock a tool box and know how to use it

Hammer, pliers, staple gun, screwdriver, small saw, wood glue, nails and screws. A small hand-held sander is a great help, easily stored. Keep a supply of plastic dropsheets and foam brushes. Be ready to sand, stain, re-size and re-paint your finds as needed. Or make your own stuff to fit difficult spaces; Jose created three fantastic planters for our balcony from sheets of plywood we cut and painted.

What cool things have you done to make your home lovely on a budget?

Cheap Chic Reigns at Consignment Shops

Left to Right Robert, Anne, Bent and Mary Ball
Image via Wikipedia

If you love gorgeous clothes but have little disposable income, very few retail stores can satisfy both your yearnings for triple-ply cashmere or glove-soft leather and a clear fiscal conscience. Thus the enduring allure of upscale consignment shops. While every fashion magazine these days advises “shopping your closet”, you still need a few great pieces in there to work with.

Throwaway clothes like those pumped out by Kohl’s, Target, H & M and Zara — wildly popular, as many of them are attractive, on-trend, flattering and cheap — just don’t fit the bill. The reason their clothes are so cheap is a ruthless focus on cutting out every possible cost: cheap fabric, less of it, fewer details, no room in the hem or seams for alternations. If your heart beats a little faster for the wit or originality or interesting colors or textures or details offered by French or Japanese or Italian or British designers, of whatever decade, you’re simply SOL.

Unless you can find a great consignment shop. It’s not difficult — fish where the fish are. Rich women, whose closets overflow with clothing and accessories they may never even wear once, like to have cash to go buy more stuff they may never wear, which is where upscale consignment shops perform their crucial link between manicured fingers eager to ditch that tired old (to them, maybe only last season) Chanel or Lanvin and yours, itching to acquire a luscious new bag or pair of shoes or interview jacket.

However counter-intuitive when your money’s tight, you need to head to the nearest ritzy town or neighborhood where these shops often cluster. You never know what you’ll find, so you need to be both open-minded and ready to buy at once if you spot a treasure. In addition to my two favorite Manhattan shops, Ina (15 years in business, with five locations) and Edith Machinist, I’ve found three stores in one wealthy town that have supplied me with some of the best — and most-complimented, hardest-wearing — additions to my wardrobe: a thick rust-colored cashmere cardigan (Neiman-Marcus), olive suede slingbacks (a favorite French label); yellow leather sandals (Prada); sturdy brown leather sandals (Robert Clergerie.) At Edith Machinist, I snagged a Genny silk dress (big ’80s label) whose price, almost $200, was by far the most I’ve spent on a consignment piece. I hesitated but went for it; comfortable, versatile, flattering, I’ve worn it in every season since, to chic parties, to Paris, to events.

I seek out great consignment shops when I travel. I love Secondi, a 27-year-old D.C. institution and Courage My Love, a Toronto landmark not as much upscale as quirky and fun, always offering some amazing little nothing — like the silk gypsy blouses made of vintage silk scarves I found there for $29 apiece a few years back. Here’s some good advice on how to shop this way.