Thursday, October 17, 2013

Poppin' some tags

I'm gonna pop some tags/
Only got $20 in my pocket/
I-I-I'm huntin'/
Looking for a come-up/
This is (bleeping) awesome.

So says rapper Macklemore in his homage to the thrift store.

And so say I -- with maybe a little variation -- as I become increasingly immersed in what Macklemore is rapping about. (I still don't know what a "come-up" is, though.)

I may not be his demographic, but I'm all about his message, which essentially is this: If you don't shop at thrift stores, you're missing out on all kinds of awesomeness.

Let me show you what I'm talking about. Today, I'm wearing the outfit in the photo above: a black boatneck shirt under a black cardigan, a turquoise skirt, embellished black ballerina flats, and a funky green necklace. And tights. And the whole outfit cost me $38 and change.

That's the cost of the whole thing. Not the shoes alone. Or the sweater alone. The best thing is, too, that I've gotten nothing but compliments on my ensemble today. And minus the tights and cardigan, it's all from thrift or consignment stores.

What's the difference between thrift and consignment stores, you might ask?

  • People donate items to thrift stores. The thrift stores then sell the items for very little -- usually under $6 for apparel, and very often for much less (my camisole was $1). Winter coats can cost up to $10.
  • Consignment stores buy items people don't want anymore, and they turn around and sell those items for prices that are slightly higher than those of thrift stores. When the item sells, the store shares the money with the person who consigned the item.
I've ventured into thrift stores at different times in my life, most notably my son's freshman year in high school, when his social conscience stopped allowing him to wear any clothing with labels. As I recall, I outfitted him that year for $57.

But I wasn't consistent in my thrift-store shopping, and consistency is key. Thus, I wasn't terribly successful. But necessity is the mother of invention, and a couple of months ago, when I found myself needing an entirely new wardrobe and not having hundreds of dollars to allocate to such a need, I made it my mission to outfit myself -- in cute clothes, mind you -- on a shoestring.

First, I had to throw off the mentality that thrift stores are filled with crappy clothes. And here's how I did that: I remembered that when my dad passed away, he left a closet full of clothes, never worn, with tags still on. My dad was a sartorially elegant guy, with custom-tailored suits and Ralph Lauren shirts clipped and sewn just so to fit his small frame and short legs. And with the exception of a few items passed on to my husband, those clothes were donated to Goodwill.

So I went in search of the female equivalent of those high-quality items. I decided to start at consignment stores, which I viewed as the halfway point between retail and thrift. I started with Plato's Closet, a West Des Moines store frequented by my always smartly dressed daughter; it was a store I had avoided simply because I hadn't been able, when I was plus-sized, to fit into its clothes. But now, I figured I could give it a shot.

One lunch hour later, this was the tally:
  • Embellished Merona black ballet flats, pictured above: $9.99
  • J. Crew poly-blend skirt, pictured above, $7
  • American Eagle gray cardigan (now easily my favorite sweater), $11
The prices were less than half of what I would have paid new. The items looked new, and were age- and office-appropriate. I was hooked.

Armed with newfound confidence, I headed for the Urbandale Goodwill superstore after work. That trip resulted in, among other items:
  • Two J. Crew crewneck fisherman's sweaters, $2.89 each
  • Tan corduroy fitted jacket, $4.89
  • Gap jeans, $3.89
  • Gap khakis, $3.89
  • Relativity (Younkers brand) silk blouse, $2.89
Those items all looked nearly new. The brands were current. The clothes were so, so cute. I was sort of in shock. I went home and washed everything but the sweaters and blouse, which I took to the dry cleaner (still a bargain, any way you slice it) the next morning. And the day after that, I started sporting my new wardrobe.

Know what followed? Compliments. And gasps of disbelief when I responded with, "Guess where I got it? Goodwill."

If you're new to thrift or consignment shopping and would like to give it a shot, here are a few things to keep in mind:
  • Most have no-return policies, and a few have very limited ones. Try things on; make sure you like what you're buying, as it's likely you'll be keeping it.
  • If you're starting a wardrobe from scratch and feel overwhelmed, look for base pieces in a certain color palette. I started looking for black, gray and white items, accenting with turquoise and fuchsia. As you buy more, you can branch out more, and accessories are also a good and inexpensive way to add other colors.
  • Plan to spend a lot of time shopping. Thrift stores are usually pretty organized, but Goodwill is not Von Maur. People who stock the shelves and racks are often volunteers; you're going to find things in the wrong places, and chances are if you're looking for something in particular, you're going to go through most every clothing item in the entire store.
  • Don't be an elitist jerk. You may be able to afford to not shop at a thrift store, but that's irrelevant. Thrift stores are for anyone who likes finding unique items and saving money. Don't act superior; don't make fun of the clothing. Remember what your mama taught you, and treat employees and volunteers with respect. 
  • Thrift stores sometimes have a unique smell; deal with it. In my experience, it's not a foul, body-odor-type smell; it's an old-house smell. Hint: To get that smell out of thrift-store clothing, add a little ammonia to the washing machine. It won't bleach the clothes, and anything that takes the smell out of hockey jerseys can take care of anything. Trust me on this.
  • Shop on sale days. Yes, thrift stores have sales. I was at St. Vincent de Paul, my favorite Des Moines thrift store, last week, and all women's apparel was 50 percent off. I bought a pair of Gap boyfriend jeans, tags on, for $1.50. Swoon.
  • Shop often. Thrift-store inventory changes daily, so frequent shopping can be the key to finding what you're looking for. And here's another trick: If you're looking for a jean jacket, say, ask the staff to be on the lookout and call you if one comes in. I did this at Barbara's Consignment Boutique in Des Moines and had my hands on the perfect jacket three days later.
  • Be prepared to spend a little money on dry cleaning. You'll want to wash those used items right away, and some things, like coats and some sweaters, can't go in the washer. 
  • If you're reluctant to go all-thrift-all-the-time, start supplementing your from-the-mall items with occasional thrift-store finds. Hey, saving money is saving money.
I'm going to be writing about my thrift-shopping finds from time to time, so if you have bargains to share, let me know. And if this is a new idea for you, go out this weekend and take the plunge. You'll be glad you did.

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