PORTLAND – When Julia Marie Comeau goes shopping for clothes, she is looking for things that are fun to wear, but also stylish and practical for her job. While some of us would schedule a trip to the mall, Comeau says she’s more likely to find what she is looking for at the Salvation Army’s “Half-off Wednesday” sales.
Molly Harmon, 26, works at Hannaford. She also is an opera singer who needs to dress up for performances with the Choral Art Society. Harmon goes to thrift stores and consignment shops looking for well-made clothing that will stand up to the demands of her busy job, as well as items that she might only have a chance to wear once on stage.
“I was at Salvation Army a couple of weeks ago looking for pants for work,” she says. “I ended up buying a couple of pairs of pants and a dress. So it was a good find.”
When fall gives way to winter, many stylish shoppers head to thrift stores and consignment shops to build their wardrobes. And with a little persistence and perseverance, most of these thrifty shoppers come away with exactly what they need.
“Shopping for clothes and shoes I can wear in a professional setting can be boring and break the bank,” says Comeau, who is 24 and a home-support specialist for seniors. “Thrifts help me find stylish, expensive and gently used items for cheap.”
Kelly Williams of Portland is so wedded to buying thrifty that she started her own consignment shop, called Plum Boutique, two years ago. Since she opened Plum on Congress Street, she says, business has been steady.
“I couldn’t imagine paying $98 for a pair of pants when I can get the same pair for $28 in a consignment shop,” she says.
Williams says people can build a really nice wardrobe from scratch for less than $200 if they are creative and don’t get caught up in needing the latest trends. She advises shoppers to look for “good, basic pieces,” such as a blazer and sweater, along with a classic skirt or pants that won’t go out of style.
“People aren’t going to notice that you’re wearing a pair of pants twice a week,” she adds, as long as you pair the pants with a different top.
Janice Stockson, the owner of Shore Things, a high-end consignment shop in Cape Elizabeth, agrees with the building-from-the-basics philosophy.
“If you’ve got black pants, a black skirt, and a pair of black boots,” she says, “the best thing to do is to grab a colorful shirt. Even a piece of jewelry can change the look of something.”
Stockson adds that brown is another basic color that can be used to build a wardrobe. She says her employees will help customers by sizing up their coloring and guiding them to certain racks – if they ask.
“If you shop regularly, people will point you in the right direction,” agrees Williams at Plum.
Experts also consider a pair of leather boots to be an essential these days, whether you are building a wardrobe for work or for play. They are in style, but classic, and will create a “long, lean look,” according to Stockson, whether you are heavy or thin. (And they have to be real leather so that they will last.)
Stockson also recommends buying several, inexpensive pashmina scarves because they are so versatile and can add a lot of color. They can be worn around your shoulders like a shawl, Bohemian style like a traditional scarf, or wrapped around your torso almost like a dress.
Speaking of dresses, fashion experts advise not to overlook their place in a thrifty wardrobe. One nice dress, changed up by a blazer, sweater or different accessories, can save a shopper a lot of money.
According to Susan Lakari, the owner of Material Objects in Portland, the change of seasons is when shoppers are more likely to find the best selection of consigned objects. The way the system works at most stores is that clothing accepted for consignment is kept on the racks for a set number of weeks. (five to eight is the usual). During that span, the price is reduced several times. Some regular shoppers keep an eye on certain items, waiting for them to be reduced, while others tend to grab things as soon as they come in.
“It is a pretty quick turnaround,” Lakari of Material Objects says. “We are more lenient with vintage items, but mostly things come and go.”
If you don’t have time to be a “regular” shopper, though, you can still build a wardrobe and save money by shopping the thrifts occasionally. And by all accounts, it’s much more fun than fighting the crowds at the mall.
“I shop the thrifts to find pleasant surprises,” says Comeau. “You can tell how much we all enjoy it by the way we brag about our finds.”