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Purchasing Power 

How to shop — and look — smart in a down time

Last Saturday a subtle, slightly subversive style campaign began on Burlington’s Church Street. Young women modeling outfits from half a dozen local boutiques paraded into several abetting restaurants, struck a few poses, and walked out again, leaving cards from said stores on tables as they departed. Rachel Strules, owner of participating shops Sweet Lady Jane and Tribeca, reports she’s already seen three brand-new customers as a result.

The fashion walk was the brainchild of Church Street Marketplace intern Jem Hughes, a New York City native who’s attending the University of Vermont. Though her major is secondary education, Hughes’ internship focuses on merchandising, and “her strength is in event planning,” says CSM Executive Director Ron Redmond. “We had a couple of meetings with merchants, especially those who sell women’s apparel … they wanted to do something different.”

But it looks like the stylin’ walkers, who are employees of their respective retailers, will become a regular Church Street sight: They’ll appear at lunchtime every Saturday of the summer, weather permitting. Other participating stores are ecco, Whim, Damsels and Expressions, and their current resto partners are Leunig’s, Sweetwaters, Rí Rá, The Scuffer, Three Tomatoes and Halvorson’s. Diners form a “readymade audience,” Redmond says.

“It’s entertainment for them,” suggests Strules, who says she likes this new way to advertise her wares “because it’s free.”

That’s all well and good for the retailers, who are trying to sell clothing in a down economy. But the hard times have hit customers, too, and God knows shopping isn’t free. What’s a fashionista to do when the desire to look good is strong but the purchasing power is weak?

We went on a slightly subversive — or at least counterintuitive — quest of our own by asking retailers themselves how to save money (or rather, how to spend it wisely). Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that their answers were sound; after all, they’re fashion pros. From them we compiled a list of “smart shopping” tips that will serve consumers well even when the good times return. Here it is for you, absolutely free.

Revisit and refurbish what you have. “People always complain about things they have that they never wear,” says Strules. “I say, bring them in. Let’s find stuff you can wear with them.” Gabrielle Slaughter, manager of Well Heeled in Stowe and a willing “closet concierge,” agrees with this one. “Shop for what you already own!” she says. “You can add a piece to your wardrobe that allows you to update a look you have in your closet.” For example, long necklaces are in right now, she points out. Which leads us to…

  • Accessorize. “A scarf, funky earrings, a cool necklace — you can take a basic tee and jeans and dress it up,” points out ecco Manager Erin Brennan. “It’s cheaper than buying a whole new dress or a pair of pants.” A “T-shirt-and-jeans girl” herself, Brennan says when she adds heels and pearls she “automatically looks more dressed up.”
  • Buy classics. “It’s hard to convince people to buy the expensive, well-made items,” Strules concedes. “But I always say, ‘Buy quality over quantity.’”
  • Buy basics. A variation on the preceding tip. Lorrie Tucker, owner of Expressions, advises customers who don’t already have them to get a few key pieces that can “anchor” a wardrobe — such as a good pair of pants or dark jeans, a skirt and a simple shell top. From this versatile base, myriad looks can be created with jackets, sweaters, shirts and jewelry. And, Tucker emphasizes, make sure these basics really fit and flatter your body, so that you always feel comfortable and confident in them.
  • Add some zing. “People who shop here usually have a good strong core of pieces — they don’t need another pair of black pants,” says Marilyn Gaul, owner of Marilyn’s in Burlington. “What I’m hearing in the recession is that people want color, and things that will mix and match.” But, she adds, a high price tag shouldn’t rule out a piece that “knocks your socks off.” If a woman “absolutely loves something and it’s unique,” Gaul says, it just might be worth it.
  • Shop at stores you trust. “They know you best,” advises Gaul. As in other small boutiques, she and her staff are familiar with their regular customers, their proportions, their tastes and their budgets. “When you find a store that speaks to your personality,” says Gaul, “the more you build on that relationship, the more efficient your shopping will be.”
  • Follow the sales. “Get on [stores’] email lists, watch the papers, watch for the deals,” recommends Gina Germond, manager of Salaam in Montpelier. These days, bargains don’t just crop up at the end of the season. “We’re running sales a little more frequently,” Germond says, “and we’re starting a VIP club: You spend so much money and you get 10 percent off in the future. We like to give our customers a ‘benny’ for shopping local.”
  • To that point, here’s a final tip: Spending your hard-earned money at locally owned stores will keep those dollars in the community, and help ensure your favorite fashion advisors remain in the business of dressing you well.

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    About The Author

    Pamela Polston

    Pamela Polston

    Bio:
    Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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