There is something undeniably mysterious about haute couture: it is breathtaking on the catwalk, but if you are lucky enough to cross paths with someone wearing it in real life, it’s pretty much like seeing a unicorn — you can only freeze and stare at it in awe.
For most of us, couture fashion seems out of reach. We can for sure follow every Paris Fashion Week religiously, buy every Vogue issue and even spend dozens of hours a year looking at those flawless red carpet actresses wearing Dior or Escada (Er, am I the only one with a slightly weird obsession about the MET gala pictures? I am not, right? RIGHT?), but too frequently for us, poor souls, that’s all there is to it.
An average professional woman may be able to invest in a designer bag as a nice form of emancipation self-indulgence, but will she spend thousands on her closet regularly when the car insurance bill pay, or the latest kindergarten payment arrive? Most likely not. So, should we then assume that middle-class women must simply give up and start dressing in rags — a modern Charles Dickens parody, with office workers window shopping clothes they cannot afford —, forever doomed? Well, I don’t like tragedies other than Shakespeare´s.
So, how do you glam up? Is it possible to achieve the fashion couture look on a budget? Or even get designer clothes for less? (Spoiler alert: it is.) After a few years of rights and wrongs, these are the lessons I have learned along the way.
1. Shop second hand
One of my sisters, who is also the biggest French couture fan ever, once said to me: “Do you know what looks like Chanel? Exactly, Chanel .” Yes, I know. Captain Obvious reporting for duty! But before you stop reading and click away, please let me explain. What she actually meant was you might have no budget to grant a quick trip to Les Champs–Élysées for a brand new Gabrielle Hobo bag, and that’s OK. But there are other options out there. Have you ever considered second-hand market, for instance? Nowadays, the internet is riddled with specialized apps where you can find virtually anything. Including designer clothes. My personal favourite is Depop (just don’t tell the others, they are jealous…), but the list is never-ending.
2. Don’ t miss the sales
This is another one that goes without saying. Check the designer website sales regularly. If you pay attention enough, it is not difficult to find huge discounts during the appropriate seasons. It is possible to make 70% off, and even more in the last items. Just make your research with a good cup of tea and remember to thank me afterwards (or simply buy something gorgeous, that’s fair enough, anyway).
3. Commission tailored clothes
Find a nice dressmaker locally who can honor your figure and personal tastes. It is not necessarily expensive, and nothing fits better than custom made dresses. Or you can just drop that brand new dress to the seamstress to make it fit like a glove. Usually, it requires a few adjustments only to transform a decent dress in the most fetching piece. This is something I do myself frequently, and an easy way to upgrade your closet quickly. Do you know want to look like Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but without debt in your bank account? (Well, and maybe without that weepy scene, looking for your cat under the rain. I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to lose my cat…) Then go for it.
4. Find quality shops in the high street
This might sound to you a bit like the quest for the holy grail, but I promise is not. It may require a bit of patience and research, sure — the effort is totally worth it, though. When I first moved to Bucharest five years ago, I noticed women wore what it looked like designer clothes. However, I knew the national average salary was not that high. Where were these ladies shopping, then? The answer came to me quickly: the capital was full of little boutiques where you could purchase fancy coats, dresses, and bags for a fraction of the haute couture prices. In no time I became kind of an expert to be out and about, entering every shop, selecting the most affordable quality pieces. Not only my closet is thankful for it, but also my account balance.
5. Make your research.
Some time ago, a friend asked me: “How can YOU afford your clothes?” By this, she meant how could I afford a nice wardrobe given my modest salary. I replied without missing a beat: “I invest time.” And it was true. Whenever I had some spare time and felt like going for a walk, I would take the chance to visit some shops and see what they could offer. I would compare prices and quality. I am still doing so nowadays. Patience and time to make your research is the best advice I can give you. Go outside once in a while, get a coffee to go, do some window shopping. At some point, you will start figuring out what works for you and your budget.
And a last piece of advice in the shape of a bonus: just experiment. You do not necessarily need that coat/dress/handbag that makes Blake Lively look like the ultimate it girl to feel good (for a start, most of us haven’t got her hair or personal stylists, have we?) So don’t push yourself too hard. In my case, it is a lot of Vintage, and I don’t really care if people might think I look a bit extravagant (or even a bit out of a time capsule, for that matter). After all, style should be fun. And like Cindy Lauper very kindly pointed out: Girls just want to have fun.
This has been the first chapter of Prêt-à–Porter series.
In the next chapter: How to dress like Dita Von Teese! Coming soon…