Top 10 Ways to Build Your Fantasy Wardrobe

Living in NYC, you can be inundated with the fashion culture every which way you turn.  From Vogue to Fifth Avenue to models every which way you turn to Sex and the City…it’s hard not to want to wear everything you see in the high end world.

For any fashionista starting out, it takes years to learn the tricks of the trade.  For every budget fashionista, there are ways to financially learn how to get what you want without slaving as an intern at Vogue or starving yourself to buy Chanel boots.  There is a way.

1.  First and foremost, let’s talk about your finances. 

  • Do not use your credit card.  Use only your debit card.
  • If you can’t pay cash for it now, wait until you can.

I really want to stress these two points about the rules to acquiring a couture fashion forward wardrobe.  If you can’t afford it, do not charge it on your credit card.  Do not go into debt for fashion.  A smart fashionista is one that has a level head about how she shops and how much she spends.  There will always be an IT bag every single month.  There will always be a new look that you just have to have every other week.  If you become like “Confessions of a Shopaholic” all you’re left with in the end is a lot of problems and debt collectors calling up the wazoo.  Don’t hurt yourself financially (or emotionally) just because you had to have a pair of $900 Christian Louboutin shoes.

Learn to save for the big splurges.  I currently have a guilt free savings promise tied in with my new year’s resolution.  For every book I read, I put $100 in two separate funds (for a total of $200).  After I read 10 books, I have $1000 in one account that I can spend on whatever IT bag, accessory or outfit that I’ve always wanted to buy without regret, because I earned that splurge.  I have to wait until I reach 10 books.  Since my goal is to read 52 books this year (a book every week), I’ll have 5 opportunities to have $1000 shopping sprees during the year.  Once I reach that goal of 52 books at the end of the year, I’ll have $5200 in the other account to buy that gigantic Louis Vuitton bag I’ve been wanting…or I can spring for the lower end Hermes Birkin bag (i.e. the cheapest one Hermes sells…even if I have to buy it used).

I wanted to reward myself for sticking to a New Year’s Resolution.  This was the best thing I could think of to do.  It forces me to not only save money for those big ticket purchases, but it also forces me to work for what I want instead of buying what I want when I want it.  It’s practicing self-discipline so I’m not always asking where all of my money went 2 days after payday.

Come up with some sort of goal that forces you to save money for the purchases you are lusting after.  Even if it’s losing weight or rewarding yourself monetarily for every mile you run…it forces you to do good for yourself, as well as reward yourself after every single milestone.

*Also, to drive the point across about the splurge after every 10 books, that concept also forces me to push myself to NOT SPEND MONEY until I’ve reached that milestone.  That way I can pay for bills, food, rent, the occasional night out with the girls and pay down my student loans and debts while I’m still saving for what I want.  It’s instilling that old principle our parents tried to teach us…work hard for what you want.  Save for it.  And then when you’ve reached your goal, you can have what you want.*

Building a couture wardrobe takes years.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  The key to building a couture wardrobe is time.

2.  Join Sample Sale Invite Only Sites.  I wish they had these sites when I was in my 20’s!  It would have saved a lot of heartache when I was standing in the Saks Fifth Avenue Fendi shop, looking at the little baguettes, wishing I could own a little Fendi one day.  Oh, it just saddened me that a Fendi was so far out of reach.

These days…owning a Fendi, a Burberry, a Kate Spade, Christian Louboutin, Prada, Escada, Valentino, etc. is all within a reasonable reach thanks to sample sale invite only sites all over the internet.  That means that you don’t necessarily have to live in NYC fighting tooth and nail over a pair of Chanel boots at a sample sale.  You can shop online from home or work.

The only sites I frequent are Modnique, Gilt Groupe, ideeli, Rue La La, My Habit, Haute Look, and Beyond The Rack.

I got my first Valentinos from ideeli.  They were sunglasses.  It was such a big moment in my first major couture fashion buy that while I was in Greece, I was photographed in them…and ideeli put the photos up on their site.  Awesome, right? 

My next Valentino purchase came in the form of Tiffany blue kitty heel leather loafers for $80 from Modnique.  I have so many men compliment me on these shoes.  They are beautiful.

Beyond the Rack…I’ve picked up a Valentino scarf for $70.  From Gilt Groupe, I got my first Rebecca Minkoff MAB for around $140.  From Rue La La, I got my first Burberry bag for $350 (original price was $850).  I also got a Carlos Falchi clutch for $30 recently from Rue La La.

These sites have been a godsend for fashionistas everywhere.  It makes couture a little more affordable.  I think the best bargains come from Rue La La and Modnique.  Gilt Groupe, though, will score my favorite designers like Missoni or Tracy Reese for such a great price.  It beats paying $300 retail for a Tracy Reese top when I can get it from Gilte for only $45.

The trick to using these sites is to look every single day if you’re looking for a specific brand.  For Gilt Groupe, you better click on the site at exactly 12PM when the boutiques open up or risk losing out when the BIG NAMES hit because they’ll all be snatched up rather quickly.

It also helps to spread the news about these sites.  It pays to refer friends.  Over the last few years, I’ve received a lot of free stuff thanks to passing that invite code along.  You can snatch up credits from $10-$25 per person that signs up AND buys something from the site.  For each credit, it puts you closer to buying that label you’ve always dreamed of owning.

3.  Stalk the Sales Tab.  I remember those days of walking through Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue practically fainting at the price tags.  Did anything EVER go on sale in these stores? 

Apparently they do. 

I recently started shopping more at Bloomingdales, Saks and Neiman because of their Sales Tab on their sites.  No matter what size you wear (they do have plus size), they have a Sales Tab.

I remember opening up my first shipment from Neiman Marcus.  I ordered only home stuff.  I opened it up and almost cried because the gold plates were so beautiful and the “La Toilette” sign I bought for the bathroom looked so expensive.  They were just so beautiful…and I didn’t even spend over $100.  Try $50 for 4 gold plates and that sign.

Afterwards, I started ordering clothing, because the site is so easy to navigate by putting in your size and having it price things from low to high.  I’ve ordered so many nice things at a fraction of the price…and many times, I found a lot of items under $50.

Purses…oh, they come a plenty.  Gone are the days of wishing for a Marc Jacobs bag or a Kate Spade bag. 

Discovereis of KateSpade.com led me to a whole new wardrobe from Kate Spade.  Signing up for Email alerts led to sample sales online only (by invitation) from KateSpade.com.  And…they always have a sales tab on their site!

I stopped looking at the regular tabs.  What I can AFFORD is only in the sale section.  Thanks to this discovery, I’ve been able to slowly buy pieces for my couture wardrobe.

4.  Thrift Stores Are Your Friend.  I didn’t think it was possible to get a Valentino cocktail dress for $50 or a Louis Vuitton sac for $55…or Tiffany & Co. for $20…or better yet, a Burberry coat in a grab and shove it in the bag, because it’s $25 per bag with what you can stuff into that bag. 

Oh, hallelujah!  Now, we’re talking massive savings, right?  There’s no shame in vintage or thrift shops.  That Valentino cocktail dress…still had the tags on it!  That Burberry coat, I took to the cleaners and she cleaned that baby up just fine. 

I’ve stuffed Nicole Miller, J Crew, vintage purses, and so much more into the Housing Works $25 grab bags.  It took a lot of sorting to find, but I found so many gems.  This Warehouse $25 grab bag sale put Housing Works in the New York Times about 6 months AFTER I started going.  Oh, now it’s a very popular thing.

I’ve found a lot of fashion treasures in vintage shops.  I wear all of these items…even the stuff without a designer label on it.  I get a ton of compliments on the items.  I actually love the thrift/vintage store finds just as much as I do the expensive splurges from couture shops. 

Using the word ‘vintage’ actually keeps you in style.  It’s a good word in the fashion world, because that means that look you’re sporting…it’ll be very hard for someone to duplicate…but they will lust after it.

A note of caution when going in…don’t have high expectations.  Go in with the notion that you’re just looking to find something that you can incorporate into your wardrobe.  Steer clear of items that you can easily get at The Gap, Old Navy, etc.

What you’re looking for are iconic pieces to add to your wardrobe.  It’s also a great place to get suits if you’ve started a job where it’s business wear only.  For those who need furniture and home stuff…you can find so many cool things for next to nothing. 

I once bought all of my furniture for my cottage in Indiana from the Goodwill.  I only spent $70 to furnish the entire cottage.  That’s a lot of furniture for $70.  The sad thing is that I miss that furniture.  I had to give it all up when I moved to NYC. 

The point is…you can score MAJOR FINDS at thrift/vintage shops all across America.  Trust me, I love those finds more than a lot of stuff I order at full retail (or on sale).  For the shopaholic, it actually nurtures our chemical need to FIND a good deal, and actually not spend a lot of money on it. 

There’s new inventory every week.  In NYC, you’ll find a lot of women all throughout Chelsea and the Village searching for new fashion finds every Saturday.  They’re looking for something to incorporate into their wardrobe that will be the next IT thing. 

5. Take Advantage of Opportunities.  One of my greatest opportunities to purchase a $4,385 Valentino dress came from The Outnet’s anniversary sale.  Only select fashionistas that signed up were selected to shop the sale.  You could choose ONE ITEM from their inventory…for $2. 

The previous year, it was $1.  This year, it will be $3.  I am very envious of the lady that scored the Fendi baguette.  But then again, the Valentino dress I decided on was 4x the price of that Fendi.

When you see contests where you can enter to win a shopping spree…or are given an opportunity to shop a sale like the $2 Anniversary Sale…go for it.  It’s 50/50.  You can either win something…or nothing.  It doesn’t hurt to try!  After all, I have a $4,385 Valentino dress that I only paid $2 for…just for signing up!

6.  ACCESSORIZE!  Stop shopping at Claire’s.  You’re an adult now.  It’s time to start updating your accessories closet.

Before designers started making their clothes for the bigger ladies, I started to build my couture wardrobe around accessories like shoes, sunglasses, scarves and handbags. 

These days, many designers have jumped on the plus-sized clothes bandwagon and have made their fashions available for the 14+ sizes.  But one thing I’ve learned…it’s that the accessories can define an outfit.

Sure, I buy my belts from Target (I’m usually mortified that I have to stand there wrapping one belt around my waist after another), but I am usually always carrying a statement bag.  I wear a statement coat.  I wear statement jewelry.

I want people to notice my accessories, not my body.  In order to distract people from my body, I’ll wear baubles from Bauble Bar.  I love their jewelry!  They have so many fabulous statement pieces…for a very low price.  They also have some of the best customer service around.

I love BB so much, I added them into my budget.  I allot myself $50 every week for a Buried Bauble ($10 for members only that are signed up for the list), and something extra.  What’s great is that it also pays to be loyal.  Every $50 you spend (they keep track), you receive 1 credit good towards a free bauble.  When you refer friends, you earn 1 credit every single time they spend $50 (we’re talking every single time that friends spends $50).

Even if I don’t order the Buried Bauble of the week, I’ll order a piece I’ve been eyeing and sometimes throw in a freebie from the vault.  I get so many compliments on the pieces I purchase from them.  They are worth every single penny.  It’s a definite upgrade from Claire’s for the modern woman, without paying hundreds of dollars per piece.

All in all, no matter what your size, you have to decide how best to make a statement.  One of the first steps to building a couture wardrobe is usually easier from the accessories standpoint.  Valentino sunglasses were the first couture anything I bought.  I wore those sunglasses with pride.  Why?  Because it was my first couture purchase AND they were from my favorite designer.

You can find couture accessories on sale at various sample sale sites.  Accessories are usually the best place to start building a couture wardrobe.  Great accessories help define your look.  They help you make a statement.  

Since I love handbags, a great handbag has been my go to staple item.  I’ve made investment purchases like a Just Cavalli tote for $500 that has served me very well when I travel, and a Burberry clutch that I got on sale in Las Vegas for $360.  Both bags I had to work up to, but when I saw that I had cash to burn, and it was in my price range, I could afford to splurge a little.

You won’t find me doing this with clothing.  Why?  Because each couture handbag, shoes, sunglasses, scarves, jewelry, etc. that I purchase is an investment.  Clothes can rip, stain, or we can outgrow them…or they can just plain go out of fashion…it’s very rare that an accessory will go out of fashion…unless you purchase the FAD of the moment (like a neon bag). 

Don’t splurge on FAD items.  You can afford to go the cheap route with FAD purchases.  When the FAD is over, you can donate the item without hating yourself for purchasing the IT FAD of the moment.

7.  Invest in Better Quality.  The difference between H&M/Forever 21 and Saks Fifth Avenue/Neiman Marcus is more than just a price tag…it’s about quality.  The reason why designers charge so much for their clothes is because they are using textiles of greater quality than the cheapo stuff you could buy at Walmart.

The true secret to having a couture wardrobe isn’t always about the tag inside of your dress.  It’s about the quality of the product you are wearing.  You can tell the difference by the way it looks, the way it is stitched, and the quality of the fabric.  The reason why that price tag is so high…it’s because of the quality and craftsmanship of the piece…not just because of the name on the label (which is also a factor, but it’s the reason why their name became so big…it was about the quality of their work).

In order to understand this for the newbies that still shop H&M/Forever 21…go to Saks or Neiman Marcus on a research assignment.  Walk through the high end boutiques and examine the clothes.  Touch them, feel the way it feels in your hands.  It’s a much different feel than the Gap.

Next, look at the structure and fit.  It’s usually perfect.  Look at the stitching.  It should be tiny and very perfect. 

If you really want to get the full exposure…try something on.  It makes you feel different.  The fabric usually feels like you’re wearing something luxurious.

Make sure to stop in Valentino’s shop and feel the silk.  He uses only the finest, softest silks in the world.

After your high end experiment, head to the lower end (H&M/Forever 21) and conduct the same experiment.  I can guarantee that you’ll notice the difference when you touch an identical style garment. You’ll notice the lower grade of fabric, as well as stitching that is not up to par.  Literally, you’ll turn your nose up at any product sold there (although, I do take home FAD bags from them every now and again).

The key to building a fashionable wardrobe is to buy QUALITATIVE clothing.  Even when shopping in Macy’s or Lord & Taylor, I still review the items before laying down the debit card.  I want the items to last for years, especially staple items like sweaters and work pants.  You can’t build an entire wardrobe in a day…it takes a lot of time, so it’s best to always buy items as if they are an investment.

Some stores I rely upon to build qualitative staples are Anthropologie, Gap, Ann Taylor, Ann Taylor Loft, Banana Republic, New York & Co. and even Target.  In NYC, we have a discount store called Bolton’s and Strawberry that I stop in every now and again for bags, jewelry, and clothing.  One of my greatest finds in Bolton’s were these gigantic python print bags (one in blue-green and one in pink).  I love these bags so much.  They’re $30 no name bags, but one of the greatest statement pieces I have ever invested in. 

You don’t always have to buy designer in order to look fabulous.  You just have to have an eye out for quality when you build your wardrobe.

8.  Bonanza.  I’ve never had great luck with buying designer on Ebay.  But I’ve had amazing luck with Bonanza.com.  Thanks to Bonanza, I’ve purchased a vintage Gucci ($30) and a vintage Fendi messenger bag ($50). 

I stalk that site every single day.  Right now, I have my eye on another Gucci bag in the $200-$300 range.

In order to really take advantage of designer purchases on Bonanza or even Ebay, you need to know the difference between fake and real.  You need to become a master of it.  You can Google it online.  The information is out there.

If you know your stuff, sometimes you can benefit when the seller doesn’t know their stuff (which was the case with both bags I purchased).  One seller didn’t know if it was real, but she took enough photos for me to decipher that it was real.  My wardrobe profited.  Another one picked up the Fendi from an estate sale for $1.  He profited $50…even though the bag was worth over $1000.  If he had done his research, he would have seen that I profited big time and he lost out on making more money on it (after all…it was vintage, but never used). 

Bonanza is pretty adamant about making sure no one sells fakes.  If they do, they can be banned from the site.  If anyone has questionable Paypal accounts…they’re also banned and the products listed are removed. 

Something you should also be on the lookout for…tricky names.  I once made the mistake of thinking I was buying a Valentino for next to nothing on Ebay.  Oh, I bought SERENDIPITY Valentino.  It’s a legitimate brand, but NOT Valentino Garavani, like I thought it was.  It was money wasted.  It happens to a lot of brands, so make sure you keep an eye out for trick names.

Also, look at the history of the seller.  Make sure they are legitimate and try to avoid buying from overseas.  It’ll save you and the seller exorbitant shipping charges, customs, etc.

9.  Know WHEN to shop.  I mentioned Anthropologie earlier when it comes to buying clothing.  I should probably mention…shop their sale!  For the longest time I thought they were overly expensive.  I never bought clothes from them because I almost fainted when I saw how expensive items were in their sale section (not to mention I didn’t think anything would fit me). 

Then lo and behold they did something amazing around Christmas.  They had a take an extra 50% off already redline items.  Can you imagine the insanity of female shoppers all across Manhattan?  I not only waited in line to pay for my items for an hour…but I took advantage of the sale online too.

I ended up scoring a Tracy Reese top for $30, a dress for $20, various sweaters from $15-$50, pants for $15, and a gorgeous wool coat for $99.  I saved over $800.  My bill came to $400 after everything I purchased both in store and online…and I got a lot of gorgeous stuff.

When a once in a lifetime sales pop up like this you have to take advantage and stock up.  End of the season sales are the best time to buy, because they’re trying to move their new season in and get rid of the prior season.

Right now is prime time to shop the high end retailers.  They’re still trying to move their winter stock out of the store because spring and summer stock is flooding in. 

Keep track of when sales happen.  They usually have the same sale every year at the exact same time.  Barnes & Noble always discounts their clearance in May/June.  Saks always has their semi-annual clearance sales in Dec/Jan…same with all of the big retailers.  Take advantage of these times.  Always buy classic pieces at these sales that you can wear now…and next year.

10. Mix With the Lower Name Brands.  A staple item I buy every year at Gap are white t-shirts and tank tops.  I also love their Body pants, so I like to stock up.

The good thing about the Gap is that they sell items that will last for years.  I usually go to them for fad, yet classic pieces, as well as the basics like tees, sweaters, bras, panties, and pants. 

I love their Body Shop.  I usually stock up on bras from $6.99-$12.99…and their underwear from $1.99-$3.99.  They build stuff to last.  I rarely throw out anything from the Gap.  Even if tanks or tees get food stains on them…I still keep them and wear them to bed or under other pieces.  It’s always good to have an arsenal of tanks/tees from the Gap, especially since layering has been in for a few years now.

There are days that I’ll calculate in my head how much I’ve spent on an outfit I’m wearing.  A lot of days it is under $100.  But then there’s that one piece that values the outfit over $1000.  That’s how I have always put my wardrobe together.  It doesn’t mean I paid $1000 for the entire outfit.  I paid under $100, but you add the couture shoes or the couture coat or the couture bag…you know…the accessories…and that will elevate the entire outfit. 

That’s the key to building a fashionable couture wardrobe.  You always have that key piece, all the rest is just a mix of high/low end items…that you got a great deal on or you decided to splurge for.  The fact is…you know how much you paid.  No one else does.

I could wear a $5000 outfit one day where everyone takes notice, and I’ll secretly know that I only paid $50 for the entire ensemble.  After all…who gets a $4,385 Valentino dress for $2?  Apparently, a smart budget conscious fashionista does.

The key to building a successful fashionable and couture wardrobe is taking time to build the wardrobe by a) buying within your price range, b) knowing a great deal when you see it and taking advantage of it, c) learning how to mix & match high end with low end items, d) always having an eye out for sales for when your most coveted lust items hit the sale sites, and e) not going broke to build your fantasy wardrobe.

About Michelle Kenneth

Michelle Kenneth has been a member of the NHL credentialed media covering the New Jersey Devils since 2008 for Inside Hockey. She is the owner or PerfectionistWannabe.com.