March 29, 2008

Marshall's + shoppers + social networking = novel new idea!

After several months of severe blogger's block I've finally found something fascinating enough to write about: Marshall’s, home of the ccasional fashion treasure sandwiched between truly awful knitwear, is testing a new social networking tool called “What’s In.” Whoever dreamed this up is wickedly brilliant.

First, the background (which goes to business case.) Marshall’s, and sister chain TJ Maxx, are favorites among budget-minded fashionistas. But both are famously hit-or-miss: For every $40 Elie Tahari skirt there are 2,964 London Fog coats all the same shade of bland. Heck, even TJ Maxx’s slogan (Never the Same Place Twice) alludes to this inconsistency. If you're going to score big, you have to go often. Not every busy fashion lover has the time for frequent, sometimes fruitless shopping trips (i.e., we have actual lives) so wouldn’t it be nice to know when your favorite brands are at your nearest store?

The solution: Instead of tasking some Marshall’s employee or department with sending out notification emails, the marketing folks have turned that accountability over to its customers. When you register on the site, you can get email/wireless updates for any three Marshall’s stores, supplied by other customers, alerting you when your favorite selected brands are in stock. You can pick from a long list of designers (some of which, such as Marc Jacobs and Cynthia Steffe, I’ve yet to ever see in an actual Marshall’s.) Other local shoppers then send in updates as they find items in your nearest stores. Some even post pictures.

Will it work? Today when I logged on, more than 500 members and guests were active. I couldn’t find any local brand alerts, but there seem to be some avid posters in Texas. If it works, kudos to Marshall’s for creating a self-sustaining community that requires little to no maintenance on their part. If it doesn’t, it will be because fashionistas are too ruthless to let others in on their best finds. Then again, I write a blog that does just that.

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January 16, 2008

Road-tested: The Limited travel suit

As a frequent business traveler, I often face minor crises, such as: Can I really get three pairs of heels and two boots into an overnight bag? Will this dress look sleek after 12 hours wadded up inside my shoe? Will I see anyone I know at the airport or can I get away with black yoga pants? As a result, my closet has an entire section the size of the Vatican with comfortable, professional clothes that can go anywhere and still look respectable after the trip.

A recent addition to that overflowing sector is a glen plaid pantsuit from the Limited’s Travel Suit Collection. The jackets, pants and skirts are machine-washable and wrinkle-resistent: "Throw it in the washer, throw it in the dryer, throw it in your bag, throw it on and look fabulous," Scott Razek, the Limited's vice president of marketing toldWomen's Wear Daily.

Sales of the Limited's travel suit collection are doing well, and it's likely because the pieces really do look presentable straight from the washer or suitcase, as proven during a recent trip to Delaware for a client. With prices hovering around $200 for two pieces, this is an affordable way to outfit yourself for the road. And for a limited time, save 30 percent on your suit with this coupon.

January 15, 2008

Great new invention for fashionistas who walk to work

My husband and I travel a lot together, and we often pass the time on the plane or in the car talking about fanciful new inventions someone should bring to market. My favorite is what I called “The Machine:” an exercise bike or treadmill with an LCD screen that could make exercising part of a game. Think of it: You could run a scenic race through the Sahara, through the streets of LA or heck, across the moon, or compete against adversaries in a more plot-driven game. My husband couldn’t stop laughing at this idea….and now, gyms across the country are offering "The Machine!"

I’m not upset that someone also came up with the same idea; in fact, it’s nice to know that not everything I dream up is completely incredulous. Take, for example, Zakkerz, a magnetic instant pant-hemmer specially designed for commuters who trudge through messy snow and rain on the way to work. It’s a simple way to cuff your pants when wearing flat shoes and let them out once you’ve changed into heels. A great idea, for sure – though I will be curious to see whether it expands beyond a niche market – and I definitely shared my homemade solution in a post last year.

See? I’m really not that ridiculous. Most of the time.

Heads-up: Deals on the way at off-price retailers

It’s been a tough season for department stores and big chains, with Macy’s, Nordstrom, Ann Taylor and others watching sales and forecasts dip as consumer spending slows. Their losses, however, are off-price discounters' gain: With larger-than-normal piles of old unsold merchandise pining for a buyer, the likes of TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Filene’s Basement and other stores will be well-positioned to buy up such goods to sell at much lower price points this winter. Check out this article for the full details.

My husband and I had dinner with friends who recently moved to Chicago from Canada, where TJ Maxx an unknown entity. This served as a reminder that not everyone in the universe has intimate knowledge of the various discounters out there. Here’s my take on the major off-price retailers in the Chicago area:

Nordstrom Rack: Nordstrom’s clearance center, which just recently introduced designer brands. It lacks any meaningful organization scheme but has an impressive shoe section and good deals on basics.

Filene’s Basement: Similar to Nordstrom Rack (often carrying identical merchandise) with better displays and a less frantic atmosphere and broader selection. The State Street location is better laid-out than the Michigan Ave. one.

Loehmann’s: Recently opened and spacious, with two floors of excellent discounts. Prices tend to be higher than the aforementioned retailers but so is the selection of truly expensive stuff from high-end designers.

TJ Maxx: Probably the most widely known off-price retailer in the U.S., with stores in locations as small as my dear Michigan hometown. The urban locations tend to have a higher-end selections but most are reliable sources for gifts and accessories. I recently snagged a Marker ski jacket there for $60 (incidentally the same price as a lift ticket at my favorite resort in Utah.)

Marshalls: Owned by the same company as TJ Maxx but with more options for men and expanded shoe sections in some urban stores.

January 9, 2008

Nordstrom Rack on State debuts designer items

Finally. The Nordstrom Rack on State Street has, at long last, added a small selection of designer items to its discounted ware. I say at long last because many suburban locations have carried high-end lines for years, and it always seemed odd that the store downtown in the nation’s third-largest city did not.

The location is slowly adding Diane von Furstenburg (the working girl's patron saint), Tulleh, Tracy Reese, Armani and L.A.M.B, among others. The selection is limited to several circular racks only loosely organized by brand, and the prices are hardly bargain basement-low (most were still triple digits, down from, well, higher triple digits.)

However, if you like Tory Burch, check out the staggering array of patterned dresses and blouses, including the famous Dickie sweater. (Who know the garment favored by Cousin Eddie on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation would become so coveted?) For a true deal, check out the store’s small collection of Trina Turk separates, including a tie-neck cotton poplin blouse similar to this one for $36.

January 3, 2008

When to splurge, when to resist the urge

Since I write about budget workplace fashion, it’s no surprise that I try not to blow giant wads of cash on individual garments. But sometimes – just sometimes – a splurge is justified. The definition of “splurge” is different for everyone and depends very much on your income, your clothing budget and your ability to stomach price tags displaying too much ink. Generally, I say a splurge is something that just feels like a lot of money for one item but offers enough value in the long run to earn justification. Your appearance is everything when it comes to business, my feeling is get free business cards and bargin fashion and you can still look like a million bucks!

Here’s how I look at what makes a item splurge-worthy:

  • It has been on your shopping list since you first entered the workforce, and you’ve looked everywhere for one just like it. Finally cross it off your list if you are absolutely sure it’s just right and necessary.
  • You can take it home and instantly pair it with three other items in your closet.
  • You can wear it at least once a week for years to come. Timeless classics make the best splurges, like a crocodile work bag, not trendy pieces that will scream soooo 2008 in a couple years.
  • You can see yourself still loving it in two years. If you are a fickle fashionista, stick to Forever 21.
  • It is versatile enough for work and play. Blazers, sleek sweaters, shoes and handbags can dress up or down and give you adequate mileage for your buck.

On the flip side, when is something not worth an entire day’s wages?

  • You’ll have to buy something else to go with it. What if you never find “it?”
  • It’s from a store with a restrictive return policy. In the event that you get the item home and it doesn’t go with anything, you’ll feel pretty darn guilty if you can’t return it.
  • It would require serious alterations to fit right. While an expert tailor can make almost anything fit you like couture, it may not hang as you expected it to and cause disappointment…and bankruptcy.
  • It does not fit easily into your lifestyle. Be realistic about how often you'll wear it given your work environment and preferences. Those shearling-lined boots that are so hot right now would be a waste of money in San Diego, as would a short-sleeve sweater in Chicago.
  • Everything’s perfect about it…except the color. I’ve learned that if I hate the shade of a garment and the way it looks against my skin, I will never, ever wear it.
  • You’re buying it for the wrong reasons. “Everyone else has one,” "It's a prestigious brand," “I will be a more attractive person with it” and “It’s marked down to $300 from $600” are not reasons enough to justify a splurge.

New Year's style resolutions for working girls on a budget

I have returned from the dead. Let me tell you, the afterlife is stunning. So stunning, in fact, that I forgot all about my blog in favor of frolicking in the clouds with my ancestors and loved ones. In reality, I’ve just been too busy (read: too lazy) during the holidays to devote ample care and feeding to this blog. I strive for quantity vs. quality of posts, preferring to write original content instead of posting my reactions to other bloggers or news stories. It’s hard to maintain a steady stream of original thought when you have a full-time job, a new husband and friends/family that occasionally like to see you. Enough with the excuses. Here’s my first post of 2008:

New Year’s resolutions for the working girl fashionista on a budget:

Ignore trends that…

  • You hate
  • Are physically uncomfortable
  • Make you feel silly or like someone else
  • Are unprofessional

Never arrive at the office without one eye-catching accessory. This is especially important if you’re rocking the time-honored solid turtleneck and pants combo, which is yawn-inspiring without body jewelry, a patent leather belt, a headscarf or stunning shoes.

Invest in one really great suit, if you don’t have one already, ideally a suit jacket with pants and a skirt/dress. Depending on your job, you may not wear top and bottom together often, but you can mix and match separates with other items from your wardrobe – especially handy when traveling with a small suitcase.

Never pay full price for something unless:

  • It’s an emergency or the very last minute
  • You’ve been searching for it forever
  • You just got an enormous promotion and are not taking me out to dinner.

Disregard the latest “new black” if it’s a bad shade for your coloring. I have found that if I love everything about a garment except the color, no matter how great the piece is I’ll relegate it to the back of my closet.

Wear comfortable shoes for the trip into work, if you walk. For those of us urban pedestrians, the morning/evening commute is treacherous enough (dodging cabs, crowding onto packed El trains, avoiding small Pugs) without the added danger of unsteady heels. Change when you get to work.