I never like to buy clothes at full price, but given the current economy I might not buy clothes at all. It's hard to justify buying a new pair of boots when you're not sure you're going to have a job in two weeks. For one, you might need that money to eat. And two, what if the closet at your next, more affordable pad is half the size of your current one?
Still, if you do need to go in search of a new job, or merely drown your sorrows at the local pub, you'll need something fresh and fabulous to wear. The good news is that San Francisco is a frontrunner in thrifty fashion — and it's the best place to be when you are flat broke and fashion hungry.
Buy, sell, trade ... or just buy
If you're craving some new threads but are too broke to splash out, an obvious place to start on your thrifty fashion venture is a secondhand shop. While boutiques are hurting and department stores like Mervyns are going out of business altogether, the secondhand shops are raking it in. According to Michelle Livingston at Buffalo Exchange, sales are up from last year by 15.2 percent at the company's Mission District store, and by 6.2 percent in its Haight Street location.
These shops need to get their inventory from somewhere, but selling clothes is usually a humbling activity for me: I bring my stuff in, the buyers suppress giggles of contempt, and I leave having sold only one pair of jeans — and feeling as though I bombed the big audition. Unfortunately, it's gotten worse. Vintage and secondhand stores like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads Trading Co. are swarming with sellers, and the competition is fierce.
This is great news for the used-clothing industry, but it also means stores can be choosier about what they accept. Gone are the days when people offered up small shopping bags of gently worn items. Now, hopeful sellers wheel in giant suitcases filled with brand-new pieces, price tags still attached. And in the great equalizer of the supply-and-demand equation, they all get the same response: "Sorry, we have to pass on that."
That doesn't mean selling clothing is no longer an option — in fact, if you're buying used duds, the selection is likely to be better than usual — but you should also get clued into swapping.
Read our selling tips to get the most for your threads.
So, you want a new LBD, but don't (yet) want to give up your firstborn to own one. Don't go shopping: Go swapping. Clothing swaps in the Bay Area are not new, but they are becoming more and more popular. Bring a bag or two of clothing, which gets put on display for other swappers to browse through, and go home with new pieces from someone else's stash.
If you've never been to a swap, a great place to start is Wendy Tremayne's Swap-O-Rama-Rama (www.swaporamarama.org) event at Maker Faire, which happens every May in San Mateo. You pay the Faire admission, bring a bag of clothing, and then go swapping. Apart from the great selection of clothing (approximately 5,000 people attend), there are also sewing machines and refashion artists on hand to teach you how to alter your new garment to better fit you, or how to make it more personal.
"I started Swap-O-Rama-Rama in 2004, but people are just running to it now because of their pinched wallets," Tremayne says. Swap-O-Rama-Rama is a creative collective, meaning anyone can put on one of these events, which now take place in 75 cities across the globe. Contact Tremayne via her site and she'll give you all the tools you need to get started, and coach you through the stages of promotion and production.
Suzanne Agassi, a pioneer of the Bay Area swap movement, has been holding swaps for more than 10 years and notes the special need for them now, in the heat of the melting economy. "Women always want something new," she says. "If you are a starving student or are off-the-charts wealthy, clothing swaps give you the opportunity to get a shopping high without spending a lot of money."
Agassi's swaps (www.clothingswap.org), which often happen at bars, sometimes incorporate manicures and massages and double as networking events. You can shop while getting pampered — and connect with others who might have leads on jobs (a plus, if you've just lost yours). "When the going gets tough," she says, "the tough go swapping."
Smaller clothing swaps also happen throughout San Francisco. Organize one with friends, or search online to see where else they may be happening.
Brought home a too-long mini from the swap? Can't find anything that fits your curvy booty? It might be time to get acquainted with your grandmamma's needle and thread. If you are part of the craft scene in San Francisco, you are already clued in on to how to fend for yourself when you can't afford that awesome store-bought Lady Bumblebee Smurf costume for Burning Man. But if you're like me, a sewing machine looks about as welcoming as a grand piano (plus dangerous pointy parts). Learning to sew can save you tons of dough — not only on purchases, but also on alterations and refashioning.
"If you see a really cute straight skirt for $300 to $400, you should know that you can make that for a lot less," says Karine Langard, who runs the Sewing Workshop (www.thesewingworkshop.com) on Balboa Street in the Richmond. It offers regular open houses and a plethora of sewing classes, including a five-week, 15-hour beginner's course that teaches you all the basics and sends you home with a new self-made kimono for less than $200. Langard says she had to add a second class in December, which is highly unusual for that time of year, suggesting that people are catching the sewing bug because the economy is so rough. "People want to do something creative and they also want to cut corners," she adds.
New collective Craft Haven (www.crafthaven.org), started by Kelly Williams and Hannah McDevitt, who used to teach at the recently closed Stitch Lounge, is also all about teaching folks how to make their own clothes. Craft Haven has an Über Basics course and a hemming course, as well as a range of modern classes on making utility belts, yoga mat bags, and hoodies. Craft Haven's first classes in December drew a surprising level of interest and enrollment. Williams attributes it to a renewed thrifty fashion sense amongst those precariously positioned in the current economy. "Sewing is actually a minimum investment with a maximum result," she says. "Once people have the realization that they can do this on their own, they're not so tied into the retail industry."