Except when it comes to buying plants for my garden, I consider myself to be fairly frugal, maybe even a little on the cheap side. It’s in my DNA. My parents and grandparents endured the scarcities of the Great Depression, and they never really got over it.
“Remake, reuse, or recycle” was the mantra I grew up hearing, and thrift stores and homemade clothes were facts of life. It wasn’t always pretty. There was that winter coat Nana made me when I was 10. She remade it from a navy blue wool City of Buffalo Police Department uniform of my father’s. It was itchy and scratchy, but I remember her patiently explaining that “newer isn’t always better.”
I guess I never got over it, either. I’ve never been able to justify spending a lot of money on clothes. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love fashion as much as anyone. I love to shop for clothes. I just found a way not to feel guilty about it. I shop mainly at thrift stores. There’s way more to it than recycling, or saving money. If you already thrift, I don’t have to tell you that it’s mostly about the thrill of the hunt.
We all know that person, the one who always finds amazing clothes for just a few dollars. Meet LeAnne Ries and Jenn Fisher, who celebrate their unique personal styles with wardrobes pulled from the racks of local thrift stores. Blessed with the knack for mixing and matching eclectic pieces, they put together one-of-a-kind outfits that leave everyone wondering where they shop.
LeAnne, a gifted artist and poet, describes her style as “Tomboy Sporty” meets “Simple Utilitarian.” Jenn, recently retired from a career teaching kindergarten, describes herself as “Boho Chic.” Rock band T-shirts and ripped jeans have always been her style sweet spots.
Both lifelong thrifters, they share another connection. Their husbands play together in two local bands — the Fruit Tramps and Die Breuder.
I was ready to learn some thrift-shopping fundamentals from a pair of experts, so I asked to tag along. They promised me that while there’s an art to thrift shopping, it’s one that anyone can learn.
We met at the Goodwill on South First Street. While I rely on fate and serendipity to lead me to great buys, LeAnne never leaves home without her wish list. On that list was a black or navy wool blazer, a menswear-type sweater vest, and a winter white or black turtleneck. These are wardrobe essentials for her job in the West Valley School District.
In a permanent spot on both their lists are bold statement pieces they can wear to their husbands’ band gigs. Sometimes, it takes just one new item with some drama to update an outfit they already have. It could be jewelry, shoes, a scarf or a belt. When that singular piece comes from a thrift store, the look can be stunningly original.
While thrift stores can seem overwhelming, a list keeps you from being distracted by the vast array of merchandise stacked floor to ceiling. Jenn believes that while it’s important to keep your needs in mind, you’ve still got to shop with “an open mind and an open heart.” This allows you the flexibility to find a totally awesome piece you never knew you needed.
Thrift stores have ways of keeping their vast inventories organized. Goodwill manages this through color-coded tags. As new merchandise is received, the color of the price tag is rotated. This tells the store which items have been around the longest, and need to be sold quickly. Before we started shopping, we made a note that all green tags were on special summer clearance for 49 cents. All yellow-tagged merchandise would be 50 percent off.
LeAnne and Jenn recommended this Goodwill for its selection of shoes, so that’s where we started. All the footwear is arranged by color, and in less than five minutes, LeAnne scored a pair of metallic leather Born clogs, perfect for band performances. Jenn found a great pair of Boho dark-red leather low boots by Earth Organics (with a yellow tag). We high-fived each other and headed to the jacket aisle.
I had a lot to learn about trying things on. In less than a minute, LeAnne and Jenn can decide if an item is worth it. Who needs a dressing room? If you wear leggings and a lightweight top, you can try most things on, right there in the aisle, without ever taking your clothes off. LeAnne found a tan suede jacket that looked great on her. Jenn spotted a dark brown faux-leather biker jacket that fit perfectly. Both finds went straight into the cart.
That’s not to say that these shoppers aren’t picky. If they’re the least bit hesitant about something in the store, they’ve learned the hard way that they’ll hate it when they get home.
Write this down: Just because something’s a great deal doesn’t mean you should buy it. You’ve got to love it.
While Jenn was looking for a top to complete her outfit, LeAnne found a black leather jacket with a little more “edge” than the suede piece she found earlier. After slipping it on, we agreed that it was perfect. We were almost finished. Besides a good fit, LeAnne and Jenn both consider any damage to be a deal breaker. Before we checked out, we did another inspection for stains, tears and broken zippers.
Next up was Persimmon. This thrift store in Westpark benefits vital programs in our community and is sponsored by the YWCA. You’ll find women’s clothing and accessories in a bright and well-organized setting. There was a great selection, and we found things quickly. While I hadn’t planned to shop (too busy taking notes), I found three pairs of great earrings and a leather and silver bracelet, all for under $10. The best find of the day could have been the pair of Joe’s jeans I found on the summer clearance rack for $2. The can go for up to $180 new.
Jenn found a fabulous off-the-shoulder jade green dress, and some nude heels to go with it. Thrift stores have more than great clothes for work or the weekend. You can always find an outfit for more formal occasions. LeAnne grabbed a soft grey knit tunic she could wear with jeans or to work, and some distinctive retro silver jewelry.
The last stop was Lady Godiva, a consignment boutique on West Nob Hill Boulevard. Clothes are more expensive here, but this is a curated collection of higher-end merchandise, all of it in mint condition. Jenn and LeAnne had no problem gathering armloads to try on. Jenn settled on what must be a one-of-a-kind, “Harley Davidson meets Boho Chic” grey and silver knit top with an angled hem. LeAnne’s relaxed, soft orange, open-front jacket embellished with raw-edge seaming is wearable art.
If you prefer designer brands, you might have better luck at consignment stores. But wherever you shop, you won’t always find what you’re looking for. The great thing about thrift stores is that new merchandise arrives every day. If you’re feeling discouraged, give it a week, and you’ll find a new batch of merchandise to shop through.
Once your finds have made the rounds in your wardrobe, make sure you take them back to a donation center, and give that great outfit a second or third life with someone else.