The Cheap Detective

From Hello Kitty to Hotel Venus, a trove of under-$25 treasures

Just as we were moping about the stratospheric prices of clothes this season, a colleague shows up in our office and tells us breathlessly about a certain camisole she's just found for $23.50. The bright pink undershirt (it certainly has been a year for pink), quite chic in that husband-beater sort of way, hails from a shop called EXIT 9 (64 Avenue A) and bears the inscription "Stop bitching! Start a revolution," a slogan we first heard a few weeks back at the last big anti-war demo.

And it gets us thinking—what else is out there that would cheer us up for a strict $25 or less? So we stop bitching and head straight for JOYCE LESLIE (20 University Place), where we immediately find a pink miniature mini, hardly bigger than a ruffle, printed with line drawings of the Eiffel Tower, French poodles, and the like for $16.99; for the marginally more modest, a skirt of the same fabric and for the same price is quite a bit longer, though it still stops far short of the knee. For nights when a revolutionary undershirt isn't warm enough, Joyce Leslie offers a gaggle of those unaccountably popular ponchos, including one sporting wide green and white stripes and lavished with the requisite fringe for $19.99.

Who says there's nothing good about the new Times Square? At HELLO KITTY (233 West 42nd Street), where we tower over the other shoppers (well, they're mostly around seven years old . . . ), a red-and-white-checked quilted tote decorated with hearts, balloon-holding teddies, and of course an imposing representation of Kitty herself is $15. (If we had real money to spend, we'd buy the pink Hello Kitty TV. Or maybe the microwave.) Then it's down to SO GOOD in Soho (496 Broadway), a jewelry emporium with spectacularly underpriced baubles that we have been urging you to visit. A gaudy starfish ablaze with blue rhinestones is poised to dress up your fake Chanel jacket for a mere $6.99; pearl chokers, so hot this spring (at least according to the fashion magazines), tie on with satin ribbons and are $9.99. Or spend just $2.99 and buy a fake Bakelite bracelet (actually Bakelite itself was once touted as fake ivory) in pink or orange with white polka dots.

illustration: Yuko Shimizu

No bargain-shopping expedition of any value excludes PEARL RIVER, even if its latest, cleaned-up incarnation at 477 Broadway totally lacks the charm of its former higgledy-piggledy digs. Still, where else can you find a metal lunch box covered with printed silk for $19.50? This place also offers some mightily seductive shoe alternatives, and we don't just mean those now ubiquitous spangled net flip-flops. Satin pumps enhanced with painted butterflies are $23.50; for $25.50 (so what if it's 50 cents over our limit . . . ), the same pumps brandish beaded flora.

For harder-edged charm, head to HOTEL VENUS (382 West Broadway), Patricia Field's outlet (her only one downtown, alas, since she closed her 8th Street flagship). Ignore the Kitty ephemera (you just bought that checked tote!) and concentrate on the outré fashion accessories: a chain belt of interlocking varicolored links that look like giant metal Froot Loops for $18, to pair, perhaps, with a $10 leopard-print 'do-rag. Or proceed to the back of the store, to the right of the cash register, where a rust-colored sequined tube top, vulgarly known as a boob tube, has been reduced from $38 to $19 and now hangs with other minimal shirts on a rack labeled "most wanted sale."

Lastly, if you are fed up with geegaws and wish to advance your appreciation of fashion in a purely cerebral manner, brave the dust, crazy (dis)organization, and repulsively snooty clerks and visit the STRAND BOOK STORE (828 Broadway) to load up on greatly reduced fashion books. A mere $22.50 supplies War Paint, Lindy Woodhead's account of the rivals Madam Helena Reubenstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden as they built their respective beauty empires; for $23.50 you can pick up a copy of François Boucher's 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. Unfortunately the 20,000 years end in 1983 (that's the fun of buying used books), so you'll have to rely on your own memories, or ask older comrades to recount tales of Parachute jumpsuits and big-shouldered Dynasty blouses.

 
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