You Might Want to Lose Those Chains (2009)

Fashion a new life on your road to being free, By Angela Ashman

On Fashion's Night Out—Anna Wintour's citywide September party to get everyone shopping again—I was speaking with local designer Maria Cornejo, one of Michelle Obama's favorites, about something that has been bothering me for a long time: the popularity and proliferation of fast-fashion chains. Cornejo, who was having a trunk show at Barneys, predicted that, in our new economy, more shoppers would turn to quality instead of trendy, disposable fashions. "Fast fashion is on its way out," she said.

Was she right? Or was it just wishful thinking?

Of all my friends who shop at the chains, either exclusively or occasionally—and that would be everyone I know—no one seems to be reconsidering how much they shop at, say, H&M. And, really, is it fair to ask people not to shop at the chains when money is so tight?

Well, if you live in a part of America where the chains are your only option (and that's a lot of the country), then it's fine. But if you live in New York City, and you still really prefer the chains, I have to ask: What are you thinking? There are countless amazing, unique, even transformative small shops that would love your business. Or, at least, there were a lot of them before the economy collapsed.

Everywhere you look, it seems as if another boutique is being shuttered.

The boom times, it's true, did create a lot of excess, and perhaps not every boutique deserves to stay just because it's small and independent. But while the boutiques are closing, the chains are expanding. H&M is now up to 14 stores. Remember how quaint it was when there was just one?

The city's future needs to be in the hands of the young designers, the ones who represent the best of New York. From Shana Tabor's adorable sailor dresses and delicate charm necklaces at her shop In God We Trust, to the perfect fit of Steven Alan's oxford shirts at his namesake boutiques, to the timeless frocks of Ecco Domani Fashion Foundation Award winner Emma Fletcher of Lyell in Nolita, these are just a few who make the city unique. Add to it that these three, as well as many other local indie designers, make their clothes by hand in the Garment District, which also needs our help, and you can feel your dollar making a difference every time you shop with them.

But I can hear you ardent Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters fans saying, "I can't afford a $300 dress!"—which, yes, is the average price at many of these shops, making them cheaper than the big designers but more expensive than the chains. However, I actually think you can.

In the recession of 2001, out of work and desperate for new clothes, I took my unemployment check to Zara for a button-down blouse and to H&M for a burgundy sweater for the bargain price of $60. Within weeks, that blouse, which never fit right (as clothes rarely do from the chains), started to unravel from the bottom up. And the sweater? It shrunk and faded to an unflattering pink, despite my washing it by hand in cold water. Disposable clothes never cost much individually, but, because they don't last long, they become more expensive in the long run.

First, I got over the notion that I needed tons of clothes and began saving for pieces I really wanted. It's hardly the American way, but it's a better choice for your closet and the environment. (Did you know the average American throws away 68 pounds of clothing and textiles a year?) Second, I went to indie designers' sample sales—another advantage that New York shoppers have over the rest of the country (for sale news, try, a website devoted to the indies). You'll find incredible markdowns—maybe even that $300 dress for $80—and you might get to see Maggie Gyllenhaal trying on a blouse right next to you (true story! We were both at Steven Alan). Third, I checked out the thrift stores for everyday basics like cardigans, blazers, and button-down shirts that are much better quality and far cheaper than the chains. And it feels good to know that when I spend money at Housing Works in Tribeca or the Cancer Care Thrift Shop on the Upper East Side or a Salvation Army in the outer boroughs (where I found my beloved vintage Oscar de la Renta sweater for $10), it's going to a good cause.

And when visitors come to town and ask where the Banana Republic is—as if the one in New York is somehow better—I steer them toward the local shops. A favorite is always Trash and Vaudeville, which has been in the East Village for more than 30 years and is a secret of fashion-magazine stylists for its brand of sturdy $50 jeans.

Yes, it takes more thought, effort, and patience to shop at the boutiques, sample sales, and thrift stores. But I don't live here because I want it all to come easy. I don't suffer interminable subway delays, push my laundry in a rickety cart to the laundromat, and pay a lot in rent for an apartment with no closets, just so that, at the end of the day, I can eat at T.G.I. Friday's and shop at the mall. I live here because New York gives people the opportunity to become the individuals they've always dreamed of being. And if we want it to stay that way, we have to think about how and where we spend our money. Of course, as an extra special reward for all of this hard work and careful shopping, you'll never again have to avoid your coworker because she showed up wearing the same clothes as you.


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