Corrosion of Conformity


Brother and sister students of New York: The time has come to dethrone the Urban Outfitters butterfly chair, to overthrow the tyranny of the IKEA table, to shred posters of Klimt’s The Kiss and Monet’s Water Lilies, to abandon Gap capris, to face down Old Navy fleece, to deny the lure of slides and sari skirts and cargo pants. The time has come to individuate.

These days, you’d think universities distributed straight-leg jeans and framed impressionist prints along with standard-issue beds, chairs, dressers, and desks. Students’ rooms and wardrobes wallow in a sludge of stylistic similitude. While hardly distasteful, such dress and decor betray little or no daring, adventure, curiosity, energy, edge, joie de vivre—the very qualities that define youth. But for those young people willing to renounce sameness and all its works, New York provides ample resources for the acquisition of positively swell clothes and furnishings. And on the cheap, too.

So Cheap, It’s Free

Next Sunday morning, get your bagel to go and head to either the East Village or Park Slope for a leisurely stroll. What you’ll find—in addition to tenement buildings and piercings or brownstones and strollers—is a treasure trove of abandoned furniture and clothes, some of it surprisingly nice. (My own apartment includes three chairs, two tables, numerous books, several scarves, a four-drawer dresser, and a rose-colored cashmere sweater all rescued from various curbs.) Also check out dumpsters outside offices gone Chapter 11 or apartment buildings girded by U-Hauls. And always swing by stoop sales in the late afternoon, when the sellers have given up hope of ever recouping value on coffee tables or corduroy coats and may be convinced to part with them gratis—or nearly.

No Salvation

In most college towns, the Salvation Army sees to the sartorial needs of much of the student population. But don’t bother with the Sal’s or Goodwills of Manhattan (other boroughs are OK). Established hipsters and vintage-store proprietors have long since exsanguinated them of all juicy finds.

If you can’t abide trekking to Brooklyn or Queens for used goods—though you should!—Manhattan does boast a number of kicky vintage stores that won’t break a student budget. Rags-A-GoGo (119 St. Marks Place, 254-4772; or 75 East 7th Street, 254-4771) has a refreshingly reasonable selection of used clothes mixed in with dead stock—one week they received a shipment of dozens of dirndls in European sizes. Boys can polyester their little hearts out at Argosy (428 East 9th Street, 982-7918), while girls can shimmy in the denim skirts and lacy shawls at Fab 208 (77 East 7th Street, 673-7581) or slink into the cashmere sweaters and naughty nighties at Alice Underground (481 Broadway, 431-9067). The latter also boasts a housewares section.

For those amenable to loosening the purse strings, make sure to survey the excellent consignment shops in the Village and Nolita. Ina (21 Prince Street, 334-9048; and other locations), Tokyo Joe (334 East 11th Street, 473-0724), and Tokio 7 (64 East 7th Street, 353-8443) carry labels like Ghost, Jill Stuart, MiuMiu, and D&G—all gently worn and often at a fraction of the retail price.

You With Me Sofa

For furniture finds, train to Brooklyn. Coney Island, Rockaway, and Flatbush avenues all harbor numerous used-furniture showrooms with frequently incredible prices—my seven-foot-long orange-plush couch set me back just $60, a stately satin armchair just $60 more. And many stores deliver.

Back in Manhattan, try looking in nontraditional places for your interior design. The restaurant-supply stores on the Bowery stock some great-looking stools and nifty stainless steel pieces. Go to a gardening store and bring home patio chairs for indoor use. Or peruse the neighborhood hardware store for the raw materials to build that bookshelf or window seat yourself.

Get Crafty

And when all else fails, work with what you have. Glue-gun fabric trim onto the edges of your walls, tack feather boas to the bottoms of curtains or lampshades, sew rhinestones onto tired T’s, cut off the bottom half of a slip to make a camisole. Try mosaicking your coffee table or turning that plain-wrap bookshelf into a canvas for decoupage. Slap silver radiator paint onto your dresser, hang party-store decorations from your ceiling year-round. Embroider throw pillows, take up macramé, affix studs to your jeans. In short, why go business casual—in clothing or design—before you absolutely must? -Alexis Soloski

In New York City, style is individual and trends celebrated today are shelved tomorrow. So, lads and dames, if constructing a new wardrobe seems like a guessing game, it’s not. Just find a stable of places to hit, and score.

Every closet needs centerpieces to anchor an outfit, and designer discount stores are the source. If you’re willing to sift, places like Daffy’s in Soho (462 Broadway, 334-7444) and Century 21 (22 Cortlandt Street, 227-9092) carry labels like Prada and Betsey Johnson for up to 80 percent off retail prices—perfect for sexy adventures (and formals). At Century 21, stick to the second floor, since the third is all couture and pricey. H&M (640 Fifth Avenue, 489-0390), where runway trends are reincarnated as knockoffs, boasts “disposable chic” merchandise that rotates weekly and costs next to nothing. Doors open at 10 a.m., so arrive before it’s clogged with shoppers after noon. Department stores like Bergdorf Goodman (754 Fifth Avenue, 753-7300) may seem stodgy, but end-of-season sales in late January and July are still worth checking out. Markdowns can be a staggering half off on already slashed prices. You’ll vow never to buy at Bloomies (1000 Third Avenue, 705-2000) sans red-lined tag.

Once you’ve gathered wardrobe essentials, collect the artilleries of the chic: cheap and trendy playwear, professional habit, and accessories. Head to Canal Jean Co. (504 Broadway, 226-1130), Zara International (580 Broadway, 343-1725), or the Dome Boutique (708 Broadway, 477-4181) for party frocks and boy denim. Anthropologie (85 Fifth Avenue, 627-5885) is more posh, but clothes look boutique funky at a fraction of the price. Transform tailored separates into a power broker’s interview suit at Club Monaco (121 Prince Street, 533-8930), then gloss up basics on Canal Street. Impostor Fendi handbags ($20) and Swiss Army watches ($13) are dead ringers for originals. Jewelry at the Soho flea market (corner of Spring and Wooster streets) and Claire’s Accessories (755 Broadway, 353-3980) can look estate lavish and won’t fall apart. Meanwhile, rock-star leather belts go for $2 on the corner of Broadway and Houston. And don’t dismiss underwear. At Kmart on Astor Place (770 Broadway, 673-1540), a three-pack of boxer shorts is $9, cotton panties are just $1.99 a pair, and bras start at $5.99. Finally, in a pinch, just remember The Official Preppy Handbook counsels, “If you can dress . . . so much the better. You give the impression of being much in demand.” —Nita Rao

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